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Teenage boys talk masculinity

In BBC Radio 4’s About the Boys, 16-year-olds discuss what it means to “become a man”.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

A 16-year-old boy from Dartmoor is talking about what it means to be a man. He is aware of a “golden figure that all men should be like”.  He has a “high-paying job”, a “good body”, is “tall”. In About the Boys, Catherine Carr talks to teenagers about “being a man”. There are adults interviewed here – a Welsh former gang member turned social worker,  an academic studying male role models, a cricket coach – but this series is best when it lets the boys speak, uninterrupted, without judgement.

What does “becoming a man” mean to them? Does it inspire excitement, or dread? Success and achievement come up, and it’s not long before the shadow of male violence falls over the conversation, uninvited. “I’ve always been brought up that, um, if you’re going to be a good man you’ve got to look after your family, and you’ve got to look after a woman, never raise a hand to your woman,” one boy says.

Another questions feminist debates: “On social media, masculinity is expressed to you as having loads of money, being really strong, being tall… And when you try and be like that, then girls say to you they want an emotional person… This whole ‘patriarchy’ that girls complain about hasn’t benefitted men at all… 80 per cent of suicides are men and I don’t understand in what world that means we have such an advantage. Yes, it has advantaged us in certain ways, but it also hasn’t worked for us at all… It’s really confusing.”

There are powerful moments of hope. “When I was younger I thought maybe I couldn’t be a man at all,” one Manchester student says. “Like the person I am is, like, somehow less of a man. But even in recent months I’ve started to realise that I am still a man.” One boy says in a Yorkshire accent: “There were certain things boys would do like football, rugby, and because I was one of the boys that liked dance and gymnastics I was put to one side… From then on I didn’t want to do dance no more… I thought maybe I should go into something more manly. And a couple of years later I thought: now I’m older I’ll be able to put all that stuff behind me – and focus on what I want for my future.”  

About the Boys
BBC Radio 4, weekdays from 29 April, 1.45pm

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[See also: Inside Northern Ireland’s satanic panic]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger