Breaking free: Redefining masculinity beyond “the Man box”

The journey to understand and support young men has revealed a critical challenge – the confining “Man Box” of traditional masculine stereotypes. This metaphorical box encompasses expectations that men must always appear strong, unemotional, and solely responsible for financial provision. But as a recent study by Jesuit Social Services involving over 3,500 Australian men aged 18 to 45 shows, these outdated norms are taking a heavy toll.

While a significant majority of men reject such rigid stereotypes, the pressure to conform remains palpable, particularly among younger generations. This pressure often translates into a perceived need to exhibit toughness, sometimes manifesting in harmful behaviours like physical violence and mental health struggles. Worryingly, the study found a direct link between strong agreement with “Man Box” ideals and higher rates of aggression and suicidal thoughts.

What is the Man Box?

The Man Box can be best described as the outdated and limiting expectations that deal directly with the long-held perceptions of what it means to be a man in Australian society today. An example of typical statements that make up the Man Box include; “Guys should act strong even if they feel scared or nervous inside” and “In heterosexual relationships, men should really be the ones to bring money home to provide for their families, not women.”

The report found that:

  • 36 per cent of men aged 18-45 felt social pressure to follow the Man Box rules
  •  24 per cent of men aged 18-45 personally believed in the Man Box rules

The majority of young men surveyed disagreed with the Man Box beliefs. But there is still a large number who agree with some of the beliefs that make up the Man Box, including being strong, not showing vulnerability, always being in control and men being the primary providers at home. Living up to the pressures of being a ‘real man’ causes harm to young men and those around them, particularly women. For example:

The men who most strongly agreed with the Man Box rules were*:

  • 31 times more likely to believe domestic violence should be handled privately
  • 17 times more likely to have hit their partner
  • 9 times more likely to blame a woman for making a man hit her
  • 8 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide nearly every day
  • 6 times for likely to have forced a partner to do something sexual that is degrading or humiliating
  • 6 times more likely to exhibit signs of problem gambling (in fact, more than half of the men who most strongly agreed with Man Box rules met the criteria for problem gambling); and
  • Twice as likely to binge drink.

This pressure of being a ‘real man’ is especially notable among men in the 18 to 30 yrs bracket, who also expressed intense pressure to ‘act tough’ and reflected a preference to fight back. Almost half of the young men surveyed expressed this sentiment as such physical behaviours represented the essence of a ‘real man’.

The report also looked closely at correlating risk factors with those who strongly agreed with the image and expectations the ‘Man Box’ represents. The findings suggested that this group was five times more likely to have been physically violent and eight times more likely to have experienced suicidal ideation. This highlights the risk factors and social expectations that continue to be felt by men today if we don’t move towards tackling them on a community and societal level.

“This report really reinforces those harmful expectations and social ideas about what it means to be a man… and that holding onto those outdated stereotypes about gender harms everyone.”

– Kate Fitz-Gibbon [Chair of Respect Victoria]

A commitment to understanding

At Top Blokes, we’re committed to leading this conversation, challenging the status quo, and advocating for a more inclusive and diverse understanding of masculinities. Our programs are designed to facilitate open discussions about what it means to be a “man” in today’s world and celebrate the myriad ways one can embody masculinity positively and healthily.

As a thought leader in youth mental health and wellbeing, we recognise the importance of early intervention and the role of positive role models in shaping young men’s perceptions of themselves and their place in society. It is essential to foster environments where young men feel supported in exploring their identities beyond the confines of the ‘Man Box’, promoting resilience, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

In light of these findings and our ongoing mission, we call on our community to join us in redefining masculinities for the better. Together, we can cultivate a culture that values and respects the diverse expressions of being a man, free from the constraints of outdated norms.

If you are affected by any of these issues, support is available. Please call Lifeline at 13 11 14 for confidential assistance.

In embracing a broader, more inclusive view of masculinity, we empower young men to lead lives marked by authenticity, compassion, and respect — both for themselves and for others.

For more information on the report and its findings visit Jesuit Social Services. This article was researched and written by Top Blokes’ work placement student Natayla Morgan.