As he matures throughout his first year of high school, Charlie struggles to reconcile himself to others’ conceptions of what it means to be a man. He learns this mainly by seeing and imitating the behaviors of the men around him—social norms that instruct him in which characteristics are considered masculine. While some of the men in his life are kind, confident, and emotionally perceptive, others embody another type of masculinity—one characterized by aggression, sexual prowess, social dominance, homophobia, and a general lack of emotional connection and expression. This latter type of masculinity is harmful to Charlie and the men and women around him, which makes him realize that he doesn’t have to be—or want to be—that kind of man.
From an early age, Charlie’s family strictly defined which characteristics or activities were masculine or feminine, and encouraged Charlie and his siblings to align themselves with traditional gender roles. Charlie’s dad and brother, for example, are homophobic and refuse to talk about feelings or show emotion. They stick to conversing about traditionally masculine things: sports, objectifying women, and making money. The social pressure for men to repress emotions is clearest when Charlie cries after his friend Michael’s suicide and his brother puts an arm around him and tells him to “get it out of his system before Dad came home.” Instead of comforting his son in the face of tragedy, this moment shows that Charlie’s father would likely punish him for showing completely natural emotions. By contrast, the women in Charlie’s life are allowed to show emotions: after the final episode of M*A*S*H, Charlie’s mother and sister cry openly, while his father cries alone in the kitchen to hide his emotions. For Charlie—a sensitive and passionate person who has been through significant trauma—his family’s insistence that emotions are for women encourages him to stifle his natural characteristics in order to align himself to his family’s masculine ideals.
In addition to emotionlessness, Chbosky shows that violence is one of the primary ways the book’s characters conceive of and perform their masculinity. For generations, Charlie’s family has passed down the norm that men should be violent, while women should love and respect violent men. Charlie’s grandfather admits to beating his daughters (Charlie’s mother and Aunt Helen) when they were children for getting poor grades. He believed it was his way of demonstrating care and motivating them to have a better life than he did, but his behavior likely did far more damage than good, as it conditioned them to accept abuse from the men in their lives. Nevertheless, Charlie’s family sees masculine aggression not only as acceptable, but as a way of expressing care and concern, which makes accepting violence a shared value across generations. Chbosky clearly shows the effects of this norm on Charlie’s sister. Charlie’s dad refers to her boyfriend as “soft” because he is respectful and makes mixtapes decorated with artwork, but when Charlie sees his sister yelling at her boyfriend for not asserting himself more, her boyfriend hits her. Instead of staying away from him after this incident, Charlie’s sister begins officially dating him, perhaps because she’s been taught that aggressive, physically abusive men are desirable, and she believes that she was at fault for prodding him. Charlie himself only internalizes these lessons to a certain extent. He successfully defends himself against a bully named Sean, for example, and while his fighting skills earn him respect, he cries immediately afterwards. He fights again to protect Patrick when Brad’s friends team up on him, and again, Charlie experiences shame for having hurt other people, even in self-defense. This shows that Charlie doubts whether striving to embody the masculine norms he learned at home will really make him his best self.
Since the men in Charlie’s family fail to give him a positive example of masculinity, he must find role models in people who have a different understanding of gender and sexuality. Patrick, for example, who is Charlie’s only openly gay friend, is one of Charlie’s favorite people in the world. Patrick shows Charlie that being a man doesn’t have to mean being heterosexual. He tells Charlie that many women are socialized to want to “fix” men, seeing abusive or difficult men as a challenge and finding purpose in working to make them better. After their conversation, Charlie sees girls wearing their boyfriends’ jackets and he “thinks about the idea of property,” which shows that Charlie is becoming simultaneously aware of the experiences of the women around him, and of the role men play in oppressing them. Charlie’s English teacher Bill also becomes a role model who broadens Charlie’s ideas of masculinity. While Charlie’s family taught him that violence was the only acceptable expression of emotion for men, Bill encourages Charlie’s sensitivity, fuels his passion for reading and writing, and even at one point goes out of his way to tell Charlie how special he thinks Charlie is. In doing so, Bill teaches Charlie that a man can be gentle, introspective, communicative, and understanding.
Charlie’s relationships with men who don’t fit the image of masculinity held forth by his family show Charlie that being a man doesn’t mean that he needs to change what makes him Charlie: his natural kindness, sensitivity, and creativity. Moreover, he learns that he can be a man while also fully loving, respecting, and communicating his feelings to the women around him. Through Charlie’s wrestling with the narrow and prescribed forms of masculinity that the men in his family represent, Chbosky shows that men must choose break free of these expectations or else be consumed by them.
Masculinity and Violence ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Violence Quotes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I walked into the kitchen, and I saw my dad making a sandwich…and crying. He was crying harder than even my mom. And I couldn’t believe it. When he finished making his sandwich, he put away the things in the refrigerator and stopped crying and wiped his eyes and saw me. Then, he walked up, patted my shoulder, and said, “This is our little secret, okay, champ?”
“Okay,” I said.
When we were all getting ready to leave, I walked up to my grandfather and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He wiped my lip print off with his palm and gave me a look. He doesn’t like the boys in the family to touch him. But I’m very glad that I did it anyway in case he dies. I never got to do that with my Aunt Helen.
“Charlie. Please don't take this the wrong way. I'm not trying to make you feel uncomfortable. I just want you to know that you're very special . . . and the only reason I'm telling you is that I don't know if anyone else ever has.”