Photographer Sophie Day spent three years continuously photographing close male friends, amassing an archive of their shared experience. Along the way, she refined her own understanding of masculinity – a girl amongst boys, reflecting on their social codes and behaviours. What does it mean to be a man, and what could the power of un-learning these codes mean for future generations?
See Sophie’s photo series and accompanying essay below.
Essay by Sophie Day
Boys spend their childhood and teen years learning how to perform their assigned gender. They learn that being a man is constantly having to prove their maleness to others. This is what makes masculinity a performance, a constant and internalised one. Boys are taught that to be ‘a man’ they can one-up other men, and put down women. They learn to insult other boys by feminising them. They often times learn to fear the feminine. They learn homophobia. They stay inside of their assigned gender performance. When they step out of it there are social consequences. Growing up, if a boy paints his nails, plays with dolls, pierces his ear (all deemed feminine acts and therefore not fit for a male), they get socialised into stopping that behaviour. They often get made fun of, attacked, ostracised by their peers, teachers, parents, etc. This is how they learn the right way to behave.
Masculinity is a construct, it genders feelings, self-expression, intimacy. From my observation, boys learn rules. They learn how to perform within their set boundaries. They usually don’t even know they’re performing since they’ve internalised it deeply growing up. They are allowed intimacy and love with their male counterparts, under the condition it’s still masculine. They can hug, if they dap first. They can I say, “I love you”, when you tack on “bro”. They can have feelings, be hurt, be sad, feel lonely or neglected, and are taught to express these emotions under destructive terms. If a boy can’t land a skate trick after a lot of tries, it’s not uncommon to smash their skateboard out of frustration. Even this breaking of their board is a performance since boys who skate travel in groups, so the rest of the pack can see. I feel that this helps them regain their ‘manhood’, by being destructive to compensate for their perceived failure. They learn to channel all feelings of inferiority into one reaction: anger. Sadness, disappointment, being hurt, all become anger. It becomes masculine destruction.
Boys learn to compete. They learn to fight one another. They learn they are bigger than women. They learn that they are deserving of space and time in a way women are disallowed. They may feel like they have to constantly try to be the ‘big dog’, the alpha male, the most powerful. They internalise the limited role they are taught growing up. These lessons come from society and power structures. It’s socialised through schools, family figures, peers. We pass down these toxic ideas of what it means to be a boy.
Not every individual will feel the same way about this issue. This construct applies most directly to cis heterosexual boys and effects anyone who doesn’t fit that binary differently. Not every boy feels confined by his gender identity. Not every boy is a reflection of what our society teaches exactly. Not all boys are disallowed access to learning healthy coping mechanisms and agency over a wide range of emotions. However, on a large scale these are the boys we’ve created.
Toxic masculinity plagues our youth. It has many different forms and rules across cultures and countries. The effects of this construct vary based on context and experience. This project in particular is based on my experiences with the construct around me. I have been observing my close male friends for half a decade in New York, and I began documenting them to understand what it means to be a man in our society.
Through my study I see patterns, I see destruction. Boys fight each other, put down women, hurting others and consequently hurting themselves. I see boys in pain. I see these defined limits on self-expression, ways to deal with human emotion, and interaction with others. I have gained a personal and deeply emotionally-involved understanding of their performance.
I feel privileged to have gained access to my peers’ minds when they open up to me about this issue. Some boys don’t feel comfortable discussing it, some have internalised their performance of manhood so deeply that they don’t see how it affects them, while others are more than willing to acknowledge how they’ve suffered under the conditions of their assigned identity. I see willingness to learn, desire to express their emotions, the craving of love and intimacy.
To my close male friends in these photographs, I thank you for allowing me in your lives and hearts. You do not represent the entirety of this issue, you are all individuals with varying experiences and relationships to your identities, and I love each one of you. The intention of my work is always to shine light on the results of toxic power structures that function to hurt and limit us. I am proud to see some of my male friends actively unlearn aspects of this assigned gender role. There is a lot of work to be done. We need to dismantle the idea of what it means to be a man, a boy, to be strong. Be critical of yourself and your peers in the participation of this toxic identity, this is how we start to unlearn and understand.
By unlearning this internalised performance, you are participating in the revolutionary act of changing the definition of man.
See more of Sophie Day’s work here.