Michael Ian Black, writing in the New York Times following the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, seems to think so. Like a lot of us, Mr Black is trying to make sense of the tragedy, and why there seems to be an increase in the number of violent and deadly attacks on innocent people. Unlike many, Black doesn’t blame the problem solely on guns. He makes a case for the “brokenness” of teenage boys, and how that helps explain why more and more of these crimes are being committed.
But if boys are broken, who, or what, is to blame? Are they simply frustrated and unable to express their feelings, as Black suggests? Or, have men spent so long being pushed aside in the drive to ensure that our daughters feel empowered, that teenage boys no longer have male models to show them what being a man really means?
Part of Black’s argument is that boys – and grown men — do not have the support to express their feelings without being labelled “sensitive” or “feminine”. He reasons that our society has spent the better part of the last 50 years focusing on girls and making sure they succeed, and that part of the fallout from this is that boys no longer feel as though their opinions or their way of coping with the world is acceptable. The result of that is that boys have only two options for dealing with their feelings: withdrawal or rage.
Of course, other things have been happening too.
Our society has changed in many ways in the last five decades. The divorce rate skyrocketed through the 1970’s and ‘80’s. Overwhelmingly, mothers were the ones granted custody of their children. This pattern still exists today, leaving too many children without the daily influence of their fathers at home. How does a young boy learn what it means to be a man if he doesn’t see the single biggest inspiration of that role day to day?
Violent video games don’t seem to help. While some might use the games as a way to escape reality, regular – not to mention compulsive – use must have some influence on how you see the world?
When my son was two years old, I had a first-hand look at how on-screen violence can affect children. I watched as my sweet, docile, little boy watched the movie Shrek in our living room. During the wrestling scene, I looked on shocked as this kid, who had never acted violently towards anyone, threw his ride-on toy around the room, and shoved our sofa across the floor. When the scene ended, so did his rampage. If it had only happened once, I would not have thought anything else about the incident. Except it happened each time he watched this family favourite (and yes, eventually, we did just skip that part).
The games that are on the market now are worse than that fairly benign wrestling match in Shrek. To win the game, the player must kill, abuse, and torture victims. The abuse of others, in particular women, is rampant. And yes, while most teenage boys who play these games do not go out and attempt real-life versions of the scenarios they live out on screen, for the ones who are already having issues with day to day life, the idea that they can “win” might just be enough to push them over the edge.
And then there’s the influence of porn on our boys, specifically internet pornography. Where once teenagers would have snuck into the back of the corner store to try to get a glimpse of naked women in “men’s magazines”, or peeked at their father’s copy of Playboy, all the while feeling that what they were doing was immoral; now, all a young man has to do is type the word into a search engine and millions of images are at his fingertips. The reality of teenage boys using pornography is that their brains get rewired to think that the women they see online are what women in real life look like, or that the scenes they watch reflect the reality of sexual connections between two consenting adults.
All of these things work together to confuse and alienate young men.
However, the war on masculinity must carry a large share of the blame. While we have encouraged girls to be “who they really are”, we tell our boys that they should be more like girls. Women have typically been the nurturers in the family unit, while men have traditionally been the providers. This isn’t to say that women cannot be the family breadwinners, or that fathers can’t be the ones to stay home raising the kids. It also doesn’t mean that men can’t be nurturing, loving, or capable of expressing emotions. But the big idea now seems to be that boys need to rewire their own biology so that they are more like the female of the species. But isn’t that just telling our sons that who they are is not good enough?
I don’t think our boys are broken. I think they are struggling to find a place in a world that seems to increasingly devalue their basic “maleness”. We need to teach them that to be a man is not something of which they need to be ashamed. These young men are our future leaders, teachers, husbands and fathers. Being a man is no small thing, and that is what our boys need to learn.