Many of us have probably heard of the “Boy Code” at some point. It basically comes down to stereotypes created by society about how boys should behave in terms of masculinity. Boys learn this code unconsciously from an early age whether it is on the playground, in the classroom, or at other social functions. It is taught to them by their own peers, perhaps their parents, teachers, and practically everyone else in their life. Even very young boys have reported to psychologists that they feel the need to act tough and not show their feelings because it is simply not acceptable in the eyes of society in general and particularly those around them. Boys are taught to ‘just suck it up’ and ‘brush it off’ if and when they get punched by another child. They are continually pressured not to show any sign of what society considers weakness. Even at a young age, boys can acknowledge that this general code exists and most of them have a genuine fear of breaking this code because of the ridicule they will face from their peers and society as a whole and simply do not want to feel ashamed.
The rules of the ‘code’ that boys feel forced to follow have been divided into 4 separate ideals or behavior models of boys based on stereotypes by Professors Robert Brannon and Deborah David. These 4 models are clearly at the heart of what keeps the ‘boy code’ in tact and at work in our society.
The first of these models can be known as “the sturdy oak”. According to this model, which most people can quickly agree and relate on, boys and men are told that they should be naturally independent, stoic, strong, and stable. They are never to show any signs of weakness and in other words, emotion. Boys are not to openly express emotions of pain or sadness and are secretly forbidden to openly grieve. Any boy who cries, complains, or whimpers is thought to have broken this code. Many times boys are reprimanded even if they ask a simple question or require an explanation in a stressful, frightening, or confusing time. Boys have a general understanding that if something is truly bothering them or if they get slugged in the face, it is best for everyone involved if they just act like it didn’t hurt and move on. This ‘sturdy oak’ model truly drains on a boy’s energy level because it simply requires them to play a role and ultimately act all the time. They have to pretend that nothing bothers them, pretend to be confident and strong even if they don’t necessarily feel that way, and pretend to be independent even if they feel like crying out for help, love, and support.
The next model involves the phrase “give ’em hell”. This is commonly heard by sports coaches and involves the assumption that boys automatically feel attracted to risky situations, violence, and bravado. This model can be linked to the commonly heard phrase “boys will be boys”. Such a misconception has forced society to believe that boys naturally act tough, biologically have high-energy levels, and instinctively behave in violent or destructive ways. This portion of the ‘boy code’ is ultimately responsible for the daring ways of boys; daring one another to take part in risk taking behaviors that many times can lead to serious injuries.
The next model involves the manner in which society has forced boys and men to shrug off problems and remain confident. It makes boys feel as though it is essential for them to be on top in terms of status, power, and overall dominance. Boys are basically taught to avoid weakness which results in shame at all costs. They are required to wear an invisible mask which makes them cool 24/7 and allows them to pretend that everything is under control and all right even if it is far from it. This model of the ‘boy code’ is what forces many boys and men to push themselves too hard in everything they do whether it be sports or career or academic work. This ensures that they are able to repress any feelings of failure which are shunned in our society.
The next and last model involves the most dangerous and traumatic instances of all. It involves the gender straightjacket that boys are forced to wear forcing them to act in only a masculine manner and avoid any ‘sissy stuff’. Boys are quickly discouraged from expressing their emotions as that is seen as feminine; particularly emotions such are empathy for others and dependence. Boys are forced to believe that such emotions are girly and therefore shut them out of their systems and become more self-contained. If however, boys do ‘slip’ on occasion and make the ‘mistake’ of showing their emotions, they are met with ridicule, often expressed with taunts or even threats simply because they failed at “acting like a man”. If this situation does occur, these boys usually will become determined to never act in such a way again and will therefore hide those feelings inside, never letting them out. It is unacceptable for society to continue with this way of thinking. Forcing boys to feel ultimately ashamed of themselves for sharing their feelings, telling them to “toughen up” whenever they do not adhere to the ‘boy code’ 100% of the time. It is because of such stereotypes that boys fall into depression and other disorders simply because they cannot deal with the pressure of being something that they are not. Eventually holding all of their feelings inside manage to eat away at them, and because they feel they are not allowed to ask for help, they may take matters into their own hands and commit suicide as can be seen by the increasing rates of suicide in boys in recent time.
The ‘boy code’ has always been ridiculous. It has never had its place in society and certainly does not belong here now. It is foolish to make anyone believe that they are not acceptable in the eyes of society simply because they wish to display their feelings and emotions. We force our boys to wear masks; it is not fair. Parents need to realize that they do not have to go along with such tripe. They should feel encouraged to encourage their own boys that it IS acceptable to share your feelings and that it does not make them any less of a boy or man for doing so. It does not take away from their masculinity if they admit that they have been hurt or need help. They should not have to pretend to be something they are not just to satisfy the old-fashioned ideals of a society that needs to become more modernized; a society that is still living in the past and relying heavily on all sorts of stereotypes, not just gender. We as a society need to work together to try and break the ‘boy code’ and free our boys from their internal battles that we have forced them to fight over the years.
Pollack, W. (1998). Real Boys: rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood. Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Ltd: Markham, Ontario.
Bushweller, K. (1994). Turning our backs on boys. The American School Board Journal, 181, 20-25.
Pollack, W. (1992). Boys will be boys: developmental traumas of masculinity- psychoanalytic perspectives.
Rotundo, E. A. (1993). American manhood: transformations in masculinity from the revolution to the modern era. New York: Basic Books.