Transforming Masculinity

Following the 1989 massacre at the Université de Montreal, three Canadian men – Michael Kaufman, Jack Layton and Ron Sluser – decided that men needed to work together to end violence against women. In 1991, they launched the White Ribbon Campaign, which today has become a worldwide movement in over 60 countries. In this article, Kaufman reflects on why it is so different to transform ideas about masculinity, and offers some ideas on how we can develop campaigns that are effective.


Those who’d like to redefine manhood and engage men and boys in promoting gender equality have a very basic challenge. Ideas about gender are not simply disembodied thoughts or ideas that float around in our heads. If that were the case, then change would be simple: let guys know how our current gender ideals hurt both women and men and, the rational creatures that we are, we’d toss out the old ideas for the new. It would be like an anti-smoking campaign: not simple, but ultimately straight forward.

The problem is this: gender is deeply embodied in our bodies and our brains. I don’t mean that sexist ideas are “natural” nor, as some would have it, that men’s and women’s brains are fundamentally different (they’re not) nor that we have a fundamentally different genetic makeup (99.8% of our genes are the same.).

What I mean is that we begin to learn to be “real men” before we can even speak. As we grow, we are unconsciously bringing in our culture’s ideas of manhood into our developing brains. The intense process of brain development in our first few years – in which we are creating millions of new neuro-pathways each day  – is one in which we absorb society and, in a sense, turn it into neurons. Our brains become gendered.  Our bodies are not only male or female bodies but, become gendered: masculine and feminine. (You can see that every day in how men and women often walk or sit differently.)

This means that change is extremely difficult.  I might deeply believe in gender equality, I might hate men’s violence and the codes of tough masculinity, but I still look forward to the next James Bond movie. It’s not just that I know that James Bond is pretend, it’s that his daring, his bravado, his invincibility still tugs on things that are deeply embedded in my brain.

It gets worse! What makes it hard to reach men and boys with a message of change, though, is not only how deeply these ideas are held. It’s also that we carry a huge amount of fear about not being real men. (I’ve written a lot about this, including in my book, Cracking the Armor: Power, Pain and the Lives of Men which will be republished in 2012 as an eBook.)

Manhood is defined not only in terms of what we should be, but even more, but we should not be.  In many cultures this means we should not be weak, not be too soft, not show too many feelings.  Why? Because the more you display those things the more you are, supposedly, like a woman and hence, not a real man.

This combination of deeply-embedded ideas and paralyzing fear presents a huge obstacle for reaching men and boys with a message of change. It is also the reason why many men don’t challenge sexist comments or violent behaviour: we’re scared the guys around them will think we’re not a real man, we’re scared to reveal our own feelings even to ourselves.

With that in mind, some of us have worked hard over the years to figure out ways to overcome this fear. So, for example, our original slogan in the early 1990s of the White Ribbon Campaign was: men working to end violence against women. It wasn’t men being more sensitive to the problem; it was doing something men have learned to define as part of masculinity: we work hard.  Or, in another example, my pamphlet about preventing dating violence is called “Man Talk!” and the cover proclaims this in big bold letters as if talking about dating violence is as manly as hand-to-hand combat. Or why, in White Ribbon Campaigns in many countries, we’ve recruited tough-looking athletes to be on posters.

Another approach has been to use humour.  Michael Kimmel’s and my new book, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism uses a lot of humour to allow the male reader to laugh away his fear and take in ideas of equality.

And so, as you can imagine, I love a new video project that encourages young men to talk about their feelings and to get help.  “Soften the Fck Up” takes the idea of men “toughening up” or “hardening up” and turns it on its head.

An Australian bloke named Evon Chan (who describes himself as a social entrepreneur and digital branding professional) created the one-and-a-half minute video as part of a project to prevent suicide by young men but it has a broader implication.

Of course, in videos such as this, we’re walking a fine line. There is, indeed, something very macho about throwing the “fuck” into “soften up.”  And White Ribbon is explicitly using images of macho guys speaking out to end violence against women. In doing so, we are trying to create a safe space for a boy or man to actually listen.

Take this approach too far and you reproduce and encourage sexism. Do it right (and give your audience some respect that they’ll get it) and it will allow them to get beyond the fear and actually take in some new ideas.

Taking in those ideas means to create new neuro-pathways, just like we did when we learned how to be a real man.

And that, my friends, is part of the pathway to change.

You can find many important resources on gender issues and men’s violence on Michael Kaufman’s blog and website, including a 2011 article where he reflects on the White Ribbon Campaigns history and founding principles.

Take a look at “The Day the White Ribbon Campaign Changed the Game” by clicking here.

Michael Kaufman, PhD, is a public speaker, writer, and consultant, whose innovative approaches to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality and transforming men’s lives has taken him around the world over the past three decades. He has worked extensively with the United Nations and with governments, non-governmental organizations, corporations, trade unions, and universities. Michael has graciously allowed Inspire Solutions to repost his article that was original published, under the title, “Soften Up Men,” on his blog in October 2011; you can read it by clicking here


6 Responses to Transforming Masculinity

  1. Meagan Batista May 9, 2016 at 2:11 am #

    This article is challenging the way society teaches everyone of us to think. We are born into a society were it is just a social norm that men do not have emotions and cannot act soft because they will not seem like a man, or tough enough. They will seem “girly”. I believe that our society should stop being so harsh on men having emotions. This way, men would not feel ashamed to feel and talk about their emotions. This would create less of a barrier between women being too emotional and men being too tough.

  2. Kaitlyn Butt May 10, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    I absolutely love this article! It is commonly viewed that if a man speaks about his emotions he is being weak, or “acting like a girl” as society likes to view any type of emotion as a feminine trait. As the article mentions above, genetically, men and women are almost the same. It is society that pushes men into these social norms, and doesn’t allow for them to feel emotion. As “being a real man” is a view that is deeply instilled within our society, young boys will tend to stay away from behaviors that are viewed as feminine.

    There isn’t anything wrong with being sensitive, and feeling the emotions that everyone was born with. Understanding and being sympathetic doesn’t make mean you can’t be a “real man”. I love the idea of the book: A Guys Guide to Feminism. Unfortunately, there is a negative connotation attached with the word feminism, that stops people from advocating for feminism. Feminism is about advocating for the political and economic equality of the sexes. This book reminds me of the U.N. campaign “He For She”. Books and campaign like these break the stigma and allow the progression of both women and men.

    The video “Soften the Fck Up” is eye opening. The fact that men represent 80% of suicides is shocking. As talking about feelings, or difficult situations is seen as feminine, many men tend to keep their issues bottled up. By stopping the view that men shouldn’t be emotional, we are creating a safe space that will help men feel like they are not alone, and that they are not “less of a man” if they express their feelings.

  3. Cristian Pietrantonio May 10, 2016 at 11:38 pm #

    I think the issue of hyper-masculinity is one that isn’t discussed enough in the private sphere. Although I’m starting to see more and more public figures coming forward, including men, and speaking about the importance of men being caring, sensitive, emotional beings, I still think that within the family unit there’s an expectation for men to be hard. I see examples of this all around me. I see very aggressive, stern fathers who place pressures on their sons to live up to the same standard so that they can be the same “rock of the family” as their fathers are. While there’s nothing wrong with being strong, in fact, I encourage it, there’s still an equal if not bigger necessity to express emotions when we feel them no matter what they are. In my Breaking the Guy Code course last semester, we were shown documentaries that discussed the dangerous impacts of hyper-masculinity such as the use of extreme measures of violence to express emotions that have been repressed for so long. There’s a reason why approximately 98% of violent crimes are committed by men. There’s evidently a fault in the way males are traditionally raised that has a negative impact on their emotional and mental health.

  4. James Houghton May 12, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    This whole idea, “…of fear about not being real men” is extremely important. When I walk around school, around the city, etc. I see this everywhere. One of the reasons why I think this is important is because I have been exposed to so much of this type of behavior at my high school, which was an all boys school. I felt like everyday, the guys had to be “tough” and sometimes even mean so other guys wouldn’t call them a “pussy”,”gay” or “a girl”. The guys wouldn’t show emotion towards sensitive things at school, but then when I would hang out with some of them outside of school, surprisingly, they were completely different. It is very interesting to see this change in behavior.
    Also, as a male dancer, sometimes I have gotten some comments and/or remarks about me not being a “real man”. And all those comments were said because I was a dancer and not a football player or soccer player. Surprisingly though, those comments never affected me that much. In fact, it made me proud to be a dancer and not a football player because I was able to show people that I am a “real man”, while not needing to play football, be “tough” to show it.

  5. Elsa Wauters November 29, 2016 at 12:11 am #

    This is such an eye-opening article! The definition of what is a ‘’man’’ is so deeply embedded in our society’s mind, that we often forget that there is no difference between two human beings! It is sad to observe that a man talking or expressing feelings such as sadness and fear is considered as ‘’feminine’’, and that such emotions tend to be internalized. The video at the bottom of the article ‘’Soften the Fck Up’’ really got me to think about how men have to endure pressure from their peers and from society. Listening to men talking about their feelings in the video was weird at first, but we are all human beings after all! Congratulation for this article!

  6. A. Popov December 6, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    The world’s obsession with gender norms is a toxic ideology. It forces people into boxes that become too difficult to break out of because fear is a vital part of the ideology. But it’s important to understand that no matter the backlash that awaits you for stepping out of the traditional masculine/feminine values, the word is constantly changing and we’re getting closer to a world (well, the western world at least) that embraces neutrality.

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