A Broadway Show About Drag Queens Helps Shed New Light on Masculinity and Parenting

Jul 25, 2016

The father/son is dynamic is extremely complicated, and made even more so, according to research at the University of Akron, by a father's expectations of masculinity in their son.
Credit ROLANDS LAKIS / FLICKR CC

For generations, fathers have felt that part of their job is to make men out of their sons. 

But a researcher at the University of Akron has found that a father’s expectations of manliness actually cause more harm than good.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores how a new understanding of masculinity’s role in parenting was discovered with help from a Broadway show about drag queens.

The show is Kinky Boots.  

It’s based on the true story of a struggling shoe manufacturer in Northampton, England who saves his factory by making boots for men who dress as women.

The young factory owner Charlie, who’s struggling to fill his late father’s shoes, meets Lola, a flamboyant transvestite whose father had wanted her to be a boxer.

University of Akron psychology professor Ron Levant  says in a pivotal scene, they both reveal the deep pain they feel from not living up to their fathers expectations.

It's a duet called Not My Father's Son.

In a distinctly tender moment, Lola laments, “And the best part of me, is what he wouldn’t see…”

In a scene from the show Kinky Boots, Lola/Simon (left) confides to Charlie that he too had a difficult time living up to his father's expectations of what it means to be a man.
Credit KINKY BOOTS

For Levant, it was a light bulb moment that illuminated a new approach to his decades of studying the father/son dynamic.

“I got the idea from the play that an important part of this idea that a father’s job is to make a man out of his son, is to have expectations that do not take his son into account,” says Levant.

He says that concept was exemplified by one male client who remarked after a role playing exercise that, "'the idea that my son had a mind of his own just never occurred to me.’”

The theme of "Kinky Boots" reinforces what Levant has seen repeatedly in his years as a counselor.

“Many of these men felt that their fathers never really understood them, didn’t see them for who they are, never accepted them, weren’t proud of them, disliked them, were angry at them for their failings…”

Why is the father/son relationship so difficult?
Levant believes one reason is the way we raise boys often leads to emotionally stunted men.

He says that some of the traits imposed on boys, such as not expressing emotions, not expressing vulnerability, not expressing caring or connection, "make it very difficult for adult men to access those emotions and put them into words.”

And as a scientist, he’s got a term for that: “It’s called normative male alexithymia," or without words for emotion.

“Stoic, unemotional, self-reliant, needs-no-one," are persistent masculine ideals, say Levant, that stem from a tradition that holds men like John Wayne as the model of manhood, and they continue because of the belief that a father's role is need to toughen up their boys.

Credit UNIVERSITY OF AKRON

“Boys are socialized with varying degrees of harshness, some are socialized mildly, some are socialized viciously," which Levant says can leave men emotionally muted.

And surprisingly, Levant found that this dynamic had never really been studied in depth.

You can take Levant's test to find where you stand in the spectrum from Macho to Metrosexual - here.

Kinky Boots funds novel masculinity research
The dearth of research on the subject irked the producers of "Kinky Boots" Ron and Harvey Fierstein. 

That's why they provided a grant to the University of Akron for Levant to study fathers’ expectations of sons’ masculinity and the effects on a son’s well-being.

Harvey Fierstein  wrote the Broadway show. 

He says ,while critics focused on the theme of drag queens, the audience got the message about sons coming to grips with their fathers.

“I’ve heard from so many big, tough, straight guys that the show did enormous things to clear their heads, or their hearts, about their relationships with their fathers.”

In the study, Levant asked men to what extent their father’s pressured them to conform to a list of traditional male attributes:

“Avoid all things feminine, restrict the expression of emotions, be extremely self-reliant, be dominant, be tough, place a great importance on sex, and have disdain for sexual minorities.”

"Men felt that their fathers never really understood them, didn't see them for who they are, never accepted them, weren't proud of them, disliked them, were angry at them for their failings." Ron Levant

Levant found that the more rigid a father’s insistence on these attributes, the more likely the son would grow to have problems of low self-esteem, difficult relationships with women, and more likely to abuse alcohol, even if the father was otherwise nurturing.

“If you believe that your job as a father is to make a man out of your son, you might wind up harming your son.”

He says research has shown that the role of the father in a son's life is virtually the same as a mother's, to nurture, guide, and educate.

Far from a necessary part of parenting, Levant says making a man out of a boy is a toxic relic of a by-gone age.

The results of his study will be presented next month at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.