These Sweet Photos Prove Masculinity Doesn't Have to Be Toxic
'Boys Will Be Boys' rejects gender norms in favor of a more inclusive approach to manhood.
© Iris Ray
They way we think and talk about masculinity is changing slowly, but centuries of patriarchy aren’t easy to undo overnight. The advent of #MeToo and #TimesUp signaled that women were fed up with toxic misogyny, but the movement also prompted those accused of sexist rhetoric and behavior, like the president, to claim it’s "a very scary time for young men."
A 2017 study by Johns Hopkins and the World Health Organization found that across the globe gender stereotypes can impact children early on and raise the risk of depression, suicide, and violence as they grow up. Polling 450 adolescents across 15 countries, the report discovered that boys are socialized to embody dominance and physical strength, making them more inclined to be violent, suffer from substance abuse, and commit homicide later in life.
Beyond this, it revealed that teen boys who challenge gender norms in their behavior or dress are more likely to be bullied than girls who dress or act in a masculine way. The study underlined a few universal truths—that stereotypes such as “boys don’t cry” are perpetuating outdated and harmful patriarchal attitudes.
So how do we start redefining masculinity? Photographer Iris Ray set out to explore this question by curating Boys Will Be Boys, an exhibition at Junior High gallery in Los Angeles, featuring nine emerging photographers whose work highlights masculinity in ways that have been historically suppressed—by depicting it as fluid, vulnerable, and exposed. While the old adage “boys will be boys” is often used to dismiss toxic and aggressive behavior from men, the show questions why men are expected to reject femininity. In this way, Boys Will Be Boys emphasizes a more expressive and emotional view of manhood, promoting a new vision for masculinity, one that is not strictly heteronormative.
VICE spoke with Ray about the inspiration behind the exhibition, how masculinity is starting to shift, and what she hopes the public will gain from this critical showcase.
VICE: What inspired you to curate Boys Will Be Boys?
Iris Ray: I was born and raised in the Bible Belt, and the idea of the patriarchy is a huge part of the foundation of that culture. Fortunately I grew up in a house that was way less dogmatic, but it was all around me. “Men are the leaders, women are the encouragers.” And ironically, even though men were supposed to be symbols of fortitude and leadership, any lack of self-control was chalked up to the fact that “boys will be boys.” They just can’t help themselves. Even as a kid, I thought it was bullshit.
The pervasiveness of that mentality, paired with my own trauma from men, made me grow resentful towards expressions of masculinity. Of course, carrying that around was slowly eroding me. Then, subverting masculinity became a way for me to reclaim my own experiences. Boys Will Be Boys is sort of a culminating moment in that process for me. Even the title reclaims that old adage we’ve been using since forever to justify men acting shitty. The show is definitely defiant of toxic masculinity and its negative impact.
In what ways did your own work as a photographer contribute to the show?
The seed for the show began years ago while I was still in college and I started to explore how we perform gender more in my photos. But I got to a point where I just realized that the conversation I wanted to have about masculinity was so much bigger than my own experiences. So I shifted my focus from only saying what I had to say to curating Boys Will Be Boys. Honestly I’m so thankful for everyone who contributed—it’s become such a rich range of voices! My own work influenced the direction of the show, but it wouldn’t be anything at all without the other artists.
What kind of messages are you attempting to address through this group show?
I hope it encourages people to look more critically at how we socialize ourselves into narrow gender roles. There are plenty of mouthpieces who insist the heteronormative distinctions between men and women are biological and not learned, but when I see all of our work in the show, it’s like, no way. Masculinity can be fluid, vulnerable, poised, submissive. Whatever! And maybe we should reconsider what we’ve internalized as normal.
How do you hope to challenge ideas around toxic masculinity and aspects of masculinity that have been historically repressed in this exhibit?
I think that amplifying the visibility of queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people is critical to challenging toxic masculinity. We are demanding to be seen, especially when the government is actively working to erase an entire group of people. I hope the show puts the question of masculinity at the front of our minds. What if we taught more boys to be emotionally literate instead of keeping a stiff upper lip? What if we taught them to be tender, not just competitive? Wouldn’t there be more empathy?
I think the people who refuse to acknowledge folks living outside the gender binary feel like their way of life is threatened. I hope the more these stories are told, that will change. Visibility isn’t the entire solution for sure! We have to be investing in and protecting the marginalized folks who need it most right now however we can. But visibility makes it hard as fuck to be silenced.
Why is a more expansive definition of masculinity needed today?
Because men commit suicide more than three times as often as women. Because most mass killings are committed by men, and are usually motivated by a fatal sense of entitlement. Because Jordan Peterson teaches men that it’s women’s responsibility to pair with them to make them less violent. Because Donald Trump is president. Because of incels. The harmful impact of unchecked masculinity is so pervasive, we desperately need sweeping change. In the post #MeToo social climate, I think that we’re collectively more ready for the kind of reflection we need to make a real shift.
Do you think the definition of masculinity has been shifting? If so, how?
It’s hard not to feel like every time we take a step forward, we take two back. However, this show has made me feel really optimistic that the future I want to see is close ahead. Truthfully, I’m guilty of living in my own little echo chamber sometimes, so I have to stay aware of everything going on outside of myself. But even if the dominant narrative about masculinity still has a long way to go, this is where change starts. Grassroots shit! I think young people and queer people are pushing the ways we think about gender, masculinity, and femininity harder than ever right now. At least, that’s what I see happening around me.
Who are the artists featured in this exhibit and what drew you to their work?
Besides myself, the artists are Richard Arthur, Barry Lee, Myles Loftin, Savana Ogburn, Laurence Philomene, Brandon Stanciell, Jules Tatham, and Brian Vu.
When you see their work, it’s super obvious why I would want to have them in the show! Everyone illustrated a different perspective that’s uniquely them, and the work is beautiful. It was important to me to have artists that would really stick the landing with their commentary on masculinity. Everyone that I brought on board, I’d already seen that they were totally capable. It’s been amazing to just trust them completely.
What kind of photographs can we expect to see in this show?
As you can probably tell, all the photos are of male-identifying or masculine-presenting people. They range from cheeky and playful to more contemplative. Like I was saying earlier, the range of unique voices we have is probably my favorite thing about our lineup. I think when you see everything together, you’ll know that we put a lot of care and personality in every piece.
How did the feminine aesthetic of Junior High’s space serve to juxtapose the themes of the exhibit?
Hosting the exhibit at Junior High was always part of the vision, but for a minute, I did question if it made the most sense. Celebrating the unique visions of masculinity in the show is huge, but I also hope we reach people (read: men) outside of that echo chamber and hopefully open some minds. I wondered if the feminine aesthetic of Junior High would be an obstacle. But then I was like, fuck that! Catering to men’s fragile sense of self is exactly what this show is here to rail against. I wanted this show to be challenging, and if discussing masculinity in a hyper-feminine space feels strange, then good! Let’s move past that shit. The space for the show is a strong reminder that these conversations aren’t just for men, it’s not exclusively locker room talk.
Did anything surprise you about doing this show?
Actually, yes, big time! I realized that I had a lot of preconceptions about masculinity that were pretty narrow-minded. Like, I was my target audience in a way. Doing the show helped me get past my learned suspicion of men. A little skepticism is healthy, but instead of only seeing masculinity in the context of how it has hurt or oppressed me, this show has taught me that it really can look so much different from what I’ve experienced.
What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing this exhibit?
I hope everyone who comes to see the show, or even reads about it here, sees what they need to see to help them level up a little bit. Open their minds, motivate them to support gender non-conforming artists, learn something about themselves. Whatever it is, I just want it to impact people positively. Above everything else, the show is a celebration. As much as I want it to challenge viewers, I want them to soak in all the beauty of what we’ve made and really just enjoy themselves!
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