Masculinity. What do you picture when that word comes up? If it’s a montage of the Kens at their Mojo Dojo Casa Houses, you’re not alone. The concept of masculinity, its potential to involve toxic behaviours and the complex impact of patriarchy on men has been one of the most hotly debated issues of the last few years. Experts and advocates alike in the gender equality/equity and intersecting spaces agree that if we want to keep making real tangible progress in this space, we have to be able to bring men and boys along for the ride.
So with that in mind, I sat down with Al Green, Co-Founder and general manager of people and culture at Australian organisation The Man Cave (one of our epic M-POWERed Collective peers) to try and understand what that ride practically looks like.
For those who don’t know, The Man Cave is a preventative mental health organisation for teenage boys that provides them with role models, resources and programs to be able to step into being great young men. The hope is to give them the space to be able to unpack what it means to be a man in modern times.
It’s a question that is made infinitely more complicated by the sheer speed and amount of often conflicting information young boys are receiving, perhaps exemplified best by the worrying rise of controversial figures like Andrew Tate and Jordan Petersen. As Al says, “If you're (as an adult) having a tough time conceptualising how quickly things are moving. Imagine trying to learn how to be human alongside that. And trying to learn the school curriculum and all of those things as well. Being a teenager is tough right now.”
That being said, The Man Cave has observed that blanket bans on this kind of content aren’t an effective way to manage the potential harms. “If you tell a teenager not to go and do something, that just motivates them to do it more.” What’s more helpful is being open to discussion about why and how men like Tate come to think the way they do. Where are the messages they’re teaching coming from? What do they represent? Can we have enough empathy to understand why these messages might be resonating and the circumstances in which certain versions of masculinity have seemingly crumbled and how that might make people feel?
Al’s job, as the person who trains all the workshop facilitators, is to make sure the people the boys are being asked to trust in these sessions, when there’s a chance they may be more vulnerable than usual, are the best examples of healthy masculinity they can be. “No one (facilitator) will ask anyone to do what they’re not willing to demonstrate first. Their willingness to share creates a ripple effect and makes it safer and easier.” Whatever happens in these workshops, it seems to be working. Boys are opening up to them. But we’re all familiar with the stereotype of the silent and sullen teenage boy, so how exactly are they doing it?
"…it’s all about meeting the boys where they’re at, creating opportunities for conversations, vulnerability and healthy rites of passage..."- Al Green, Co-Founder and general manager of people and culture, The Man Cave
Well, as Al puts it, it’s all about meeting the boys where they’re at, creating opportunities for conversations, vulnerability and healthy rites of passage that he feels are being missed by Western cultures across the board. He shares an old African proverb, “uninitiated boys will burn down the village just to feel the heat,” saying one of the most important things for young people is knowing where the boundaries are. “How big is this sandbox world that I'm living in and what are the edges and what happens when I meet an edge?”
The other thing that helps? Breaking down the social hierarchies, schools thrive even if only for a day. Treating the boys as equals no matter who they might be in the hallways or the playground. For The Man Cave, a quote from Samuel L. Jackson’s feel-good sports film Coach Carter is at their core; “I’m going to call you sir, until you give me a reason not to.” Their facilitators are always on the lookout for “who are the people that benefit from the way that this group operates? And who are the people that don't?” But equally, what are the narratives everyone has built up from peers to teachers over years of knowing someone that we can choose to look beyond for that one day?
Throughout our entire conversation, I’m struck by how refreshing this approach is. How common sense and simple it seems. How frustrating it is that being so gentle and treating young men with care and respect for their internal worlds feels so radical. It’s motivated, I’m told, by the fact that all the men at the centre of The Man Cave wish they’d had this when they were teenagers. To make their high school experiences different, to give them the tools and language they’d need to be able to navigate difficult conversations earlier, so they weren’t such a minefield for times with mates in your 20’s.
As Al and I sit there animatedly discussing the pressures of coming of age in this weird world right now, I find myself asking: “OK, so if this is what young boys and men are going through, how can we as women and young girls help? What can we do to make sure we come at these problems together? How do we bring them into conversations about gender equality, equity and patriarchy without them feeling attacked or defensive?”
Silence. For a minute, I wonder if our Zoom connection has dropped out and then there’s a breath. With a slight tremor in his voice, Al tells me he’s never been asked that question and is a bit emotional at someone finally saying and seeing it. “The best thing (women and girls) you can do, if it’s safe, is share stories.”
He hurries to add that he doesn’t necessarily mean that in an emotional labour way, but clarifies that at least for him, in a personal capacity, his best learnings have come from chats with women in his life. Beyond that, he also says it’s about patience, gentleness and understanding that people are always going to be coming into these conversations at different levels.
At the end of our hour-long chat, I’m left feeling strangely optimistic and hopeful. Maybe just maybe, boys will be (better) men. Maybe we won’t have to do this gender equality and equity thing alone. Maybe it’ll all turn out OK, as long as we;re always willing to each come to the table.
Now if after reading this, - you’re a fan of The Man Cave and want to keep supporting them, head to the MECCA M-POWER website, The Man Cave’s website and all their social media (Instagram/Linkedin/Tiktok). To have them come to a school that matters to you, reach out. Word of mouth is the ultimate bridge between them and teachers. Oh, and if you have teenage boys in your life, the best thing you can do for them is be curious. Be open. Be gentle. Try to understand everything they’re dealing with. The road to healthier masculinity won’t always be simple but it’s definitely worth taking.