ARTICLE

We Can’t Dismantle What We Can’t See: Teaching Concepts of Masculinity

“So, there aren’t any girls in the book?” Find out how an English teacher answered this student question—and fit the male-centered Lord of the Flies into a classroom focused on voices traditionally left in the margins.

 

“So, there aren’t any girls in the book?” one of my girls asked as she raised a quizzical eyebrow at me and held up our next novel, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

I looked up and gave her a small, sly smile. “Nope.”

She sat with that answer, baffled. “But…but…” she trailed off. I understood where she was coming from. We’d been talking about female empowerment and Women’s History Month only weeks before, so jumping into a book steeped so heavily in male perspectives must’ve felt confusing.

“Don’t worry,” I consoled. “I know exactly what you mean, but I think you’ll find this topic equally…elucidating.”

I understood my student’s questions so well because, frankly, I’d been asking similar ones of myself earlier that year. I love teaching Lord of the Flies. When I was a high school sophomore, it was the book that helped me better understand what literature was. When I first became an educator, it was an excellent avenue to teach symbolism, characterization and allegory. It always raises interesting discussions about humanity’s tendency toward good or evil.

When I returned to teaching a few years ago, however, I committed to exposing my students to stories often overlooked in traditional English classes: the work of female, Native and Asian-American and Pacific Islander authors, for instance. And I made it a point to have students look at well-read books through a social justice lens.

This year, though, I knew I wanted to add Lord of the Flies to my reading list. It had been years since I’d read it, but something about the book still called to me. I sat down and reread the book, trying to figure out why this story, written by a white man from Europe about a group of boys, still felt so relevant to the work I was doing in my classroom. Would I only be furthering white, male perspectives if I added the book to my curriculum? 

As I read, I saw these boys—Piggy and his quashed intelligence, Simon and his sweet and doomed demeanor, Jack and his rage—running around the island. And for the first time, I recognized my students, especially my male students, in the struggles these characters faced. Golding’s text doesn’t just grapple with humanity itself, but with men and masculinity specifically.

So I designed our book discussion around not just good and evil but also around perceptions of masculinity within our society. The book selection led my students to ask why, in a class that had been focused heavily on female voices, we were reading a book without a single female character.

But as they began reading, my students started to see just how important it is to dissect the privileged place these boys were coming from. By asking students to consider what it means to be “a good man” and where those perceptions come from, we were able to look at the systemic socialization we all experience regarding gender roles. From there, we began to see how those socialized beliefs affect the characters in different and sometimes violent ways.

My students, not to my surprise, were incredibly perceptive. As one student put it, “When boys have strong influences of having to be masculine, it can get to be dangerous.” Another noted that “seeing that perspective made [them] realize that masculinity shouldn't be something that exists in the world to label boys and to create this pressure on them like they have to prove themselves to be someone.”

At the end of our book discussion, I asked my class two questions: “Is it pertinent to discuss socially constructed masculinity?” “Is it useful to understand it, as far as creating a better society?”

Overwhelmingly, they said yes. One wrote in a reflection, “It is important to talk about masculinity because some boys think that is how they should act, but this book proves being masculine to the max can be very dangerous. It is important for young boys and men to know they don’t need to be aggressive in order to be men.”

What I really liked, though, is how many noted that it wasn’t simply important for them to talk about masculinity, but vital for “the next generation [to understand] things like how strong you are or where you come from don't matter.” They also expressed the importance of teaching younger generations that they should do what makes them happy and be their authentic selves.

Without a doubt, it is essential to uplift the voices of writers often left out of our classrooms. But there is also value in taking the time to understand the systems we are trying to dismantle. For my students to understand how patriarchal notions of power and behavior affect their lives, they also need to see how those beliefs affect the way men are often raised in Western societies.

I can’t foresee the future, but I can only hope that, the next time my students are tempted to implore someone to “man up” or act in a particular way because “that’s what men do,” they remember our discussions and the struggles faced by a group of young, wayward British boys on a deserted island long ago.

Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.