Boxed In: Performing ‘Therapeutic’ Masculinity

Posted: May 7, 2011 in Identity, Masculinities

Sometimes it’s hard being a man.

According to sex educator Charlie Glickman, one of men’s key problems is how they are ‘constructed’ socially to always be trying to fit in the ‘act like a man box’. If only men could free themselves from the constraints of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, then everything would be ok.

I am not so sure.

Glickman writes:

‘One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box. And since very few guys can always be in the Box for their entire lives, the trick is to act like you are in order to cover for any lapses. In effect, the performance of masculinity requires constant vigilance to make sure that nobody sees any missteps. Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out.

I agree with Glickman that gender is very much a ‘performance’. Or rather I agree with  Judith Butler  that gender is a performance within discourse. I expect Judith would agree to an extent with Charlie, too, that there is an element of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ acted out by men, especially when in groups of men together. But what Butler might point out, that Glickman fails to do, is just how ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosocial’ men can be when they are trying so hard to prove their heterosexuality. ‘Gay bashing’ is the extreme, cartoon version of how men prove their ‘straightness’, the one, it seems most loved by gay rights activists, showing as it does just how ‘homophobic’ straight men can be. But in fact, it is much much more common for men to ‘prove’ their heterosexuality by doing things like this:

or this:

Or they might, like the lads mentioned in this article in the Independent, get drunk, get on a bus and start masturbating, themselves and each other. For fun!

I genuinely do not see the picture here, that Charlie Glickman is trying to paint, of this strictly defined, heterosexual ‘man box’ where you are either in or you’re out and you are not allowed any ‘lapses’. If we take into account the ‘homo-erotic horseplay’, as Mark Simpson terms it, so popular in football and rugby teams, the army, student fraternities and other male environments, heterosexuality looks to me like one long ‘lapse’ from the ‘man box’.

Research conducted last year by Dr Eric Anderson and colleagues at Bath University showed that for young men, in this case students at UK universities and FE colleges, same-sex kissing and shows of affection is not frowned upon at all, but is considered the norm. As this article about the research says: ‘forget homophobia’.

So the idea of this ‘man box’ that men have to be all the way in or ‘all the way out’ – i.e. a ‘fag’ or a ‘pussy’ just doesn’t seem familiar to me.

Charlie Glickman is American though, and ‘macho’ homophobic culture does seem to be quite prevalent in the states. But this just seems to mean that in America, straight men appear even more camp, even more ‘homosocial’ and even more ‘into’ the idea of, and often the practices of homosexuality than we are in the UK.

Going back to Judith Butler, who is also American, and so her theories of ‘gender trouble’ come from an American context, she had this to say about how straight men in the military can both ‘repudiate’ and show a very strong preoccupation with homosexuality:

‘When they were debating gays in the military on television in the United States a senator got up and laughed, and he said, “I must say, I know very little about homosexuality. I think I know less about homosexuality than about anything else in the world.” And it was a big announcement of his ignorance of homosexuality. Then he immediately launched into a homophobic diatribe which suggested that he thinks that homosexuals only have sex in public bathrooms, that they are all skinny, that they’re all male, etc, etc. So what he actually has is a very aggressive and fairly obsessive relationship to the homosexuality that of course he knows nothing about. At that moment you realise that this person who claims to have nothing to do with homosexuality is in fact utterly preoccupied by it.

I do not think that these exclusions are indifferent. Some would disagree with me on this and say: “Look, some people are just indifferent. A heterosexual can have an indifferent relationship to homosexuality. It doesn’t really matter what other people do. I haven’t thought about it much, it neither turns me on nor turns me off. I’m just sexually neutral in that regard.” I don’t believe that. I think that crafting a sexual position, or reciting a sexual position, always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way’.

For me, although Glickman and Butler are both talking about what is in effect the same thing: straight men ‘performing’ heterosexual masculinity in order to reinforce it, they talk about it in such different ways that it seems like they are discussing two completely different things.  I am much more drawn to Butler’s idea of people being ‘haunted’ by what is excluded from their own attachment to a specific sexual position/sexual identity.

Glickman’s article was in part inspired by this research reported in Time magazine, about how masculinity is a ‘delicate flower’. It includes studies whereby men were asked to braid hair and then given the choice of doing a puzzle or punching a bag, and they punched the bag.  I find this kind of ‘behavioural’ psychology particularly annoying to be honest, because it makes out that how people behave in laboratory type conditions has some meaningful relationship to ‘real life’. I might feel like punching a bag if some psychologist in a white coat got me to braid some fake hair. The participants in another study were also given scenarios in which they were asked to explain acts of violence by men and women. Men tended to say that men might be violent as a result of external factors, whereas women and men tended to say that women might be violent due to something to do with their ‘character’.

But this does not fit with how I see the constant glut of writing by feminists about how men commit sexual assault and sexual harassment against women, simply because they are ‘men’.

Indeed, Glickman’s own article states:

‘The Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box.’

Whilst Glickman is referring to a gender construct: ‘the box’ he is still relying on the idea that men are somehow fated to harass women, simply by being in groups of men. Groups of ‘unenlightened’ men that is.

And there’s the rub.

According to Glickman:

‘I reject the entire notion of the Box. I’ve learned to pick and choose what aspects of masculinity work for me and which ones don’t, since some of the things in the box are positive or at least dependent on one’s relationship to them. In effect, I’ve queered the Box but to the guy who’s stuck in it, the only place he can imagine me being is outside the Box’.

So despite the fact he says he does not believe in ‘real men’ or in fact in ‘the box’ as an actual thing, he is making a clear delineation between the men ‘stuck in the box’ and men like him who have learned how to ‘perform masculinity’ in a healthy, positive way. If he is not constructing an idea of a ‘real man’ he is at least constructing the idea of a ‘good man’ or a ‘healthy man’. And this needs an ‘other’ – an unhealthy man, a bad man, an unenlightened man. It is a ‘therapeutic’ version of  performing masculinity that seems to be so popular in America at the moment. It also verges on the evangelical sometimes: if only they could see the light, like me, they could be ‘saved’ from the constraints of the ‘man box’.

Talking of bad men leads me to the quote that Glickman ends his article with, by Melissa McEwan:

‘I don’t have slack to offer men. What I have is the alternative to a life spent swallowing one’s emotions and feeling a constant anxious insecurity where one’s contended self-esteem should be—and that seems a lot more valuable to me than “slack.”’

Melissa McEwan  is known for misandrist gems like this:

‘Rape culture is the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant’.

She thinks women are so objectified in culture, by men, that women are ‘dehumanised’ to the point where they cannot consent to sex. This is a variation on the theme of ‘all men are rapists’.

So it is no surprise to me she won’t cut men any ‘slack’.

I think Charlie Glickman should, though. I don’t see the vast majority of men, in the picture he paints of the ‘act like a man box’. I think masculinity is changing, and it is discourses like his, that are actually the ‘reactionary’ ones in many ways. Discourses that involve clinging on to an idea of men as macho, homophobic, misogynist and potentially violent.  And also that involve the contradictory notion that (heterosexual) men are simultaneously ‘privileged’ and ‘constrained’ by dominant models of masculinity.

Glickman and McEwan see themselves as the enlightened ones, the teachers who can show men how to change their relationship with masculinity. But they, in my view, are the ones stuck in a box.


  1. elflojo84 says:

    “…the quote that Glickman ends his article with, by Melissa McEwan”

    You could have saved yourself a whole heap of time by just saying this bit, QRG! Pretty much single-handedly sums it up that this guy is an idiot…

    I think his theory is flawed in the same way that a lot of feminist theory is flawed – he has the glimmerings of an interesting point, within the context of one particular, very narrowly-defined area of society.

    Then he goes one step further and turns it into the be-all-and-end-all of male heterosexual social interaction.

    Then he goes another step further and, as you say, turns it into a fucking evangelical crusade.

    • yes but I wrote this in response to Glickman and so had to take on his arguments to be in any way convincing.

      I would like there to be a clause where you can just say : ‘quote McEwan and you LOSE’ but there isn’t…

  2. 2020 says:

    While this is a really good rebuttal to Charlie Glickman’s article I still can’t help but feel there’s some truth in it. For instance if you look advertising at the moment there is a theme of men being punished often violently for acting in a way that doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm of masculinity examples include Brut’s new “some men need to be slapped” campaign. Also there’s the fact that the phrase Man up is still heard almost everywhere you go these days. I agree that the concept of masculinity is changing but I also feel that there is a hell of a lot of resistance to this change mostly coming from advertisers who know there’s money to be made in making people feel inadequate about their gender.

    • yes but I think Charlies ‘man box’ is just another version of ‘man up’… he is just saying that ‘real men’ or ‘good men’ have to escape the bonds of ‘dominant masculinity’. His ideas still lead to inadequacy in my view.

  3. elissa says:

    I like how he “queers” the box from the inside. And in such a conciliatory tone – “out with the bad and keep the good.” Homo aggression is just a hate-on of the feminine…when there are no real women around. It’s all so 70’s Dworkishit

    Focus tightly on the young, and in short shifts, and you can see just about anything you want – even tight boxes that need queering.

    It’s so fucken cheesy.

    great read. Thanks

  4. Mark says:

    A straight soldier friend of mine recently told me about how when he was in the Paras he walked in on a para fucking another man and being watched by a group of other excited paras. He politely asked what the fuck was going on and was told ‘It’s not gay unless you’re not being watched.’

  5. Alex says:

    I’ve said this before, but it seems to me that the gay rituals of hazing are just an indirect way of proving straightness. Firstly, by simulating gayness as a joke, you show that you don’t do it seriously (in front of an audience vs private, as Mark puts it). Secondly, by showing you’re not scared of homoerotic behaviour, you show you’re not conflicted about your heterosexuality.

  6. couldn’t resist….

  7. john smith says:

    As a straight bloke, one of the attractions of this homoerotic play by straight males is that is is one of the few areas of a males social/sexual life that is not meditated by women. It is an area of male life where women are not present in their usual role as his sexual gatekeeper/regulator.

  8. Well, one concept that he used that is used by business people is to “think outside the box.” So, since that is a well known metaphor, I guess he was just trying to present a fairly complex set of ideas in a way that most could understand….

    I have a different worldview than he does, so even though I find the metaphor he used to be powerful, I don’t follow it through to the same set of conclusions….

  9. Now, specifically, allot of gay men are really, really macho-so how does that affect things????

    Interestingly enough there are so many intersecting topics here…..

    (and in a re-reading-he said he is taking the box idea from another author)

    Also, he did make it US centric……..

    Now, this is something that is really a contradiction-he talks about men enforcing masculinity on other men and they certainly do…..

    Lets go a step further—dare I say women enforce masculinity on men?

    Yes, a man can lose his “identity” when he loses his job–and this is also a time the wife might divorce him…..

    Now there was a huge thread on Amanda Marcotte’s “Nice Guys” article and a long response on Feminist Critics…..

    Two things came up with that….

    “Nice Guys”-that is guys who weren’t assertive/aggressive (hallmarks of traditional masculinity) were trashed by Amanda Marcotte. Strange that a feminist didn’t empathize with them for “breaking away” from the traditional roles of masculinity. She attacked them with vitriol.

    Another group that seems to be reviled are the PUA’s (Pick Up Artists.) What these guys are is a subculture that analyzes methods of seducing women. If you read some of their stuff, it can be very abrasive and I don’t mind applying that favorite feminist buzz word of “misogyny” to Gunwitch among others. However, many shy men are drawn to this movement. There seems to be a damned if you do/damned if you don’t thing going on. The men who stay shy are seen as “nice guys” while the one who may be buying “snake oil” from the PUA guru’s are seen as sleazy.

    What I’ve read of PUA just seems like badly re-written sales manuals. However, many of the guys on Feminist Critics defend it mightily.

  10. In many cultures a boy became a man. Maybe that is what some of these hazing rituals are about but I’m not sure…..

    Kay Hymowitz wrote a spitefull, misandrist article along the lines of where have all the real men gone….

    Well, these days when has a boy arrived at manhood? At the age of 18? At the age of 21? At the age of Penis in Vagina intercourse? When finishing school? When getting a high paying job? When moving out on one’s own? When no longer playing video games? When buying a first home? When getting married?

    Well there doesn’t seem to be a logical sequence to how those things might occur except age hallmarks….

    Also if a man loses the high paying job and the house gets foreclosed, the wife walks out is he now a middle aged adolescent?

    And furthermore, some men might never get married, does that mean they aren’t men?

    It strikes me as ironic how many female writers belittle men for not living up to their idea of manhood….

    Also, how much of masculinity is tied to sexual orientation? Is heterosexuality a different construct than masculinity?

  11. Oh, and it seemed to go back to the ultimate condemnation that men are violent. So really the only reason to question masculinity is to make men less violent….

    (But don’t make them totally unviolent, for who else will fight wars and be disposable…..)

  12. Oh, and one thing that is problematic is masculinity may be changing in society as a whole but how are individual men dealing with it….

    I guess the microcasm/macrocosm

    Personal/political dicotemy….

  13. And one other thing—would hippies be seen as less masculine than soldiers during the Vietnam era?

    Would anti-war protesters be seen as less manly than soldiers in the current conflict?

    Why would this matter? Well who can think of a more masculine role than warrior? Also wouldn’t a dissenter be performing an alternative masculinity by rejecting a traditional role and questioning the “father figure” rather than applying the status quo?

  14. 2020 says:

    “But don’t make them totally unviolent, for who else will fight wars and be disposable”

    I don’t think the capacity for violence is a prerequisite for joining the military in fact the infantry is only a small part of the Military; there are also engineers, medics, mechanics, nurses, technicians. violence doesn’t factor much into their jobs really.

    “Kay Hymowitz wrote a spitefull, misandrist article along the lines of where have all the real men gone”

    I saw the Kay Hymowitz piece for the contemptible loathsome piece of social conservative trash it was, Hymowitz it the last person that would identify as a feminist and while yes she was attacking men, she was also covertly attacking women as well, chastising them for achieving to greatly when they should be at home playing happy families. Classic underhanded conservative divide and conquer rhetoric.

    “Nice Guys”-that is guys who weren’t assertive/aggressive (hallmarks of traditional masculinity) were trashed by Amanda Marcotte. Strange that a feminist didn’t empathize with them for “breaking away” from the traditional roles of masculinity. She attacked them with vitriol”

    With The Pandagon article I think Amanda was having a go at the assholes who just fain niceness in order to get laid and then when it doesn’t work for whatever reason (maybe they go a bit OTT on the whole being nice thing trying to prove there different and come off clingy and overly needy which isn’t really an attractive quality in men or women) go on the internet and bitch about it and make ridicules claims like women only want me who abuse them. (Thats what I got out of it anyway)

    “Oh, and one thing that is problematic is masculinity may be changing in society as a whole but how are individual men dealing with it…”

    Yes absolutely in fact Danny just put up a great article on the subject it essentially boils down to being an independent thinker forging your own path it’s a bit more in-depth than that though.

    I’m doing fine with by the way (:

    • Thanks for the critique 😉

      As far as the Hymowitz/Conservative thing-yeah conservatives are extremely anti-male…. They want to use mostly young men as cheap labor or send them to die for cheap oil, then they say “Why don’t you just “man up.” I, for one, am not looking to a return to the “good ole day’s.”

      As for the posts above-I just kinda went on a free flow rant…..

      • 2020 says:

        -I just kinda went on a free flow rant…..

        I really enjoyed reading it, you raised some interesting points.

        • Hiya 2020-

          The Amanda Marcotte thing is problematic-if you give the original author the benefit of the doubt-which is rarely given these days you get one interpretation, if not you get another. For example some guys might try to buy a woman’s affection by getting them gifts and doting on them-if this is what Amanda Marcotte is complaining about that is reasonable. If she is saying that “shy men’s” problems are unimportant than that is not.

  15. 2020 says:

    damn really must be more careful when I type my email address sorry

  16. Jay Fink says:

    I’m not gay but I get mistaken for it sometimes because I am not macho in the least. Most recently I was in a parking lot and passed a group of young hypermasculine males. One of them yelled at me “Hey, the gay bars over there”. Then his buddies laughed.

    The irony is that he thought I was gay yet he was enjoying the hell out of his sausage party of manly men. I on the other hand would hate to hang out with those dudes,it would be torture for me.

  17. Lori Adorable says:

    I have my problems with Melissa McEwan, but it’s utterly bizarre to interpret her words as “women cannot consent to sex.” I’m equally baffled as to why she’s a misandrist, but then again I am a heartless feminazi.

    • Hi Lori it is Mcewans statement about how objectification of women is so widespread and dehumanising that it ‘renders consent irrelevant’ that I don’t understand. I emailed her to ask her to explain but she never replied. Maybe you could explain it?

      It is on her ‘Rape 101’ section on Shakesville.

      • Lori Adorable says:

        I assume you’re talking about her ‘rape culture’ post. The actual quote is “Rape culture is the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant.” I read this to mean, thanks to our fucked-up culture, plenty of men are taught that enthusiastic consent doesn’t matter. She *could* be saying that consent really doesn’t matter and women are all helpless objects, but that would be incredibly out of character.

  18. elissa says:

    “The assumption,” she says, “is that women can be unequal to men economically, socially, culturally, politically, and in religion, but the moment they have sexual interactions, they are free and equal. That’s the assumption – and I think it ought to be thought about, and in particular what consent then means. It means acquiescence. It means passivity. You can be semi-knocked out. You can be dead in some jurisdictions.”

    Hardly a new thought. Sexualized Marxism.

  19. Nope says:

    I -refuse- to be a man as defined by a woman, or feminism. I’m sorry. Healthy masculinity isn’t decided by women, it’s decided by men.

    Also, rape culture, as defined by RAINN itself, does not exist. Enthusiastic consent doesn’t need to exist. “YES OR NO”, that’s all you need.

    MOST MEN do not rape, a tiny, tiny number of them do. Those men are rapists, and they don’t care about statistics or little articles you write about them.

    And to say that men trivialize rape is moronic, rapists and child molesters don’t have a fun time in jail for a reason.

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