How Sweet Boys Become Sour Men: Understanding the Impact of Gender Stereotypes on Male Emotions

Boys cry a lot but then they’re told to stop — and that’s when all the trouble starts.

How Sweet Boys Become Sour Men: Understanding the Impact of Gender Stereotypes on Male Emotions
Photo by Jimmy Dean / Unsplash

Boys cry a lot but then they’re told to stop — and that’s when all the trouble starts.

Most of the little boys that I’ve met are really sweet, innocent, and kind. They are sensitive to life and to other people’s feelings. These little boys not only love their mothers but also hold them in a higher regard than any other person on the planet. So why does it seem that the global culture of manhood devalues, objectifies, and dehumanizes women? Well, at least from my perspective, it’s because boys are dehumanized as well and as such, when we become men, we don’t really have a basis for how another human being should be treated. It seems that boys are taught that in order to be a man, you have to forfeit being a human. When faced with pain or discomfort, it is a natural response for a human being to cry or seek comfort but we tell little boys not to cry when they fall. Instead we tell them to “man up” because boys shouldn’t cry. Boys are taught that they have to be tough and that being tough means not showing when you are hurting. We think that in doing this, we are preparing men to persevere through the adversities of life when in reality we are just damning them to be shells of people who do not know how to process uncomfortable emotions so instead they react with behaviors that are problematic at best and dangerous at worst. It is impossible to be a whole, healthy man without embracing the inherent feminine energy that exists in all of us and balancing it with the masculine energy that is in all of us too. But men are taught to fear femininity. I can guarantee you that some men read that sentence about having feminine energy and rejected it immediately because we have been programmed (through words and actions) to believe that femininity equals weakness.

When I was growing up the absolute worst things you could be called as a boy were “girl”, “gay”, “pussy”, “faggot”, or “bitch” — nothing caused more fist fights than throwing those words around and it’s obvious to me in hindsight that these were all fighting words because they are words that we men associate with femininity in some way. I can easily see how a woman could look out into the world and reach the conclusion that men hate women but I honestly don’t think that’s accurate. Who men truly hate are each other and ourselves — women, being as intertwined with us as you are, end up as casualties of the cross-fire. What men truly hate is the part of ourselves that wants to cry, the part that wants to wear pink, the part that longs to do something that’s not socially acceptable for a “man” to do. What men truly hate is the part of ourselves that doesn’t want to be tough all the time. What men truly hate is the part of ourselves that they were taught to hate — the feminine part. Though because most of us lack the awareness to realize this about ourselves, we spend years and years projecting our own self-hatred onto each other and onto our most favorite part of the Universe — women.

Having a low emotional intelligence coupled with years of unresolved trauma is going to cause toxic, sometimes abusive projections from anybody eventually, regardless of gender, and I guess that’s what compelled me to write this. I don’t like seeing “men are trash” plastered all over the social medias — not because it’s not true but because it’s not helpful. I’m in no position to deny anybody that truth if that’s what they feel — I’ve certainly behaved in trash ways in my life. But it seems that for better or worse, women want men and men definitely want women, so what would be best for us both is work to understand each other a bit better so that we can have more compassion for one another. What would be best is that we seek to better understand ourselves so that we can distinguish what we are from what we are not. Two of my biggest pet peeves are generalizing people and being spoken for so I’ll do my best to do neither of those here. Instead, what follows is a reflection on why this soft, sweet boy felt he had to grow a hard shell in order to survive and how that hard shell ended up being more dangerous to him than being soft ever could have been.

I’ve been emotional for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is my mom telling me I wasn’t getting anything for my 5th birthday and me bawling my eyes out only to be surprised with a new Power Wheels moments later. It’s hard to imagine there are any little boys who don’t feel the instinct to cry in the presence of physical or emotional distress. But after being repeatedly told by my brother, cousins, father, and even mother sometimes that I shouldn’t cry, I started to feel like maybe I am the only boy that cries so much. Maybe I am just weak and sensitive. Maybe something is wrong with me for wanting to cry. I’ve never seen my father or my older male cousins cry unless somebody died. The only times I saw my older brother cry was when we were really young or when something was really wrong. I don’t think this is because they never felt the desire to cry but rather because they had already arrived at the age when boys get really good with suppressing the tears or only crying when they’re alone. They had already learned that if you’re going to cry, you’d better do it alone or else you are going to be marked as weak. But since I never saw them cry personally, I assumed they didn’t cry at all and that if I’m a man, I shouldn’t either. So each time something happened to me that inspired tears, I would do my best to suppress and deny the feelings so that I could be accepted.

When I got cut from the middle school basketball team, I was so heartbroken. I wanted nothing more than to go home and cry to my mama but I couldn’t. I had to stay at school. I had to watch my friends celebrate and be happy about making the team and I had to pretend that I didn’t care that I hadn’t. I had to ask the teacher to go the bathroom each time I got overwhelmed with emotion so I could cry without fear of being called soft and being targeted because of it. Though I tried my very best, there was nothing I could do to stop the tears when I found myself hurt. I would tell myself to man-up and to just be tough but it wouldn’t work. So inevitably, I started hating myself for being such a crybaby. I started hating myself for not being man enough to be able to deal with things like a “real man” would. But of course I was not aware of this self-hatred for quite some time and as is the case with all unaddressed trauma, I projected my pain onto others as early and as often as I could.

Men notice early on that women seem to like dominate men. As a kid, I felt weak on the inside so I needed to find a way to assert my dominance on the outside — something I’ve observed many men do. Men are in constant competition with each other for resources and social standing and one of the most effective ways to gain social status among other men is by using women. Yes, it is unfortunate that women are sometimes used as stock but you’re only useful as stock because you have inherent, undeniable value. Not only that but women are in a unique position in regards to men because women are usually the only ones men feel comfortable showing a softer, more vulnerable side around. For some men, they assert their dominance through sports. For some men, the way they assert their dominance is by being physically fit or having big muscles. Other men assert their dominance by having wealth or intelligence or some other sort of success. But I was a poor, short, skinny kid. A decent athlete but definitely not near the top of the talent pool. I was smart but it wasn’t super cool to be smart where I grew up. But the one thing I did have over other men, or boys at that time, was that girls thought I was cute. I wasn’t the biggest, the fastest, strongest, or wealthiest but girls liked me and I promise you there are few things any straight man wants more than to be liked by women. It always seems to come back to women. Men want power to attract women. Men want strength to attract women. Men want money to attract women. Men want success to attract women. Men want fame to, you guessed it, attract women. And men respect other men who seem to have a way with women. Again, I know I cannot speak for all men and I do not intend to. I’m sure there are many men who do not desire women the most at a base level — I’m just saying that most of the men that I’ve met do whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Once I realized that I could use women to assert my dominance over other men, that’s when my relationship with women changed drastically and for the worse. It’s then that women stopped being human beings as much as they were a means to an end. It’s not that you were devalued so much as it’s just that the value was misplaced. In order to survive in environments where feeling emotions wasn’t celebrated, I had to become numb in a way. I had to become desensitized to my own feelings and that led me to being desensitized to the feelings of others. That’s what created my particular strain of toxic masculinity. It caused me to want women that I didn’t even really want personally, but since other men did, I needed to have the women in order to show the men that I can get what they want. I’ve used women to produce desirable feelings within myself with little or no regard for how they felt and it’s the direct result of me feeling like I had something to prove to other men. I apologize for all the harm I’ve caused but I was never as evil as I was ignorant and I think that’s true for most people.

Most of the “dogs” you come into contact with were made that way in defense to being hurt. Women usually get the bad wrap for being bitter but men definitely become bitter as well. It only takes one heartbreak for a man to completely wall up, become emotionally unavailable, and decide to reciprocate the hurt caused by one woman onto all other women as a sort of reparation. I think this is because it is very, very difficult for a man to express his feelings about emotional subjects to another man and I think it goes back to the constant competition that I was talking about earlier. I know that in expressing a vulnerability to another man, I’m kind of damning himself because I’m giving that man ammo and leverage to use if that he ever decided he wanted to take my spot. We learn at a very early age what happens to men that the group has determined are weak. They are ostracized, targeted, abandoned, unloved, and exploited. In TV, movies, music, and books, it’s the strong man that gets the girl at the end and gets to live happily ever after while the emotional man gets friend-zoned, if acknowledged at all. I feel like men NEED someone they feel comfortable enough to express vulnerable feelings to, so when that person comes around and then leaves for whatever reason, it’s going to effect a man deeply because not only is he losing his partner but also, in a way, he’s losing access to a part of his own humanity.

Whenever humanity is denied or suppressed, perversion will manifest. And just so we’re clear, I do not believe having multiple partners simultaneously is perverse — what’s perverse is misleading, lying, or cheating in order to manipulate someone into behaving the way that you want them to. I really feel like if men felt they had the space to express themselves in their entirety and not just the parts that society finds acceptable, we wouldn’t rely so heavily on one woman to assist with our emotional processing and consequently wouldn’t react so violently towards them sometimes when they decide they don’t want to assist anymore. My default reaction to being played or rejected or embarrassed or whatever by a woman was to go out and use other women to make myself feel better and I think there’s a lot of that going on — we punish the whole for the actions of a few. We men know deep down that what makes us dominant in society, physical strength, is fleeting and that makes us insecure. We see the non-physical strength that women have, we see their freedom to express vulnerability, love, and affection, and it subconsciously makes us jealous because as humans, we want to be able to do the same but feel as though we aren’t allowed. We seek to control you and manipulate you because we do know your value and because we are afraid to lose you and because we are afraid of what it would mean for us if you realized just how integral you are to our well-being.

I know that it’s easy, convenient, and comfortable to generalize all men or all women and just write them off entirely. But not only is this not fair, it also doesn’t help your cause because you know your lonely ass is going to want companionship at some point. I don’t like hearing “men are trash” or “women are trash” because trash has no value and teaching human beings that they don’t have any value is how we got into this mess in the first place. What really is trash is how we’ve designed society. What really is trash is our understanding of gender and the rules we place on ourselves because of it. What’s really is trash is our understanding of what it means to be a man and our understanding of what it means to be a human. We’re all confused, insecure, hurting children deep down — all doing our best to navigate a world that we really know nothing about. I don’t believe in the concept of an “adult”. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that no one ever really grows up — we just conform with societies desires more and more and we just get better at pretending. So the next time you come into contact with a sour man, try to remember that deep inside him somewhere that sweet little boy still exists. And that sweet little boy is trying his best to be what he was taught a “man” is. The problem with that is, a “man” is a totally subjective and, to me, a totally meaningless word. So what us men really try to do is be what we think other people think a man is and a lot of times, what that is is an insecure, inconsiderate, self-obsessed asshole. Which is precisely why we need not concern ourselves with raising better men and should instead focus on raising better humans. What men need most is to realize that they are human first and man second. Cancel culture is cancer. It won’t protect you, it will just harm you in other ways because it is impossible to damn another without damning oneself. We have to resist the urge to put others out of our hearts just because we don’t agree with their behavior and remember that there’s always something deeper happening than what appears on the surface. I don’t know how to fix men as a whole just like I don’t know how to fix women as a whole but I do know that loving and trying to understand one another’s behavior is a great place to start!