What makes a man? Tim Winton on what our boys need

Kinderling News & Features

As I watch my daughter grow I am optimistic for her future. I will teach her to be confident and sure of herself – socially, sexually and professionally. I will teach her that she deserves equal pay for equal work and to not accept second best.

But I don’t have a similar map for my son. What is it that he needs to be whole, healthy and empowered? How do I teach him to become a man without walking over his sister and her friends to get there?

Girls are given something to strive for, boys are told what they need to give up

Author Tim Winton has been pondering the question of Australia’s lost boys, after spending several years with the anti-hero of his latest novel The Shepherd’s Hut.

The lead character, Jaxie, is a damaged boy. A boy shaped by a violent father, an abused mother, and by the disgust that society heaps upon him; he's riddled with misogyny and violence.

Tim celebrates how far feminism has taken women and the structure, planning and work that progress requires. From the big events like marches, to the smaller steps like making empowering podcasts for girls.

But he says that as we pave a path for girls, we’ve forgotten to show our boys the way forward.

We're encouraging them [girls] to be fierce and I think that's great. But we're still punishing boys for their non-compliance and we are disgusted by boys who are fierce. I think we haven't quite resolved something in ourselves in terms of what we want,” he says.

 “I think it goes to the dilemma that we're in. Women are making strides and that's a wonderful thing because they're motivated to reach for something that's denied to them. In order to keep up with that and also to lift our end of the log, men have to change but it's as though the only course of action is to relent, is to surrender, is to give up the things and that's a harder thing to get someone to do.”

Boys lack a ‘different understanding’ of what it is to be a man

Tim Winton says that boys are rehearsing the role of masculinity, and they’re looking to see how it’s received by those around them. When toxic masculinity – aggression, misogyny, or entitlement- is expressed and accepted, they continue on that path.

What boys lack is a different understanding of what it is to be a man. An experience that can include a range of emotions (from sadness to love) and behaviours of kindness and compassion.

“It seems to be that there's only one very narrow interpretation of the role [of being a man] and any other interpretation gets squeezed out of you, shamed out of you, beaten out of you. That's one of the really sad things. There's so many ways of being a man. In my observation boys are having to surrender the best in themselves in order to conform, I see them being pressed into service, into misogyny.” 

Could ritual be the answer to a healthy transition to manhood?

Tim says the western world has “scraped away our own ritual pathways.” Where once we looked to religion to help us move along the path of life, now many have turned their back on it.

Having travelled with traditional northern Australian peoples, Tim has seen how powerful ritual experiences can be for boys becoming men.

“It was amazing just to see how deeply grounded people were and particularly observing boys who had gone through the law. They knew who they were, they knew what they were. It didn't matter if the entire weight of modern Australia was leaning against them and stealing from them and undervaluing them. They knew in themselves what they were and when they were on country everyone was solid. And I envy that.

“When I look at young men in particular in mainstream Australia, they're inheriting a kind of a wasteland.”

Our boys need a healthy understanding of what it is to be a man

The empowerment of our girls is one way to push back at toxic masculinity, but to have a complete overhaul we need to guide our boys towards a healthy understanding of what it is to be a man.

While I celebrate the waves of change that mean my daughter will have greater power, I need to know I can guide my son towards a similarly bright future. 

We can’t leave them beached upon the sand.

Shevonne Hunt spoke with Tim Winton at Tender Hearts, Son of Brutes, presented by The School Of Life. Tim's book is available in all good book stores and online.