Positive Masculinity Contributor - Elsie Murrell
Content Writer for Positive Masculinity; Gender, Sexuality, Women's Studies major at Temple University
I was born ten days before the millennium into a family of five. My brothers loved having a baby sister in the beginning. They’d dress me in their oversized t-shirts and kiss my forehead, they’d carry me around and show me off to their friends. Being the baby girl—the only girl—felt really special for a while, and then we all started to grow up.
There’s a seven year age gap between me and my eldest brother. Sometimes, when I was in elementary school, he’d pick me up and we’d play soccer or eat pickles or watch movies. I'd make sure I told all my friends that my older brother was coming to get me. When we got home I'd scramble inside to tell my parents all about what we had done that day after school. It made me feel like the coolest little sister alive. Then, I was young enough that it wasn’t embarrassing for him. As we both started to grow up though, it seemed like he was self-conscious to hang out with his sister. While I started second grade, he started high school. With the weight of that on top of figuring out new friendships, something changed. He started talking to me less and stopped making an effort. He spent a lot of time in his room and kept to himself. It made me sad that something seemed to have changed, but everyone around me labeled it as “typical teenage boy” behavior, so I brushed it off like everyone else seemed to do. But ultimately, that phrase was diminishing to what was actually going on.
Teenage boys go through a ton of important socialization during their high school years. Traditional teachings of masculinity tell boys in a very sensitive transition into manhood and adulthood that their emotions aren’t to be discussed. Men are to be strong–or at least appear that way–always, no matter what’s going on inside. In this case, my brother’s behaviors were signs of him being depressed for the first time. In my family, this was never acknowledged. There is this notion that girls are the emotional gender, and when I experienced depression for the first time in my later teenage years, my parents quickly stepped in. My eldest brother didn’t get the same treatment. The problem was ignored and brushed off as a hormonal issue. They assumed he’d grow out of it.
Hegemonic masculinity is a practice that legitimizes the dominant position that men have in society. Someone who is hegemonically masculine conforms to traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a man.The way my brother’s sadness was disregarded was ultimately the result of just that. By ignoring his emotions, my parents affirmed the idea (which was likely already ingrained in him) that “real” men aren’t supposed to experience sadness and they certainly aren’t supposed to talk about it. If they do, they’re labeled feminine or cowardly, they’re called names or bullied by their peers. From there, boys are often told that they ought to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. So that’s what my brother did. My parents didn’t have the knowledge or the bandwidth to figure out what was going on with him then, and he had to figure out how to help himself. When it comes down to it, this only reinforced the stereotype that emotionality and being a man do not mix.
I have another brother, closer to me in age, that experienced our childhood quite differently. The second I stopped babbling incoherently in diapers and learned how to read, it was embarrassing for him to hang out with me. When I tried to sneak my way into hanging out with him and his friends (as little sisters do) he’d say something mean and lock me out of his room, or have one of our parents come drag me away. He was not compassionate when we were kids, and in addition to having major middle child syndrome, he was always really rough with me. I have a lot of memories of being pinned against the wall while he screamed in my face, or of him shaking me to try and make his point clear. One time, he punched a hole through my door. It remains there to this day. Many a chair have been broken. My response was always tears, which is ironic. While men and boys are taught that the only acceptable way to release emotion is through anger, women and girls are taught the opposite. We have to resort to a much more quiet display of emotion so as not to take up too much space, so that’s what I did.
My parents reacted similarly to my middle brother’s aggression as they did to my eldest brother’s sadness. It often went ignored and unpunished. There was no attempt to talk through the anger. Again, the hormone argument was used and abused. Now, I look back and remember where my brother may have learned to get so angry. My dad’s a real tough guy. He displays traditional masculinity in a lot of ways. When my brother’s were disrespectful, he responded with anger and impatience. He didn’t leave room for (nor did he know a lot about) conversations around mental health. There was more than one face shoved in the snow. He’s gained a lot of patience as I’ve grown up, but I don’t think he made much progress until I was born. He had a little girl and, as harsh as it sounds, it was socially unacceptable to physically reprimand her. But “that’s just what you do with boys”.
Fast forward a bunch of years and we don’t really live like that anymore. My eldest brother grew up to be an extremely smart and emotionally intelligent individual. He has done a ton of work to unlearn the traditional teachings of masculinity that were ingrained in him from the beginning. He attends biweekly therapy, and stresses its importance greatly. Therapy for him (and for me) is an incredibly important place to safely unpack childhood traumas and heal from them, while also learning a great deal about yourself. He practices meditation, and gets regular exercise. He has a cat whom he adores. I relate to his emotionality in a big way, more so than my middle brother, and as we’ve grown up this has changed our relationship for the better. We communicate often, and this is something that’s only come about in the last few years. As I was growing up, I think there was an awkwardness between us in terms of being unsure about the depths we should take our conversations to. It took me making the first move and starting a conversation that let him know I was ready to talk about big emotions, while also ensuring him that I wanted to hear more about his story too. Now, we can talk about how we’re feeling and dealing with anything going on in our lives. We talk about the anxiety and depressive disorders we share, and we encourage other members of our family to give therapy a try (whether they listen or not). He has developed into a person I greatly admire and respect, and I’d say he feels the same about me.
My middle brother did not carry his aggressive traits into adulthood with him, although he maintains his dominant personality. He is no longer ashamed of me as his little sister. I think it took him moving away from home to make that transition. Though it does seem like the behaviors he learned in childhood took hold more so on him than our older brother. He is stubborn. He refuses to try therapy and resists the idea that he’d get anything out of it. He acknowledges sexuality as a spectrum, but describes himself as “the straightest man on the planet”. He loves to be right, almost refuses to be wrong. While all this, in my eyes, does stem from teachings of traditional masculinity and it does make me feel slightly distant from him, he has also developed a lot of emotional intelligence in adulthood. He is more gentle with me and the people in his life. He always makes sure there is open and consistent communication between us, whether the conversation be light or heavy (sometimes I don’t have the capacity to have deep conversations with him). He actively makes attempts to bring us together as a family. Our relationships as siblings have developed greatly, and I hope that they’ll continue to do so.
When I think about the progress my brothers have made, I’m reminded of the poem by Anne Boyer, “What Resembles the Grave But Isn’t”. It starts, “Always falling into a hole, then saying ‘ok, this is not your grave, get out of this hole’”. The teachings of toxic masculinity is the hole, and we have to actively make the decision every time to crawl out of it so that it doesn’t become our grave. Even if it seems impossible, even if we want to lay there for a while and be buried, we have to resist. This is something my brothers and I are learning every day. I am continuously impressed by the ways they have matured and made attempts to stray from the emotional reactions they had in their younger years. When things get tough or when one of them says something that sounds like their old self, I, too, have to crawl out of that hole and remind myself that we are all constantly falling into holes! And I, too, have to crawl out of my hole so that I can watch them crawl out of theirs. Then, we can celebrate that together. The hole may look like our grave, but it isn’t.