Boys will be…
“The Authoritarian Personality notes that ‘high-scoring’ men (those with more authoritarian traits) ‘show deep-seated fears of weakness’ in themselves. The meaning of weakness to these men seems to be tied up with intense fears of nonmasculinity.” – Clara Dagget, Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire (2018)
In June and July 2022, I met with young men in Berlin to giggle and have conversations on the topics of sexuality and gender norms. I discovered that giggling exposes a silly, nervous and intimate side of men, and seems to reach into a boyish and bodily sense of play and joy. Thinking about some men’s fear of weakness in themselves, as referred to in the above quote, I wanted to explore how the sound of men giggling, as an intimate activity, might serve as disarmament of the rugged and self-controlled appearance of hegemonic masculinity and unsettle the authoritative personality.
The phrase boys will be boys originally meant that “children (boys) are children (boys) and do childish things”, like jumping in puddles or rough playing. But the phrase has also been used to excuse behaviours and actions of men of all ages: bursts of rage or sexualisation of others without consent normalised as “natural” and therefore “expected” and “unavoidable” male behaviour. This phrase alongside other phrases like “man up” and “locker room talk” are also used to socio-culturally reinforce what sociologist R.W. Connell calls hegemonic masculinity; a theory that describes the social pressures and expectations men face to be the “perfect expression of masculinity”.
To fit into this hegemonic masculinity, men in different cultures are expected to express themselves in so-called rational, stoic and unemotional ways; to be in physical control of themselves as tough and rigid bodies; and to not appear vulnerable or insecure, which are seen as lesser and, for some men, even threatening to their sense of self-identity. This view is echoed through terms like alpha- and beta-male in digital manospheres where groups of men enforce ideologies that are based on fears of the non-masculine, and which, taken to the extreme, can lead to misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic and violent behaviours.
Meanwhile, there are movements of men who seek to resist this paradigm of hegemonic masculinity. They embrace their emotionality and vulnerability. They play, let loose and have fun, they are tender, and they love. They are nervous and it’s okay. When I attune myself to the sounds of their giggling or even join them, I hear how they wiggle and bend their way out of the straight-jacket that is the dominating and narrow definition of masculinity. I wonder if within the sound of giggling men lies a small rebellion against masculine norms and expectations.
Materials: recordings of three giggling male voices, three loudspeakers on three pillows
Exhibited at Errant Sound, Berlin 2022
Thanks to the participating men
Photo by Morten Poulsen