I love to rant about Ross Geller being my least favorite “Friends” character — anyone in my life can attest to that. Aside from the many moments across the series that define Ross as a controlling, judgemental and arrogant person, a season three, episode four plotline sees Ross at perhaps his most problematic. When his young son, Ben, expresses the desire to play with a Barbie doll, Ross utters the horrifyingly small-minded line, “why is my boy playing with a Barbie?” without addressing the similarly problematic sentiment in which Ross believes that his ex-wife and her current female partner somehow “brainwashed” his son into wanting to play with a plastic doll. This scene has always stood out to me as the absolute worst that the otherwise enjoyable show has to offer.
I was a self-proclaimed tomboy as a child. I loved Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Indiana Jones, Marvel superheroes — a vast list of stereotypically masculine sources of media, which I thought set me apart from my female peers. I am endlessly lucky to have grown up in a household where my younger brother and I were never discouraged from the things we wanted to do or try — I was more than welcome to devote my obsessions to any of the aforementioned franchises, and the sky didn’t fall when I practiced my adolescent makeup skills on my brother, who was a willing (yet reluctant) participant.
Granted, I didn’t have much to worry about — young girls are generally far less likely than young boys to be policed by parents, peers, or other adults for engaging in activities which do not conform to stereotypical gender roles. In other words, Ross might have been angry at his son for playing with a Barbie doll, but he might not have batted an eye if his daughter decided to play with a G.I. Joe. In fact, he might have even encouraged the behavior, seeing his daughter as “tougher” than other girls. I am allowed to shop in the men’s clothing section, and often choose to do so, but the same might not be true for a man my age shopping in the women’s section. And if he did, he could face serious policing in the form of judgement, bullying or even violence. In this way, society is very clear — perform masculinity at all costs. But what does it mean to be a man?
A loaded question, for sure. And one that can have a lot of different answers depending on who you ask. There’s the traditional masculine archetype: the rough, tough, emotionless provider, much akin to the fearless cowboys in old Westerns. For some, this is still the most accurate portrayal of masculinity. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with masculinity in and of itself. If this definition makes sense to an individual and makes them both happy and proud of who they are, then that is a wonderful thing.
What I find a problem with, though, is the way society comes to expect and police masculinity in its most traditional sense — and that’s where I think our definitions could use some changing. In his 2018 web series called “Man Enough,” famous actor Justin Baldoni posed a challenge to his male peers in the world of media and beyond. In a conversation with fellow actors, dancers, rappers, directors, writers and others, Baldoni asked them all to discuss what masculinity means to them. Their answers differed greatly, but the men found common ground in the ways they had felt slighted by their gender association. At one time or another, they all had experienced a stifling of their emotions, feeling as if to be a man is to be silent about any inner struggle or turmoil. They questioned the expectations of society for them to fit into a particular mold — especially those among them who had engaged in activities which seemingly broke that mold, such as dance — and confronted the manner in which society often proliferates negative behavior in a way which falsely represents what masculinity truly is. Harmful ideas, such as locker room talk, “boys will be boys,” and protecting one’s friends for the sake of “brotherhood” don’t strengthen men — by taking away accountability and making excuses for toxic behavior, these trends weaken the overarching group.
Masculinity doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. In fact, it shouldn’t, and Baldoni is seeking to prove that point by showing the many ways that masculinity can positively present itself. We live in a society that thrives on boxes — subdivisions, classifications, schemas, stereotypes — overall, people are consistently being asked to label themselves, and abiding by that label is both an expectation and a requirement. In this way, we are often forcing a puzzle piece into a spot where it simply does not fit, and as a result, we never get to see the whole picture. Many men feel that they don’t fit within the traditional definitions of masculinity. Maybe they like to dance, or wear the color pink, or play with Barbie dolls. Though I’d argue that to gender something as innocuous as a color or a toy is a loose social construct which has no business actually being enforced anyway — that still remains to be the culture.
As a result, many boys and men are made to feel that they are not “man enough” based on their preferences and tastes. I am simply asking that we all take a moment and consider what “man enough” really means. Is there not strength in pursuing what one cares about at all costs? Is it not brave to go against the grain? Should we not celebrate the ways in which people embrace their uniqueness and live as true to themselves as possible? If I haven’t changed your mind and you take away nothing else from this article, at least consider this: let people say, do, and be what they want (as long as they aren’t hurting others, of course, though that goes without saying). Let people be happy. Let people be real. Let people exist.