A new book traces the origins of the claim that “boys will be boys”—and refutes it.
Thirty years ago, in downtown Mexico City, Matthew Gutmann took a picture of a man holding a baby. Little did he know then that photo would launch a decades-long career studying men and masculinity around the world.
“I showed that photo to a bunch of people in the United States, and I kept getting vehement reactions,” says Gutmann, a professor of anthropology at Brown University.
“People said, ‘This is unreal. This is an aberration.’ I tried to explain to an art editor at a university press that the photo was candid and not posed, and he says, ‘That’s impossible. Mexican men are machos; they don’t carry babies.'”
For Gutmann, that moment launched a quest to learn more about men and masculinity in Mexico. He has since studied the state of sexual and reproductive health across Latin America, investigated the concept of masculine loyalty among American veterans who fought in Iraq, and observed changes in workplace gender standards in urban China, where he currently teaches as a visiting professor.
In some ways, the book Are Men Animals? (Basic Books, 2019) is a distillation of all that Gutmann has learned since he took that fateful photo as a graduate student. His book takes the reader on a world tour, examining the women-only subway cars of Mexico City, the barrio of Santo Domingo and the so-called “marriage market” in Shanghai to demonstrate that there’s no single definition of masculinity or manliness.
Ultimately, Gutmann says, he hopes Are Men Animals? emphasizes that men are more than testosterone and Y chromosomes—that they’re made as much by society as by biology.
“The great feminist Simone de Beauvoir once wrote about women, ‘Their biology is not their destiny,'” Gutmann says. “I think we need to say something similar about men. Men’s biology is not their destiny, either.”
Ahead of the release of Are Men Animals?, Gutmann answered a few questions about the book, his research, and the future of masculinity:
How did the idea for this book come to you?
Several years ago, the person who led the Cogut Center for the Humanities asked me to represent Brown at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The theme that year was animals. My immediate response was, “I don’t do animals—I study men and masculinity.” But later that night, I was thinking about it and I realized, “Well, men are animals.”
I had a lot of fun putting that talk together, and it was a big hit at the festival. Later, I began to think more about animal comparisons and anthropomorphism—how we give animals human qualities. Some of it is playful. But some of it, the more I dug into it, started to worry me. I began to think more and more about the extent to which people thought about men as animalistic, as having some innate characteristics they couldn’t control.
How far back can we trace this idea that men can’t control themselves?
We can trace it back at least as far as ancient Rome. There was a Latin proverb, “sunt pueri pueri, pueri puerilia tractant,” which means “boys are boys, and boys will act like boys.” Essentially, many societies have been saying some form of “boys will be boys” for at least 2,500 years.
So, is it true? Are men animals?
Well, the punchline of the book is that they are animals—but women are animals as well. We also use language to describe women as out of control and hormonal, but that language has been much more critically examined, and I think we’ve made some progress in debunking the belief that women can’t do certain things because of their biology.
With men, less so. I think the expression “boys will be boys” is still only a half joke. We still seem to believe, particularly with respect to violence and sexuality, that men seem a little bit out of control and it’s up to women and society to control them. I think it’s not only not giving men enough credit but it’s also letting them off the hook for a lot of their behavior.
What do you think drives the belief that men can’t control themselves?
In the past, there was a lot of religious thinking and doctrine that concluded that men and women were fundamentally different. More recently, we’ve embraced the idea that genes and hormones explain everything, that testosterone, for example, is the magic elixir of manhood. That’s nonsense—women have testosterone too, and it’s absolutely critical for their brain development.
To me, the alarming thing right now has to do with the extent to which superficial understandings of science govern our beliefs. What I’m trying to do with this book is enter into that debate more directly with both lay practitioners and scientists who I think cling to a lot of socially biased views of men and women that don’t hold up.
Why do you think it’s important for us to talk about how our ideas about masculinity affect society?
Well, I don’t think you have to look any further than the #MeToo movement for an answer to that. It seems to me that issues of male violence are absolutely critical today.
Why is it that nine out of 10 people who murder are men, and why is it that we emphasize that fact over the fact that almost no men are murderers? Why is it that only men have to register with the federal government in case of a military draft? I think in both cases, there are underlying assumptions that men are naturally more warlike, more aggressive. It has to do with a certain way of thinking that I don’t think we question enough. I think we fall back too easily on biological explanations.
It seems like people question traditional views of masculinity more readily today. Will things change in the future?
I’m encouraged by the fact that so many of my students are developing new ways to talk about themselves. They’re experimenting with pronouns and rethinking traditional gender roles. Around the world, you see people beginning to believe that women are capable of taking on roles that were once considered masculine.
In China today, you have more women with PhDs and more women heads of companies than ever before. How many women were leading Ivy League institutions as recently as 20 years ago? None. Now, that has changed.
At the same time, you have conservative forces in society who are pushing back the other way. In China, leaders are saying they support women who are pursuing careers, but really their main role in life should be that of wife and mother. Unmarried women over 27 are labeled by the government “leftover women.” My point is that it’s not inevitable that society will continue to go in one direction or another. The Handmaid’s Tale is not pure fiction; there are people who, if they got their way, would try to create a society like that. So it seems to me that we need to be constantly engaged in these questions of masculinity and gender identities.
How are anthropologists like you doing that?
Too rarely do biological and cultural anthropologists engage in dialogue with each other, even within their own discipline. We don’t read enough of each other’s articles and books. So even just taking that step is crucial. Some biological anthropologists say that war happens for biological reasons, and cultural anthropologists generally oppose that view. There are all sorts of arguments on both sides, and we talk past each other.
I think we need to connect more directly. So I’ve reached out to people who work in biology at Brown, for instance—some of whom have ideas I don’t agree with—and they’ve been incredibly generous in sharing their ideas with me. For example, right now I’m working on a project focused is on men and violence that has brought together cultural anthropologists and biological anthropologists from at least nine countries. And that’s a step forward.
Source: Brown University