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24th of January 2018


Why Doesn't Batman Ever Smile? Part 1 -

LonelyBoyThe first part of a provocative chapter on the hidden world of teenage boys, from the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes. A must-read for parents of boys.

The following is an excerpt from Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, by bestselling author Rosalind Wiseman.

Boys are just so different from girls. They just don’t fight the way girls do. When it’s done it’s done. It’s just so much simpler with boys.

You have boys??!! Isn’t that funny that you have boys when you do all this stuff with girls? Let me tell you, you are so lucky to have two boys! Boys are so much harder than girls when they’re little, but just you wait. When they get older, boys become so easy compared to girls!

I’ve lost track of how many times people have said the above to me. But over the years that I’ve worked with boys, I’m convinced that what looks like their “easiness” is actually our own ignorance. If you’ve ever picked up a boy from school and asked him how his day was, you may know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me explain it to you this way.

When a fourteen-year-old girl screams at you for not “getting” a problem she just described to you in detail for the last fifteen minutes, at least you heard a name and a few nouns and adjectives that gave you an inkling of what she was so upset about before she ran upstairs and threw herself on her bed. Boys’ problems can slip under the radar precisely because there’s usually no early warning system. What you thought was easiness turns out to be your own cluelessness, which you only figure out when someone drops a “bad news” bomb on you that makes you doubt someone’s sanity—yours, your son’s, or that of the person who’s telling you. What then ensues can be tremendously frustrating. You sit across the kitchen table from your boy (who’s slumped in his chair or precariously balanced on its back legs), and his only response to your worried questions is, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” You finish the conversation exactly as you started, except now you’re even more frustrated.

After twenty years of teaching and working with teens, I realize that we often make the mistake of believing that if a boy doesn’t come to us with problems, then he doesn’t have them. We believe this for various reasons. Boys don’t demand our attention in the same ways that girls do. We don’t give them a language for talking about their worries and experiences like we do with girls. And we really don’t think enough about what our culture—and ourselves by extension—demands and expects of boys and how it frames their emotional lives, decision-making, self-esteem, and social competence. When we do notice boys, it’s usually because they’re somehow failing or they’re acting out in ways that appear thoughtless, reckless, disrespectful, threatening, or frightening.

As a result, by the time boys reach adolescence, most have adopted an appearance of calm detachment and seem to be disengaged from their most meaningful relationships, their future academic or professional success, and any desire to make the world a better place. This is the “slacker” attitude that people so often note in describing boys. Our reactions to this attitude are equally problematic because we usually dance between two extremes: getting angry with them because they’re unfocused and “lazy” or dismissing the problem as “typical boy behavior” (i.e., not anything that needs to be ad- dressed).

The reality is that most boys’ days are filled with many of the same social challenges that girls face, and what they learn from those experiences matters now and for their futures, as it does for girls. We just aren’t trained to see it because boys’ problems can look deceptively simple and we can’t interpret the signs when they’re calling out to us for help. Frankly, we find it really challenging to admit how much we contribute to boys’ alienation. But make no mistake—under that detached facade, boys are desperate for meaning in their lives and for relationships they can count on for support and love.

Do you remember the moment when you realized you were going to have a son? Stop reading and really think about that moment. Remember your feelings and thoughts and what people said to you. I’ll tell you what mine were. I remember being five months pregnant and walking through a park watching a group of ten-year-old boys scream and throw themselves on each other. As I watched them I distinctly recall thinking, There’s not a lot going on in those brains. I remember my in-laws liking me a lot more because I was giving them a grandson. I remember people telling me how loud my house would be and how I’d better start saving money for all the things he’d break. (By the way, that money is called my sons’ savings accounts, and I do withdraw their money when they break things.) But that was it.

From the moment they find out they’re having a girl, most parents know that the culture we live in will present specific challenges to their daughter’s self-esteem.

Compare this to someone who is having a daughter. From the moment they find out they’re having a girl, most parents know that the culture we live in will present specific challenges to their daughter’s self-esteem. As a girl matures it’s assumed that her parents need to worry about, prepare for, and then talk to her about body image, mean girls, bullying, eating disorders, physical safety, negative portrayals of girls in the media, and sexual vulnerability. Parents of girls also get a lot of support. If you want to find a conference, book, or seminar on any of these issues, it’s not hard to find, regardless of where you live and what your income is.

Equally important, because both educators and parents of girls are aware of these Girl World issues, we can protest the unhealthy messages. We don’t just accept them. Maybe you’ve seen what mommy bloggers do when a clothing company has the audacity to sell a T-shirt marketed to girls that says I HATE ALGEBRA! Besides protest, we also include girls in our mission. We enlist them in the fight so that at very early ages many girls can cross their arms and lecture you about how even if they like purple, girls can like any other colors too. All of this is great for girls and a huge improvement from what girls experienced even a generation ago. While we still have a lot more to do (a whole lot more to do), girls have a general understanding that the complicated, mixed-message culture we live in not only gives them terrible messages about their sexuality and self-worth but also includes empowering messages that support them as they come into their full, authentic potential.

We don’t do any of this for boys. We don’t collectively challenge boy culture. We either buy into it ourselves or don’t notice it. We don’t see boys as complex, nuanced individuals. We don’t think a boy who loves shooting Nerf guns (at age seven), Airsoft (at age eleven), or paint guns (at age thirteen and over) also wants to read romantic adventure stories. Instead, people often say, “Boys don’t read.” We are part of the problem when we say this. We are contributing to boys’ alienation.

Here’s a concrete example. If you have a seventh-grade daughter, you probably know that girls are often self-conscious about their bodies at this age, especially if they have larger breasts or weigh more than other girls they hang out with. When your daughter is invited to a swim party, you probably understand why she’s anxious about what she’s going to wear without her having to tell you, “Mom, girls can be very mean to girls who develop early. I’m feeling very self-conscious about my breasts, so I really need some help and support, and I’m not sure if I want to go to this party.” If you’re her dad and don’t get it right away, her mom can tell you in two seconds, and then you’ll get it.

Now imagine that your son is a seventh-grader who has “moobs” (man boobs) and that he’s invited to the same swim party. Two weeks before the party, he casually asks you to get him a swim shirt, but he doesn’t say anything about needing it in time for this party. Understandably, you file away Get him swim shirt in the back of your mind and don’t get the swim shirt. When it’s time to leave for the party, you have to yell at him four times because he won’t stop playing video games. When you finally get him into the car, you assume he’s sullen because he’s going through video game withdrawal. You drive him to the party, lecturing him about screen time and getting even more annoyed because he’s not listening to you. Meanwhile, your son is fantasizing that the moob teaser broke his arm at practice today and is currently getting metal pins inserted in his bones without anesthesia so he’ll be missing the party.

In addition to what the boys say, there’s significant research that clearly shows how boys are struggling:

Adding to these statistics, 70 percent of high school valedictorians are now female. My colleagues in college admissions tell me that the ratio of male applicants to female applicants has continued to weaken so much that now they believe that for every eight qualified female applicants there are only two male applicants. Eight to two. They won’t admit that publicly, but it’s something they discuss among themselves. The last time I spoke to a group of college admissions professionals (and there were representatives of Ivy League and other select colleges in the room), one of the attendees asked me, “Should we accept a male student who does well on his standardized tests but doesn’t get good grades and does the bare minimum with extracurricular activities? We can accept him because we need boys, but we have no indication that he’ll be a productive member of our community.” So while people are worried about racial affirmative action, the biggest affirmative action problem is right in front of us. If you’re still having a hard time believing me, check out this graph from Collegestats:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 12.47.56 AM

In that context, this comment from Will, a sophomore at George- town and one of my primary research and editorial assistants, makes perfect sense.

In my AP classes, I was always one of five guys. The same five guys in a classroom of girls. I had plenty of guy friends who could have taken those classes, but they didn’t want to do it. They’d rather be the best among the mediocre. Really, my friends would rather look stupid. They weren’t secure enough to compete with the girls.

We owe it to boys to do better. We owe it to the girls who are growing up with these boys to do better. Because even if you don’t have boys, you don’t want girls having to put up with insecure, intellectually stunted, emotionally disengaged, immature guys. Worse is when some boys’ insecurity combines with arrogance and privilege. Then we’re dealing with guys who believe that the right to amuse themselves by degrading girls is more important than behaving with common decency—or they don’t even realize how stupid they’ll look when they get caught. For example, when a fraternity at self-described “elite” Amherst College in Massachusetts (not a big university in the South where we stereotypically assume these things occur) designed a T-shirt for their pig roast party of a pig smoking a cigar and watching a naked woman roast on a spit with the words ROASTING FAT ONES SINCE 1847, the guys didn’t understand why that was such a problem. Here’s Dana Bloger, a female student at Amherst, explaining why the T-shirt is a problem:

The woman on the shirt is depicted as an animal—or rather, as inferior to an animal, since she has not only replaced the pig on the spit but is being roasted by it. She is objectified as a literal piece of meat, whose thoughts, feelings, and humanity are rendered nonexistent and her consent therefore irrelevant. The hypersexualization of her body links violence with sex, thus perpetuating the notion that violence is sexy and sexuality violent. While I am not suggesting that this image would ever directly cause the infliction of violence on any individual woman, dehumanization is always the first step toward justifying such violence.

The guys’ official response, after they tried to blow it off by saying they were drunk when they came up with the idea? “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.” (There were many male students who commented on Bloger’s blog in support of her article and who called out the other guys. But as they pointed out, Bloger was the one who came out publicly and attached her name to the problem—which meant she took the heat from the guys who wanted her to shut up.)

All I have to say is: eight to two. It’s not good for anyone.

We don’t acknowledge that boys wage sophisticated power plays and can be relentlessly targeted for humiliation, or that so many feel insecure about their bodies.

For all of us, including the guys who made that T-shirt, the stakes are high. So here’s what I’m asking. Just as I challenged people in Queen Bees to examine girls’ social lives more closely and be honest about how they contribute to the pressures on girls, I’m asking us to do the same for boys. Despite the fact that some extraordinary people like Bill Pollock, James Garbarino, Leonard Sax, Michael Gurian, Paul Kivel, Michael Thompson, Jackson Katz, Don McPherson, Michael Kimmel, and many others have been doing some extraordinary work on boys’ issues for a long time, the reality is that the impact of Boy World and boys’ social dynamics on their emotional well-being has been left out of the national conversation. We don’t acknowledge that boys wage sophisticated power plays and can be relentlessly targeted for humiliation, or that so many feel insecure about their bodies. We don’t notice when some boys abuse power and then get allies to back them up while other boys seethe in silence. And we really struggle to see how our own behavior with boys reinforces these dynamics.

The big question is this: how did those frat boys—who probably wrote “I love you!” Mother’s Day cards when they were eight—get to be such jerks? Did their parents know that their sons were capable of such callousness? On the other side, I believe there were guys in that Amherst fraternity who didn’t want to go along with the T-shirt but didn’t say anything. Why did they stay silent?


I’d bet any amount of money that you’ve never said to a boy, “If you have a big problem and admit you’re really upset and worried, I’ll be ashamed of you and you’ll grow up to be a poor excuse for a man.” But somehow most boys have this message to some degree wired into their brains by the time they reach older childhood. Where does this message come from? It’s not like someone has been beaming things into their brains all day since they were little kids about when it’s okay for a guy to ask for help.

Except that’s exactly what’s going on. Think back to when your son was five or six and what toys he was given and what he liked to play with. I’m not about to launch into an argument about trying to get boys to play with dolls instead of trucks, and this isn’t about what color clothes you put him in as a toddler. Just go with me here. Did he get or play with toys that looked like this?

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 1.33.31 AMDo you remember the first time he got a superhero costume? Who got it for him? Did he jump off couches? When you walked through the door, did he attack you? Do you remember how exciting it was for him to be the all-powerful superhero? When you’re a young boy and you’re flying around the room with a Batman cape your grandma gave you, it’s intoxicating. You’re the hero. You don’t have to listen to anyone. You have unlimited power—which, when you’re five, is particularly cool because the reality is that you have very little control over your life.

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