Member of the Month

Gary Barker, Ph.D.

Founder & Director

Gary Barker spent his early years in Texas, where his father was a social worker who focused on how children are cared for. As a teenager, he witnessed a shooting in his suburban Houston high school cafeteria. A young man killed another student using his father’s gun in a version of that glorified guns and bullying went unquestioned.

“My father was a role model for me, but there were so many other harmful ideas of manhood around.” We didn’t yet use words like masculinity or toxic masculinity, but it was so clear to me that something wasn’t working about the way boys were being raised,” says Barker, the founder and director of Promundo, an international organizations focused on how we bring men and boys into the issue of gender equality and promoting healthy masculinity.

In the early 90s he moved to Brazil to coordinate a study with UNICEF on girls who were being sexually exploited. After three of four nights of interviewing the girls it became obvious what pathways led them to these places. Barker kept asking why they weren’t talking to the men – the men coming into bars, the sailors docking in Recife. It seemed necessary to ask why the ship’s captain or the bar owners were allowing men to exploit 15-year-old girls. Why men stood by while other men exploited girls and women.
Promundo was born from that question that he asked very insistently for a long time. The organization was launched in Brazil with fellow health workers, psychologists, and activists. Now 23 years old, Promundo is a global leader in advancing gender equality and creating a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women, girls, and individuals of all gender identities.

Gary Barker was interviewed in July 2020 by the Institute’s VP of Development and Operations, Elizabeth Kilpatrick.

Elizabeth: Tell us about how you became involved with the Institute?

Gary: I was introduced to Institute CEO Madeline Di Nonno by developmental psychologist Deb Tolman. Madeline invited me to speak at a Global Symposium on Gender in Media in New York about seven years ago.  I had followed the research, which was fascinating. When I heard the slogan, “If she can see it, she can be it,” I thought how much we also needed this for boys and men. We invited Madeline to join Promundo’s board and our dialogue started.

Elizabeth: Promundo recently partnered with the Institute on a research study, If He Can See It, He Can Be It, which looked at representations of masculinity in television most watched by boys. Why is that research important?

Gary: For decades we’ve been questioning the real-life scripts that women live, but manhood has gone unquestioned for a long time. These stereotypes are often so toxic, and holding up the same lens that the Institute uses to look at women and girls is incredibly important in identifying what is going into the scripts that boys see – boys and men who don’t stop and ask for help, who go it alone, and using violence.  This study is important because we have to talk about manhood – never instead of talking about what’s happening to women and girls but as a part of it. Let us be brave enough to actually look at how we raise our sons – and not just in pot shots or generalizations but take a deep look.

Elizabeth: We are also collaborating on a new study about video games.

Gary: Yes, and it’s the same logic there. Our sons spend a huge amount of time with video games and we are going to look at what they are seeing there. What do they see about manhood in video games? We can’t just go in and say let’s take games away from boys. We also have to look at what they are doing there what they feel good about in gaming. What kinds of reinforcement do that get? What kind of camaraderie and friendship do they find? Particularly in terms of models of manhood, we can’t just unplug and drag our sons away. That’s not going to work.

We can start a dialogue with game makers where we a say that we think they care about boys who are watching and playing their games and ask them to walk with us together on a journey to promote healthy manhood. And to show them that the world won’t fall apart and sales won’t decline!

Elizabeth: Promundo has just launched the Global Boyhood Initiative. Can you tell our readers about that?

Gary: We did a soft launch in July and there will be more to come in October. In this initiative we are taking the conversation even younger – to boys between 4 and 13. The initiative is in partnership with Kering Foundation and Plan International and supported by the Oak Foundation and Gucci’s Chime for Changes. These two studies we are doing with the Institute are part of it. It is for teachers, parents, coaches, media content makers and others who shape how boys are raised. This is about making a space for boys that says ‘you are not about being a bully or dominating others’. A space for equality and empathy. For connection and fairness. Nothing short of trying to reshape boyhood building on all the good that boys bring into the world.

Elizabeth: We always ask if you would like to share some “see it, be it” moments from your childhood. Were their stories or characters that particularly resonated with you?

Gary: I do some writing on the side as a novelist, so I can name writers who inspired by thinking. Growing up in the South, there were two artists in particular. One was an African American woman, Toni Morrison. I loved her laser sharp analysis of race and her discussions of men and male/female relationships and how those were shaped by violence, racism and the major events of the US over the past decades. And the other is an often-over-looked Southern writer who I love – Walker Percy. He is someone who acknowledged his white, male privilege, who wrote about feeling alienated from the version of the genteel South that was corrupting his soul. So as a white boy, growing up in a suburban Houston high school it was the experience of an African American Woman and a white man grappling with the unjust world around him and his quest for morality of who he was in that world.

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IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT