When I learned that I would be having another boy for my second, and likely last, child, I experienced a frisson of disappointment followed by a sense of relief. Raising boys, I told myself, was easier. This belief was not the product of the sexist notion that girls are drama queens who will inevitably turn on their moms, but the result of having spent the bulk of my professional life parsing the misogynist garbage women continue to deal with on a regular basis. I wasn’t blind to the constraints of masculinity, so much so that I saw them as far less constraining than the constraints of femininity.
Donald Trump has changed my mind. His otherwise toxic campaign has provided the undeniable public service of forcing us to pay attention to both the low-level misogyny and the sexual assault that remain all too common in our culture. And although I wasn’t surprised to see multitudes of women respond to the scandals surrounding Trump with “me, too,” I was surprised by my response to his, and others’, predictable and pat defense. “Boys will be boys” isn’t something a mom of one boy, and before long, two boys, should take lightly. Not my boys, I thought. But how to protect them from this poisonous ideology?
It’s not as though before the election I thought my sons would be growing up in some postfeminist paradise. But having spent the past decade surrounded by a husband and male friends chosen, in large part, for their respect of women, the boys-will-be-boys culture had become easy to avoid in my personal life. Hearing Trump defend himself was like being forced to clean out the filter on my air conditioner: I knew the gunk was in there but felt free to operate as though it wasn’t as long as it remained out of sight. Then came the day when I was finally compelled to lift up the screen and contend with the filthy, sticky substance that lies therein—a product of the air we all breathe.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Peggy Orenstein looks at how boys struggle in a culture where Trump-style masculinity is, unfortunately, even more common than Trump supporters. Lately, she has been interviewing young men about their attitudes toward sexuality and has discovered that while most of them “express confusion, uncertainty” and are “troubled by assumptions and expectations of masculinity,” they are ill-equipped to challenge it. Merely telling boys to not assault women, or not to be like Trump, Orenstein explains, isn’t enough. She writes:
It does little to address the complexity of boys’ lives, the presumption of their always-down-for-it sexuality, the threat of being called a “pussy” if you won’t grab one, the collusion that comes with keeping quiet. Boys need continuing, serious guidance about sexual ethics, reciprocity, respect. Rather than silence or swagger, they need models of masculinity that are not grounded in domination or aggression.
It would be easy, and certainly convenient, to blame the stereotypical disenfranchised white male Trump supporter for being the sole emissaries of this macho winner/loser mentality—the one that boys eventually extend to their sex lives. But in fact, this definition of masculinity is one many of us are guilty of perpetuating. Take for example this week’s profile of Mike Lanza, a triple Stanford graduate, tech entrepreneur, and “anti-helicopter parent” in the New York Times Magazine.
Lanza, like many of us, longs to raise his kids in a world where children play together outside after school instead of sitting alone in front of screens or being shepherded around to whatever résumé-building activities their parents have signed them up for. If this Silicon Valley’s dad retro-longings ended there, he would have my sympathy, even support. Sadly, Lanza doesn’t just seem to be concerned about making sure children have free time, but also that we stop the unnecessary feminization of boys. He believes boys “are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads,” writes the profile’s author, Melanie Thernstrom.
“Beneath the pleasantries, it was clear that Mike thought I was putting my son at risk of turning into what used to be called a sissy—a concept whose demise he regrets,” Thernstrom explains. “And I was of the opinion that Mike was putting his son at risk of being a bully, a label Mike thinks is now used to pathologize normal, healthy, boyish aggression.”
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at Lanza, but my tribe is guilty of some of the same assumptions. Over the past decade, feminists have cheered the diversification of girls’ toys while making little effort to do the same for boys’. We’re also quick to critique what’s girly, while staying relatively mum on the activities and identities being marketed to boys. Princesses, who in addition to being concerned with beauty are also focused on sweet things like love and caretaking, have received far more pushback than male superheroes, who, while strong and noble, are also competitive and known to kill.
And as Juliet A. Williams, professor of gender studies at the University of California–Los Angeles, points out in her 2013 paper, “Girls Can Be Anything … But Boys Will Be Boys,” educational reformers have been successful at re-envisioning femininity but suffer from a failure of imagination when it comes to masculinity. In much of the debate about how to better accommodate boys in school, “the assertion of boys’ fixed and immutable nature has emerged as a powerful tool to subvert interrogation of masculinity,” she writes. “From this perspective, among the most important items of unfinished business for feminism today is a more serious reckoning with the effects of essentialized masculinity.”
In her op-ed, Orenstein praises efforts to teach high school boys about consent. That’s wonderful, but I worry that waiting until high school is too late. Long before it’s time to explain to young men why it’s not cool to be sexually aggressive toward women, we need to be making it clear to boys that being tough, in any scenario, is not a key component of their masculinity. This can start as early as the infant years during which many of us, likely subconsciously, treat our sons less tenderly than we treat our daughters. Preventing another generation of boys-who-will-be-boys doesn’t mean parents need to purge their son’s toy chests of anything typically masculine or force them to take a dance class or braid a doll’s hair. We only need to remind them, again and again, that vulnerability, sensitivity, and compassion aren’t girly traits but human traits—and winning ones, at that.