Guy Talk: 18th January 2021: The Boy Code

Remember that this is a trans-inclusive space, and that everyone is welcome to comment.

Hey everyone. Been doing some thinking about what it means to grow up as a boy and Lilburne graciously gave me the opportunity to share some thoughts here. I hope it prompts discussion but still feel free to use this as a serious space to discuss any aspect of masculinity, good and bad.

A couple of weeks ago, the term “man code” briefly trended on twitter thanks to right-wing radio host Jesse Kelly announcing that “You don’t repeat things said to you privately. That’s simple man code.”  Unfortunately, there are an unspoken set of rules about what it means to be male — an unexamined outgrowth of what William Pollack calls “the boy code.”  We don’t form our understanding of social expectation in adulthood.  We learn them in childhood, through finding out what kinds of actions and statements get us rewarded and what gets us ostracized.

The boy code, according to William Pollack in his classic (though sometimes reductionist) book “Real Boys,” is the social pressures that turn male children into emotionally stunted and emotionally illiterate “straightjacketed” versions of who they could be.  The code is self-adopted as a defense mechanism against rebuke and corrective bullying, but is propagated not only on a peer level but also by parents who — thinking they know how boys should be — pressure their male children into a certain framework and honestly think it is to the boy’s benefit.  These pressures keep boys from being able to enter mindstates where they are free to explore themselves.  Dr. Pollack obviously wasn’t the first one to recognize this pattern. The novel “The Go-Between” delineates elements of the Victorian boarding school boy code.  In summary, a boy could bring “systematic bullying” (ie repeated physical beatings and social isolation) down upon himself for a variety of any of the following:

-coming off as too educated    -complaining about being beaten   -confiding in anyone about feeling sad or scared   -trying to get someone else to open up about feeling sad or scared-refusing to participate in any instance of group disobedience (like communal conversation after lights out)  -using someone’s first name  -speaking of trouble in one’s home life -appealing to adults for help 

Dr. Pollack’s research based delineation of the code as he saw it a century later was different in specifics but similar in function and priorities

  • No open grieving or crying
  • Act like pain doesn’t hurt
  • Don’t empathize with anyone who is thought of as weak
  • Don’t show fear
  • Don’t ask for help

There are many other books and stories that either explicitly or implicitly describe and even fondly praise the idea that all boys should behave one way.  Boys are supposed to be unlimited bundles of energy, as eager as a puppy to forgive.  Boys are supposed to be self-reliant and yet not introspective.   They are to be expected to be insensitive and mocked for wanting kindness.  The specifics change but throughout at least recent history, the base element remains: there is a right and wrong way to be a boy.  And to be otherwise invites rejection, both from peers and adults.

When you were a child, what was the boy code where you grew up?