As we celebrate Brovember, perhaps it is time to sit down and take stock of what it actually means to be a “bro” or a man. One of the seminal movies of the 21st century, Mean Girls, was based on a book about social dynamics between high school girls, written by children’s expert, Rosalind Wiseman.
She wrote a lesser known, but no less important, book about male social dynamics in high school as well, called Masterminds and Wingmen. Although not entirely applicable to an Asian school setting, there are many takeaways that we guys can learn from. Here are five.
There are many ways of enforcing social order among boys in secondary school; the higher-ups keep the lower-downs firmly in place. But there is one set of rules which everyone abides by, and those are the “Act Like a Man” rules. They range from being good at the right sports, to being tall and charismatic.
These rules, according to Wiseman, fit into a box; any traits that lie outside the box could lead to accusations of being “gay” or “a girl”. These invisible rules, although they cause torment to even those who embody one or more of the desirable traits, are enforced and reinforced continually as boys jockey for respect, and reputation.
The social hierarchy in secondary schools is divided into four groups. The “10 Percenters” are the ones who fully embrace the “Act Like a Man” rules; they have a vested interest to both obey and enforce the rules.
The “Majority”, which comprises around 75 per cent of the male student body, are the ones who don’t really fulfil most of the rules, but hang out in groups that offer them protection and a sense of belonging.
The “Bottom Rung” are people who, well, are on the bottom rung of the social ladder; they aren’t necessarily the most bullied, however, as they could have one or two strong friendships. The “Outer Perimeter”, meanwhile, might include “anarchists, pranksters … obsessed single-subject or single-sport high-achievers”; most of these people either choose to disengage from the social hierarchy, or simply don’t have the requisite social skills to be part of it.
Humour is one of the most effective defence mechanisms in social situations; a well-timed piece of wit can defuse a tense moment, and is one of the most desirable traits for a guy. However, in Boy World, humour can be a double-edged sword.
Humour can either be a quick comeback to comments, or a self-deprecating remark that expresses a flippant sense of self that hides how hurt you might be; in essence, a very effective defence mechanism.
Humour can also be used in teasing; good teasing is the “cornerstone of good friendships”, but malicious teasing “highlights the difference between the target and everyone else”, according to Wiseman. Humour can be used as a mask to hide weakness, or as a way to point out someone else’s.
With all that, Wiseman says, it would be easy to conclude that Boy World is a savage and unforgiving place where guys tear each other apart. Some of that is true, but the fact is, adults reinforce these same social rules.
“You throw like a girl”, or “crying is for sissies” only serves to teach young boys that crying is not acceptable, or that being bad at sports means being bad at being a boy. The male idols that young boys now respect or look up to, like Iron Man, are almost pathologically flippant and cool; it’s fashionable to be blasé and apathetic. All of these factors contribute to the unrealistic self-image that kids aspire to growing up.
Parents, despite all their faults, do care about the well-being of their kids. Their care might manifest in less than savoury ways, like stalking their kids’ social media accounts, or rifling through their rooms. These are misguided ways to connect and communicate with their children, but fundamentally, parents want what is best for their kids.
It’s hard to get an adolescent boy to even talk about their school day (let alone to their parents), but perhaps opening up is an easier thing than most of us boys realise, and who knows? Maybe it might even make you feel better.