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The Boston Phoenix Boys to Men

A loose group of Boston-based authors believes there's a way to stop boys' violence: by talking.

By Michelle Chihara

JULY 17, 2000:  In December 1997, a 14-year-old boy picked up a gun in Paducah, Kentucky, shot eight of his classmates, and plunged America into a state of deep concern about its boys.

Since then we have seen boys turn violent in Mississippi, in Arkansas, in Oregon, and in Littleton, Colorado. For one group of researchers and authors, all these shootings were like a spotlight clicking on. Their field didn't even have a name -- call it boys' studies -- but suddenly the nation needed answers, and it turned to its only experts on boys.

Authors William Pollack (Real Boys, 1998) and Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon (Raising Cain, 1999) saw their books appear on the New York Times bestseller list. Since Columbine, Pollack in particular has been much in demand. He has toured the country on speaking engagements, was invited to speak in Littleton, and has appeared on national talk shows from 20/20 to The Oprah Winfrey Show. And boys'-studies specialists -- a surprising number of whom are based in and around Boston -- have found themselves with a voice
in the national conversation.

Right now, however, attention is focused on a political sideshow that's playing out over boys' heads. Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, just published The War on Boys to much fanfare and controversy. And although they're pleased about the attention to boys, the authors in the small mainstream of boys' studies are also worried that their message is being lost. They are not complaining about a war on boys. They are pointing out something subtler and more sweeping: that gender roles for women and girls have changed drastically in recent decades, but roles for men and boys have not.

These authors describe masculinity as an impossible set of pressures -- to be tough, invulnerable, and unfeeling. And as one set of gender roles changes while the other remains the same, the pressure mounts to the point where occasionally someone is going to crack.

This is not an easy subject to address. Nothing gets people worked up like talking about gender roles, and nothing makes people squirm like talking about men expressing emotion. But meanwhile, we're all paying the cost of not dealing with boys.


Two years ago, in his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Owl Books), Bill Pollack cited a remarkable piece of research: before the age of five, boys are actually more expressive than girls. Once they hit age five, though, that expressiveness disappears. Pollack blames this on socialization: from early on, he says, parents, educators, and peers are teaching boys to be more stoic than is healthy.

Pollack is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School as well as the director of the Center for Men at MacLean Hospital. His best-selling 1998 book describes how boys hide behind a "mask of masculinity," suppressing their feelings and vulnerability until they become disconnected, isolated, and occasionally violent.

In his new book, Real Boys' Voices, published last month by Random House, he tells the story of a boy named Ricky, a trombone player who is repeatedly taunted and beat up to the tune of "You wuss . . . you little band fag." The bullies destroy his trombone, but Ricky is too ashamed to tell his parents. Unaware of how he feels or what really happened, they punish him.

Pollack sees this bullying, and Ricky's inability to talk about it to his parents, as the perfect illustration of what he calls the "boy code" -- a rigid set of social mores that define what is and is not okay for boys to do. Boys must be perpetually "macho, cool and on top of things," as one young man says in the book.

All that rigid socialization is harming boys. "These boys are not making it into adulthood," Pollack says. "They're going to prison, or turning to drug abuse, or at worst committing suicide." Eight to 10 percent of boys in America take psychological medications. Of students graduating from college, 60 percent are women, with those numbers rising.

Meanwhile, Pollack says, adults are reacting to incidents such as Columbine in precisely the wrong way. Increasingly strict policies in schools -- more metal detectors, stringent zero-tolerance expulsion rules -- make boys feel scrutinized, misunderstood, and therefore even more lonely and isolated. And these are the conditions that can, according to Pollack, lead to more violence.

"One of the myths I talk about in Real Boys," he says, "is that boys are toxic. That's been exacerbated by Columbine, this sense that boys are a danger. We've confused boys. We're making them think that they're violent."

"The fear isn't based on thin air," he says. "It's based on some reality. Boys do have more trouble expressing themselves. But blame and shame were the cause of the problem to begin with."

We all have reason to care. The "boy code" eventually creates men terrified of appearing vulnerable, even of dealing with their emotions. As a result, Pollack is adamant that loosening the code -- by reaching out to boys to get beyond their aggression and help them express whatever is motivating their behavior -- will benefit not only men, but girls and women.

"Those 94 percent of girls and women who want to mate with a man," he says, "well, they don't have a set of boys and men who are up to interacting with girls and women."


When Robbie, one of a group of seventh-grade boys, runs out of the room crying because he was teased for failing a quiz, Thompson engages a few of Robbie's friends in a group discussion. When can teasing hurt or go too far? he asks, and is met with silence. "They don't have a clue," he says. "They're not faking it to look cool or tough. They don't know how to read Robbie and don't even sense that they should."

Thompson is a staff psychologist for an all-boys independent school in the Boston area and the co-author, with Harvard professor Dan Kindlon, of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Ballantine), a book that shares certain basic premises with Real Boys. Like Pollack, Thompson attacks boy culture's "tyranny of toughness" and "culture of cruelty" -- the ways in which, particularly in early adolescence, boys themselves are the strictest police of a harsh and narrow definition of what is masculine. Thompson sees a solution in what he calls "emotional literacy" -- the ability to look at Robbie and know when enough is enough. That means interpreting his signals, empathizing with his situation, and being able to articulate what feelings are involved.

Thompson, however, is a realist, and makes a point of saying that he and his co-author are not trying to "turn boys into girls." "A woman came up to me," says Thompson, "and in all goodwill said, 'Isn't the solution that boys should acknowledge their feminine side?'. . . . When in my mind I see myself addressing seventh-grade boys and telling they should acknowledge their feminine side . . . I just visualize them jumping right out of their skins. They're homophobic to the point of being panic-stricken."

Instead, he suggests a solution that begins much earlier. "In our experience with families, we find that most girls get lots of encouragement from an early age to be emotionally literate -- to be reflective and expressive of their own feelings and to be responsive to the feelings of others," he says. Boys need some of the same training, instead of the "destructive emotional training" that presents aggression and anger as the only acceptable, "masculine" outlets for emotion.

The other part of the solution targets adults. Men -- boys' fathers, educators -- must "model" a "rich emotional life" for boys, so that boys can "create a life and language for [themselves] that speak with male identity." That means discussing with boys emotions that are typically considered feminine, like anxiety, sadness, and fear. And it also means expressing them ourselves. Kindlon and Thompson write: "A boy must see and believe that emotions belong in the life of a man."

ELI NEWBERGER, The Men They Will Become

Pascal, a junior in high school, sees that the captains of his wrestling team have started hazing his freshman teammates with such severity that kids are quitting the team. When he confronts the captain, he gets called a "pussy," but the hazing stops. When an another argument starts up later, Pascal stands his ground: "If you want to hurt these kids, you're going to have to hurt me first."

How do we raise boys to make choices like Pascal's instead of the choice to haze the new kids? Eli Newberger, a pediatrician who teaches at Harvard and works at Children's Hospital, answers such questions by looking to boys' moral, rather than emotional, development. For Newberger, in our society the issue at stake is not a boy's emotional life, but his character -- "the choices he makes in situations that are morally challenging or tempting."

Newberger's clinical work has focused largely on child abuse and domestic violence, and he says he originally proposed a book about how to avoid "bad men," but his publisher suggested that instead he write about the pressing issue of raising good boys. The result is a philosophical, meditative book about boys' moral development, accompanied by a CD of songs that he describes as "jazz takes on male character." (One song is titled "It's a Sin To Tell a Lie.") Newberger plays the tuba on the recording.

The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Character, due out in paperback next month from Perseus, also focuses on biology. "Our evolutionary heritage is woven into our genes, and programmed through hormones," he says. "Males are quite different from females in their relationships and as they confront moral challenges."

Newberger is less concerned about society's general definition of masculinity than about how we turn boys into people who will do the right thing when faced with moral dilemmas. His focus seems almost old-fashioned, despite its therapeutic bent: how do we make our young men internalize our values? He breaks boyhood into separate age periods, and then tailors his advice to "intellectual and social emotional tasks" specific to each period.

But even Newberger acknowledges that our culture teaches girls that "vulnerability is okay" and teaches boys to suppress almost any emotion besides anger. "Now," he writes, "in a day when women climb corporate ladders and pay mortgages, and when men are needed as nurturing fathers, teachers, and nurses, this difference in emotional expressiveness by gender may be outdated."

BARNEY BRAWER, Tufts University

Barney Brawer likes to tell a story of a Boston-area high-school principal who once admitted a startling piece of information. His school was quietly practicing a new kind of affirmative action -- it was admitting more boys than the test scores warranted. It had to, to even out the gender balance.

As coordinator of the Program for Educational Change Agents at Tufts University, Brawer has done extensive work with MCAS data, and he sees a crisis building. While girls have made great strides toward catching up to boys in math scores, Brawer sees a new "language gap": boys are now 16 to 20 percentage points behind girls in reading and writing. Also, in a world where a college degree is increasingly important, fewer boys are getting into and going to college.

Brawer is an open admirer of feminist scholars, particularly Carol Gilligan, the Harvard psychologist whose 1981 book In a Different Voice broke new ground in the study of girls' and women's psychological and moral development. Brawer would like to see some of the same approaches that are used with girls applied to boys. "If you take Carol Gilligan's work, it opens up a whole important way of looking at boys that we wouldn't have without it," he says. "It's an interesting question to pose to boys. What is your inner voice? Do you build your identity in relationships? These are the kinds of questions we'd never be asking boys if the women's literature didn't exist."

Brawer, who has collaborated with Gilligan in the past, hopes to publish a book about the connections between boys' problems and the huge cultural shifts in our understanding of gender. (His proposed book, Reinventing Boyhood, is subtitled Connecting Boys' Development, Women's Psychology, the Lives of Men, and the World of School.) His theory about the language gap draws on the feminist understanding of the math gap: girls were told they were bad at math, and they performed poorly. If boys are being told not to communicate their feelings, could that be impairing their general ability to express themselves, and therefore their language skills? Brawer says that's entirely possible.

Unlike Thompson and Newberger, Brawer draws freely on certain "feminine" paradigms as good examples for masculine culture. "There's no Judy Blume for boys," says Brawer. "We men are where women were 30 years ago. Men are just starting to talk about their bodies." He even sees positive aspects to Bob Dole's television commercials for Viagra -- not because they're funny, but because they feature a man delivering a personal narrative.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Barney Brawer is without a book contract (yet). He seems the least concerned about the charge that he's trying to "turn boys into girls," and articulates the most radical challenge to masculinity as it's now constructed. But he's not worried. He points to the rapid pace of change when it comes to all things gendered. He likes to tell the story of his daughter's driving test, where check-off boxes asked her to indicate not only any "change of address" and "change of name," but also any "change of sex."

"This is new!" he says exuberantly. "We're in an era where things move faster than ever before. Nobody knows what will happen. But we learned from women the price we pay for not talking about it."

In one sense, all these authors are following in the footsteps of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia and Peggy Orenstein's Schoolgirls and Myra and David Sadker's Failing at Fairness -- books of the '90s that outlined the tribulations of girls. Reviving Ophelia, in particular, was a runaway bestseller (it spent 149 weeks on the New York Times list) and a trailblazer.

But in another sense, the boys'-studies field is fighting a tougher battle for acceptance. That's because for all the school shootings, for all the Ritalin, for all the low reading scores, one fact remains: in many ways the system works for boys.

In Raising Cain, Thompson and Kindlon write: "When we first began working with and speaking about boys, a large part of our task was to convince skeptical parents and educators . . . that boys suffer deeply as a result of the destructive emotional training our culture imposes upon them, that many of them are in crisis, and that all of them need help. Perhaps because men enjoy so much power and prestige in society, there is a tendency to view boys as shoo-ins for future success."

The women's movement has lent great strength to organizations that formed to help girls, just as the civil-rights movement has close ties to groups that help minority kids. But the men's movement? The men's movement still seems like a punch line. Traditional masculinity may or may not be causing problems for boys, but there's no arguing with the fact that "manly" men, "real" men, win more than their fair share of power and prestige.

Ronald Levant, dean of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, founded the Fatherhood Project at Boston University in 1973, and is considered by some to be a father of masculinity studies in Boston. He puts it this way: "Men benefit a great deal from the current arrangement of society. So we shy away from the term 'movement' . . . a movement implies 750,000 people marching on Washington. When you've got the most privileged group marching, it's a little like the aristocrats marching on Wall Street demanding more money."

So even if boys are suffering in schools and elsewhere, their advocates in the academy are careful to diffuse anger rather than whip it up. They have a difficult job, in some ways more difficult than demanding a redistribution of societal power. A challenge to masculinity, after all, isn't just a request to share power: it's a challenge to our very definition of power.

Gender roles and their power dynamics weave a complicated web of emotional and psychological patterns over us, some of which certainly have biological roots (even when they're not biological necessities). Gender is inescapable, the lens through which we filter experience -- one of the first things we know about ourselves is our sex. So it's hard to step outside gender to see the absurdity of partitioning human qualities and human experience into two mutually exclusive camps.

But absurd it is, the boys'-studies authors believe. "Gender roles are kind of cartoonish in how two-dimensional they are -- that men are always tough and aggressive and never feel anything, and women are very pretty and skinny and always sweet and nice," says Levant. "It's apparent that this is a fiction, and worse, it's a very destructive fiction."

The feminist threat?

If the world of ideas were a playground, Christina Hoff Sommers would be the girl kicking other kids in the shins. And, as you might expect, she is not exactly the most popular kid in theclass.

In the field of boys' studies, Sommers has launched high-profile salvos recently with a cover article for the Atlantic Monthly and a new book, The War on Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (Simon and Schuster).

Her premise is similar to that of other authors in the field: she looks at boys' academic performance and test scores and detects something quite wrong. And she too bemoans the "climate of disapproval" surrounding boys.

But there the similarities end. The boys'-studies authors blame society and outdated notions of masculinity. Sommers blames feminists and their excessive handwringing over an imaginary crisis among girls. And she delivers a traditionalist's lament: why can't we just turn back the clock and raise boys to be gentlemen?

Sommers isn't a child specialist: she's a former Clark University philosophy professor and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. She does not, like the researchers she attacks, go out and talk to boys. Her last book was Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (Simon and Schuster, 1995), and her new book is largely a continuation of her campaign against feminists. For instance, Sommers dedicates two chapters solely to an attack on Harvard's Carol Gilligan, who argues that girls have been shortchanged by growing up in a patriarchally structured society. She also lights into male scholars sympathetic to feminists, such as Bill Pollack.

Not surprisingly, the Boston boys'-studies authors, overall, are saddened by Sommers's work. Michael Thompson takes issue with Sommers's idea that to take care of our boys, we should stop trying to make things better for girls. "My view of human life as a psychologist is that there's plenty of suffering to go around," he says.

"I find it dangerous," says Pollack of Sommers's view. "In all of recorded history, we've never solved anything by going backwards." Sommers's construction of the issue as a "war," he says, is "atavistic." Eli Newberger calls it "extremely destructive and anti-feminist."

Or, as Michael Thompson sums it up, "This is not a chess game between the genders." -- Michelle Chihara

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