You Can Be Masculine Without Being Toxic

After reading about the behaviour of boys from St Kevin’s (an all-boys Catholic school in Victoria) I feel compelled to write a response.  But I am not going to write a response to their behaviour, as there has been a huge backlash about this already.  This is as it should be, and shows that as a society we are making huge progress.  After all, apparently this puerile chant – although I have never heard the words before – has been around and sung loudly by both men and women, boys and girls, for over 30 years.  The fact that it is now being recognised as vile, misogynistic and utterly inappropriate gives me hope for the world our children – boys and girls – are growing up in.

There is something that worries me more than the fact a group of 15 and 16 year old boys thought it was completely ok to sing this chant at the top of their voices on a tram on the way to a sporting match.  What concerns me more is the reaction of many adults to the behaviour of the boys, calling for their imprisonment and in some cases, their death, to stop the spread of this display of “middle class privilege” and “toxic masculinity”.

Let’s go over it again just so we’re clear: there are fully grown adults with supposedly fully formed brains who are calling for the death of a group of CHILDREN (at 15/16 years old they may be 6 feet tall and hairy and look like men but let’s remember, their brains are still forming and they are still children) for singing the words to a chant – an absolutely vile and vulgar chant – but a chant nonetheless. These same people and others (who perhaps would not go so far as calling for a public execution), are using this incident to call for the complete abolishment of single sex schooling in this country (but you know, maybe just start with the “elitist boys schools”).

Fuck that’s a lot to unpack.

Indulge me if you will and let’s travel back in time, almost 20 years ago, to the year 2000 when the world had just recovered from the fear of the Y2K bug and everybody breathed a collective sigh of relief knowing we could march into another century, continuing our lives.  At this time I was a fresh faced university graduate, feminist AF and preparing to march into my new teaching job at one of the state’s well known “elitist all boys schools” affectionately referred to by many of my friends as ‘Hogwarts’.

Make no mistake: I had heard the rumours and I believed all the hype.  I was sure I was walking into a well-established boys club with an insidious misogynistic culture and I was ready to tear down the patriarchy from the inside of those walls, one teenage brain at a time.

Over the next 6 years, instead of ‘tearing the place down’ I found a community of people – mainly young men – who held me up. 

To my astonishment they were prepared to read the feminist texts by marginalised female authors that I had chosen.  Of course they complained – they were teenagers – but they also fully engaged with the challenge to their critical thinking, their minds open to looking at the world from another perspective.

Rather than being objectified by this insidious misogynistic culture, I was treated with respect by a group of boys for whom I was on any given day a teacher, mother figure, sister or friend. 

When my mother in law was ill and I needed to bring my phone into the classroom, the entire room would hold its collective breath if it rang, everyone hoping it wasn’t bad news.  Then when she died, students who had seen me crying in the hall left small gifts for me on my desk, or caught my eye in assembly for weeks afterward to check if I was ok.

Did they push boundaries with their behaviour?  Absolutely.

Did they push the limits of personal safety, especially with their endless games of “stacks on” at lunchtimes?  Also yes.

Did I ever feel unsafe around those boys? 

NO. Completely the opposite.

Let me give you an example:

One of my classes was populated with some very sporty boys.  Some were members of the First XVIII Football team, the Captain of Rugby was in there and some rugby first rowers, as well as some musclebound actual rowers (the boat on the lake kind).  They were strong and physical and sometimes complete boofheads. But they were also – as members of my Year 12 English Studies class – interested in literature and culture. 

One day we walked over to the University of Adelaide for a concert of classical music at Elder Hall.  As we walked through the gates of the university I will never forget looking up at the “gentle”men surrounding me, as they instinctively moved closer to me, as if to ensure my safety in this unfamiliar place.  These boys sat attentively (maybe not enthusiastically, but they were attentive and respectful) for the next two hours listening to violin and classical piano, before we walked as a group back to school.

Inevitably, as was almost always the case upon returning from excursions, I had to follow up with members of the public who had made complaints (about my class) to the school.  These complaints usually ranged from: “I was walking on North Tce and the boys took up too much room on the footpath” to “there were so many boys, all very tall and in their blazers, I felt intimidated”.

Young men in large groups ARE intimidating.  If they are also dressed alike, they start to look like a pack. It is not their fault, and often not their actions, it is just the way it is: especially if you do not know them.  Many people are not willing to get to know them, or give them the benefit of the doubt. 

With the recent actions of the St Kevin’s boys, it is easy to see how some people’s fear and disgust led them to conclude the only way to stop it is to eliminate the source of their fear, as well as to “feel sorry for the teachers who have to deal with these vile young people on a daily basis”.  My response to that is that most teachers of teenage boys actually love spending time with them and relish the chance to challenge them and their thinking about any kind of hyper masculinity and toxic behaviour.  Because guess what? Hyper masculinity is exactly that: a behaviour.  It is a way of performing gender. The good news is that gender performance can be shaped, moulded, changed. 

In the immortal words of Maya Angelou: “When we know better, we do better”.

And it’s not just teachers shaping this behaviour, what about the parents?  I can tell you there is not a mother of boys that I know who would tolerate the performance of hyper masculinity like that displayed by the St Kevin’s boys without having PLENTY to say about it!!

And you know what else?  This is a gender issue, a societal issue, not solely a school issue.  As the learned Dr Justin Coulson readily admits: “there is a contingent of hyper masculinity in some pockets of every school”.  I know there certainly was in the co-educational high school I attended (although the chant involved “HK Monaros and 57 Chevy’s”, not dump trucks and bumps in the road, but same/same.)  In fact, I have seen it in many schools, regardless of whether they were single sex or co-ed. 

So how about as a society, and as adults with (hopefully) fully formed brains, we put our energies into identifying and calling out toxic behaviours of masculinity, educating our young people as to why particular behaviours are offensive, and get on with raising the next generation of kind, respectful, humans whom we should feel proud to have in our community?

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