“When we tell a boy to ‘act like a man’, we’re effectively saying, ‘Stop expressing those feelings.’ And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, ‘Stop feeling those feelings.’
This is Robert Webb’s memoir, How Not To Be a Boy. The book is split into two acts – the first half explores Webb’s experiences throughout his childhood (with chapters titled after what boys should be or do) and the second is based on his life at university and adulthood (with chapters named after after what men should be or do).
After an overture which narrates a day in Webb’s life where he is 15 years old and rehearsing a sketch for his school’s revue, ostentatiously to impress a girl he likes, whilst meandering off on relevant tangents which call forward to key moments in Webb’s life, Webb begins his memoir at early childhood.
He recounts growing up in his family home where he learned to fear his abusive father. This is followed by Webb recounting how his mum eventually divorced and kicked out his dad and remarried and his experiences of being in junior school before getting in to a grammar school.
The rest of Act One focuses on Webb’s growth through his secondary school career – the need for boys to only accidentally be good academically (for they can’t put in effort, that would be swottie); the need to have physical prowess and competency, Webb both coming to realisations about his sexuality and his desire to build a career and become famous from acting and comedy – before Webb’s mother, who was his hero, suddenly passes away from cancer.
We should really start a How Not To Be a Boy drinking game where you take a sip of a tough guy’s drink like Bacardi and Coke every time you notice a male turning a negative emotion into anger.— p.168
What followers is a shorter Act Two where Webb takes us through his application to university; his success within Footlights (and meeting David Mitchell); his accessing therapy and almost being kicked out of university; and a string of failed relationships before ending on how he came close to becoming the one thing he had spent his entire life trying to avoid becoming – his dad.
Because, he explains:
The great thing about refusing to feel feelings is once you’ve denied them, you don’t have to take responsibility for them. Your feelings will be someone else’s problem – your mother’s problem, your girlfriend’s problem, your wife’s problem. If it has to come out at all, let it come out as anger. You’re allowed to be angry. It’s boyish and man-like to be angry.
He then goes on to explain how Abigail, his wife, managed to turn him around, so he could get to the point he is at now.
Robert Webb artfully picks out key events and moments from the 43 years of his life covered in the book which are then told with dry wit and peppered with nerdy references (the book has 36 Star Wars references from beginning to end. Yes I counted).
He allows the reader a very clear insight into exactly how he felt both in that moment and how he feels now, looking back, before, usually with the use of inversion or irony, deconstructing the events with a feminist commentary pointing out the masculinity in effect and the damage it caused and will cause.
I’ve not come to bury Darth, but to understand him. (…) He laughed when I fell down the stairs because he was trying to teach me to treat pain lightly. It’s a hard world and what you do with pain – if you’re a man like Paul – is shrug it off. He was trying – ineptly and far too early – to ‘toughen me up’. At a stretch I could even say that he was trying to protect me.— p.31
Even though a large amount of the first two chapters depict the unhealthy actions of Webb’s father towards him, his brothers and mother, it’s clear from the detailed and persistent analysis that Webb makes that he believes that, as is very often the case, his father was very much a product of strong masculine stereotypes and societal pressure, rather than a man acting on malice. This is an understanding that allows him to reconcile with his father during his early adulthood.
Webb similarly draws out experiences of typical schoolyard behaviour, as well as examples from student life and from his graduate and married life and picks these apart, as well as his own behaviours and how they were influenced by expectations of masculinity.
The feeling I experienced almost constantly from this book was how relatable it was for me – events like not being interested or good at football; getting into a grammar school; having low-key suicidal thoughts; or having to resit A-levels, getting into university; trying to impress girls; getting into comedy; realising I needed therapy; academic struggles; the demand to try to conform to what appears to be the societal rules and expectations of being male when you’re not that masculine a person anyway.
There’s plenty of stuff that Webb experienced that I hadn’t, and that I’m sure other men have, and would find relatable – like having to deal with the grief of a parent when you’re told grief isn’t a masculine emotion. The book very importantly takes each of these incidents and deconstructs them. Webb’s scathing attitude makes it very clear that the patriarchal expectations on men are dangerous and damaging.
Much like how Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism can help men struggling to recognise the effects of the patriarchy and ongoing societal sexist norms have on women, How Not To Be a Boy highlights with similar efficiency the way the patriarchy is as damaging to men in its pressure for us to adhere to toxic masculinity.
As Webb himself points out: “[The patriarchy] is dangerous for girls. And if I’ve tried to say anything in this book, I’ve tried to say it’s dangerous for boys too. Feminism is not about men versus women; it’s about men and women versus [the patriarchy].”