Case study: Helping boys rethink Australian bloke culture

Tom Harkin is helping young men challenge Australian bloke culture, and rethink 'the rules' about what it means to be a man.

Since 2004 Tom Harkin has been running workshops for year 10 boys to encourage honest discussions around Australian manhood.

For Harkin, these workshops are all about creating a safe space for young men to speak freely about the constraints of traditional manhood and to rebuild a more fitting and flexible model of masculinity.

Harkin's workshops have been transformative for the boys involved. The focus is not on blaming and shaming, but rather, on collectively working through and breaking down what it means to 'man up.'

Harkin's formula is simple. His aim is to help boys:

  • identify masculinity
  • confront their own masculinity
  • rethink masculinity

Harkin begins every session by inviting boys to brainstorm the conventional and celebrated markers of manhood: playing football, watching porn, 'hooking up with chicks'. No matter the school or the setting – public or private, rural or regional – these stereotypes hold.

Confronting masculinity

Then 'masculinity' gets personal. Harkin asks volunteers to paint their fingernails red. What starts as a joking, slightly uncomfortable exercise quickly turns serious when the boys are challenged to keep the bright red nail paint on for two weeks. None are willing.

The boys' reasons always range from the personal – getting a clip over the ear from their dad or being teased by their peers – to the philosophical – that boys just don't, or can't, wear nail polish, as a rule.

Harkin challenges the boys on this:

So I ask them 'who in 'society' made this rule?' Was it a group of people or an individual? When was the rule made? Was it written down?

And when it comes down to it, no one can give an answer – they have no idea who put the rule in place. And yet, they are genuinely scared to challenge it. This simple exercise opens up a broader discussion about the rules that apply to men: 'all the things we are, all the things we aren't.' A number of truths emerge: the boys in the room, as a cohort, are all failing the stereotype. They are failing it secretly. And this fills them with a sense of shame.

Rethinking masculinity

Having pulled apart the stereotypical masculinity and the price they are paying to conform with it, the boys are given an opportunity to develop a model of masculinity that they are more comfortable with – a more balanced, healthy way of being a man. The mood in the room shifts dramatically:

The guys are relieved. They become incredibly mature, emotionally articulate young men when given the opportunity.

When given the opportunity to explore 'anger' – the one emotion seemingly permitted by the 'male code' – the boys identify that this anger is driven by a feeling of hurt and betrayal. When asked to identify the person they most often feel let down by, 80% of boys talk about their dads.

Their dad has let them down, and he's let them down because he himself has suffered the consequences of a stereotype that doesn't do men justice.

Find out more on the Man Up website.

Reviewed 03 April 2019

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