Will boys be boys? In the face of rising feminist visibility and the concomitant backlash against it, what it means to grow up male is increasingly under interrogation. Boys: What It Means to Become a Man by Rachel Giese and Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity by Jamil Jivani complicate the mainstream narrative about traditional masculine identity. Each author has a stake in the topic: Giese as a public intellectual and a mom, and Jivani as a young man from a disadvantaged background who now works as a lawyer and social justice advocate.
Giese, an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and editor-at-large at Chatelaine, was inspired to write Boys after watching how effortlessly her young son fell into male bonding rituals such as the “bro hug.” As a parent with a particular vantage point – she’s half of a white female couple who adopted an Anishinaabe son – Giese assumed nothing about either childhood or parenthood and undertook an investigative odyssey to understand what it means for a boy to become a man today.
Whether or not Giese’s conclusions will surprise depends on your perspective. Her core arguments – that gender is far more about external conditioning than genetics; that race, class, and learning ability mean there is no such thing as an undifferentiated, monolithic “boy experience” – are not necessarily groundbreaking.
But Giese is highly successful at applying ideas that might otherwise feel academic or abstract. Through a combination of original reportage, personal experience, and scholarly research, Giese makes a strong case. She argues, for instance, that no child is biologically drawn to a truck versus a doll; after she leads you through the maze of gender-reveal baby showers to expose a toy industry driven to make “boy” and “girl” versions of everything in order to increase sales, it’s very hard to disagree.
“Because no boy can live up to all the male norms all the time,” Giese states, “manliness is a fragile quality.” Damaging and limiting self-perceptions and attitudes can be unlearned, she argues, citing the example of a pioneering Calgary sex-education class called WiseGuyz that encourages open and honest communication between boys. WiseGuyz is led by young men who demystify sex and relationships and disrupt “the fag discourse” that insists the only way to become a man is to enact the stereotype of a traditional macho heterosexual.
Advocating for safe spaces to talk about what it means to be a man is also central to Jivani’s Why Young Men. For Jivani, a professor and lawyer who has extensive experience with non-profits and policy organizations related to young men – especially in the areas of policing and employment – an interest in masculinity and identity is very personal. Growing up in the highly multicultural city of Brampton, Ontario, he experienced first-hand how tensions between young men of colour and (often white) police officers can lead to catastrophe.
Why Young Men features clear, digestible prose in short, focused chapters. Jivani discusses the dissonances he experienced growing up in an immigrant-majority neighbourhood with a mostly absent father in a mixed-ethnicity household (a white Christian mom and a Muslim African dad). “Because I was detached from and resentful of mainstream institutions,” writes Jivani, “my moral compass was skewed by anti-social influences.”
Jivani is a compelling rhetorician. Hard experience has led to strong opinions: Jivani’s central thesis is that many young men of colour have been unduly influenced by a “Hollywood gangster subculture” – and, in some cases, political or religious radicalism – poisoning their understanding of manhood and tilting them toward rebellion and criminality. Facing racism and unfair treatment by police is clearly painful and alienating; Jivani argues that the best response is gaining education and meaningful employment. He pushes for mentoring programs and policy reform within existing systems.
Jivani recounts travels to Europe and the Middle East to identify commonalities and variances in young men’s experiences, particularly in majority Black and Muslim communities. Most, but not all, of what he finds confirms his own viewpoints. Throughout, he wears his centrist, accommodationist heart on his sleeve – and his certainty about the rightness of his own ideas can occasionally grate. He compliments one Belgium Muslim on “how young he was when he came to the right conclusions” – i.e., came to hold the same opinions as Jivani. Elsewhere, he asserts that the Black Lives Matter movement “has provided plenty of reasons for a fair-minded person to oppose it.” Once again, a “fair-minded person” should be understood as someone possessing opinions with which Jivani personally agrees.
Another shortcoming of Why Young Men is that the lives of gay and bisexual men of colour are more or less invisible in its pages, save for a brief reference to how a majority of people in some Black and Muslim communities oppose same-sex marriage. In a book about gender roles, race, and identity, this absence is hard to justify.