Chopping the man box into firewood: Author Rachel Giese exposes stereotypes few men enjoy living up to

Girls love trucks and boys love dolls, right? According to Rachel Giese’s vibrant, flowing exploration of masculine gender as a social construct in her book Boys: What it Means to Become a Man, this is as likely as the other way around. It all depends on which “boxes” we put children in, as far as gender is concerned.

Giese, an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and the editor-at-large of Chatelaine, moves through chapters on the “man box” – stereotypes we assign such as head of the house, tough, strong, brave, emotionless – to schools to sports, with many things in between, finally arriving at a chapter on Wizeguyz, the ground-breaking Calgary organization that helps young men break away from society’s toxic stereotypes.

The book is well-researched without being dry while also making use of personal anecdotes and stories that help place the information in context. Giese, herself, is the mother of a boy, so her use of personal anecdotes and insights helps move the well-researched book move along at a pace that makes the chapters pass by quickly.

Q: How did the seeds of this book begin? How did you know you were on the right track as you wrote it?

A: The book began as an article for The Walrus called The Talk in 2014. It was about the WiseGuyz program at Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality, which taught sex ed to boys in a really radical way – it taught them ethics, critical thinking, empathy and emotional literacy.

When I started writing, a lot of people wondered why I was writing about boys – most of my work up until then had focused on girls and women, gender equality and feminism from the experiences of women. Then, as I was writing, the backlash began to seriously emerge – everything from GamerGate to the incel movement. I realized that if we wanted progress and equality we needed to talk about what was going on for boys and young men.

Q: This is a brave and necessary book in light of current times. Have you experienced any backlash as a gay woman writing about manhood?

A: Oh yes, I have experienced backlash! A number of men have told me that I have no right and no credibility because I’m a woman and a lesbian – and those were the nice comments from that crowd! But it’s telling that none of the men who are angry about my book have actually read it. I’ve heard from a number of men who loved the book and felt that it spoke to them and helped them understand their own experiences as boys, and it’s helped them be better fathers.

Q: I enjoyed your mix of relevant and revealing research and personal anecdotes and observations. It makes it more textured than reading undiluted research and more credible than simple personal reflections. How did you arrive at this balance?

A: I didn’t want to write a memoir. As a journalist I don’t like making myself the story when there are so many other interesting people to talk about. So the research and reporting came easily. But I knew that our family’s story was important and much of what I was reporting on were experiences we had had with our son — particularly around school and sports. I wanted to share some of that to explain where I was coming from and why this was a personal subject for me.

Q: Wizeguyz was the start. Since Boys came out, have you discovered other groups doing this scope of work here in Canada, or elsewhere in the world?

A: WiseGuyz are terrific. And sadly, there aren’t a lot of groups doing similar work, although it’s growing. NextGenMen (Calgary and Toronto) does great work with young men in an after-school program. I think the need is now being recognized.

Q: Who are you reading right now?

A: David Chariandy’s Brother is terrific. And Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men is powerful and moving.

Q: What’s been the biggest surprise about the publication of this book?

A: I’m really touched by people sharing their own stories with me. I’ve received a lot of email, and had conversations with people at readings and events, who’ve shared personal stories about themselves, or their husbands and sons. Often they talk about how their son is bullied for being sensitive, or about their struggles to find mental health care for their boys. I’ve had men tell me about being sexually abused and having had no one to talk to about it. And I’ve also heard from men who tell me about experiences of having been a bully or having been disrespectful or abusive to women. They are working on changing their behaviour and being better men.

Q: What does your son think about you writing this book?

A: He’s been wonderful about it and very proud of me. It really is a love letter to him and    my wife and it was a family effort in so many ways.

Rachel Giese appears at Wordfest’s Imaginarium at Second Glass of Wine, Friday, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Park Library, second Floor. For tickets go to

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.