When boys can’t ‘be boys,’ what can they be instead?
A little lightbulb goes on as I listen to Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard on the Armchair Expert podcast (episode: ‘Kristen Bell Returns,’ Aug 9, 2021):
We are not giving boys enough credit.
Theirs is an extremely well-tread conversation reacting to HBO’s recent documentary Woodstock 99; specifically, alarming footage of teen and twentysomething, mostly white guys running amok, damaging property, groping and assaulting bare-breasted young women in a girls-gone-wild-gone-apocolyptic-type event.
Dax hypothesizes: “I think there’s this reality about males that no one wants to talk about, which is: we were designed to eventually die defending, either in a war or someone raiding or tribe, or trying to go toe-to-toe with some animal bigger than us. Our role has been kind of expendable, and we have a lot of chemistry that allows us to go ape-shit. […] That skillset of being willing to die to protect somebody is now obsolete. But our genetics didn’t change in the wake of that. […] How are we going to help boys through this?”
Kristen mostly agrees. Then, she offers a counterpoint: women have PMS.
She says, “The reason that I don’t go bananas on my period is because I have been brought up with socialization that tells me, ‘you will feel bananas a couple days before your period. Don’t scream at everyone even though that is what you want to do. You can’t do that. What is happening to you is in your brain chemistry and your hormones.’ […] Tools help women who have really really bad periods and get super aggro around their period. And I think they would help the some of the guys who completely unleashed some of the most unbelievable behavior I’ve ever seen by a group of human beings in this documentary.”
The episode concludes with a hybrid prescription: 1) educate boys on the antisocial aspects of their biology, 2) socialize them to self-regulate, and 3) develop a pill to alleviate their aggression. Much like for girls.
So… problem solved?
These basic solutions have been widely adoption by females since mid-last century. One could even argue the option of self-regulation has amounted to women exerting more control over their own bodies in general — including on a political level. It’s also spawned a huge industry: today, the global market for feminine hygiene products alone brings in about $37.4B (Statista, 2020). The US contraceptive market was valued at $7B in 2019 (Grand View Research, 2019).
It begs the question: if it’s really that simple (and possibly lucrative), why we aren’t we doing something similar for boys?
The answer might be simple; boys need a reason to change — but perhaps more fundamentally, a reason to believe they can change. Because throughout human history, our beliefs open the initial floodgates of what’s possible.
And for starters, I don’t think we’re giving boys enough credit for their potential.
As a parallel example, here are some of the biology-based ‘girls will be girls’-esque Victorian beliefs that kept floodgates closed for women circa one hundred years ago (British Library, 2014):
- Women are physically weaker but morally superior to men, and therefore best suited for domestic responsibilities. Their input in the private household realm is an argument to deny them a public vote.
- Women are best acclimated to the arts — music, singing, dancing, language. But participation in the sciences is an inappropriate attempt to usurp men’s ‘natural’ intellectual superiority. It is possibly damaging to the ovaries.
- Women desire marriage because of motherhood, and pursuit of sexual or emotional satisfaction is secondary. Psycho-sexual disorders including ‘hysteria’ are widely diagnosed and treated, as male doctors puzzle at the source of women’s general unhappiness.
When they were finally given the opportunity, it’s no wonder women were keen to self-regulate their bodies. Hormones rendered them victims to their own unfortunate biology; they had little to lose. But perhaps the biggest wind of change at women’s backs — including their will to acknowledge and own their biological rights — was a huge willingness to step out of old roles and into new ones.
This is certainly the case for women over the past one hundred years. In 1916, the first US birth control clinic was opened (History, 2021), in 1920 US women finally gain the right to vote and constituted ~20% of the labor force (US Department of Labor). Women’s massive participation in the world wars grew the realization that their previous capabilities had perhaps been understated. Post-war movements spawned many of the social beliefs we hold today: especially the male and female equalities of intellect, emotion and capacity to participate in the public sphere.
In a sense, wartime roles gave women a reason to believe in themselves.
And this didn’t happen because women were finally able to control their PMS —the truth is, many struggle to; over 75% of women experience PMS and there’s still no ‘cure’ (Vox, 2015). Over the course of time, when physical biology no longer provided a convenient excuse for women’s ‘limitations,’ beliefs changed.
So today, it’s unsurprising that women are more likely to point to societal factors than biological factors when it comes to beliefs in gender differences. A 2017 American Pew Research study discovered current beliefs about men:
- About half of adult men (and 69% of Millennial men) believe men face pressure to throw a punch if provoked, to join in when others talk about women in a sexual way, and to have many sexual partners.
- Just over half (56%) of adult men say it’s a good thing for parents to encourage boys to participate in play/activities typically associated with girls (compared with 71% of adult women). However, the vast majority of adults feel it’s okay for girls to do the reverse (72% of men and 80% of women).
- Traits society most values in men: 1. honesty and morality, 2. professional or financial success, 3. ambition or leadership, 4. strength or toughness, 5. a good work ethic. (Compared to top responses for women: 1. physical attractiveness, 2. nurturing and empathy.)
However, the study shows little public consensus on the origins of these beliefs— whether nature or nurture. And that ambiguity makes me wonder: do men fear what they will become when society tells them they can no longer ‘be boys’? Do they feel their valued places in society will change if they begin to regulate or even moderate their behavior? And if so, change into what?
I think — as with girls one hundred years ago — we are not giving boys nearly enough credit for what they can become when they finally stop believing they are limited by their biological impulses. It must start with what we believe.
When we stop excusing the ‘limitations’ of young men — and by that I mean, stop telling them their antisocial behavior is natural and therefore warranted — we hand them a newopportunity. We give them free will. Whether they use it to regulate their own behavior (perhaps someday with Dax’s miracle pill), to check impulses with trusted models, or simply to openly recognize and analyze violent thoughts before acting on them — it all becomes a choice.
I hold the strong opinion that society owes it to boys to not only offer them tools, but also to stop writing boys off as victims of their own biology. We need to believe that boys are better than this, because our beliefs govern their reality. One hundred years ago, American girls shocked themselves and society by becoming machinists, pilots and medical professionals en masse. This spurred new beliefs about the capabilities of women, regardless of their perceived biological weaknesses. Despite prior held concerns, the birth rate didn’t decline, it exploded in the 1950s — along with household incomes and industry in general. Society didn’t collapse. In fact, the roles of women continued to shift throughout the 20th century, expanding their presence in social, cultural and political positions.
On a personal note, I believe we have yet to unlock an expansive set of prospects for boys. When they no longer feel pressured to throw punches and be promiscuous, imagine their freedom of mind to explore who they really are and what they are capable of. I think of my nephew when he finally lets his teenage guard down during a game of monopoly — a moment when his identity is no longer aligned with the fugly prison tattoo he allowed his friend to draw on his hand, or the pseudo violent encounter with a guy on the street he relayed to me so that I’d be impressed — and I realize how utterly thoughtful and mathematically strategic he is. He is far from thinking of himself as the naturally gifted person he is, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that he can hardly go three sentences without feeling pressured to reassert his fledgling sense of masculinity. Instead of dwelling on this, I tell him he’s kicking my ass at Monopoly. I also encourage him to draw, which he likes, and I tell him that if he works hard enough he can do whatever he wants. Today he works in a grocery store, but maybe someday he’ll be an advertising executive. Or a fashion designer. Or a real estate agent. I believe in him not because of his biology — often in spite of it — but because I know that if he sees even one percent his potential in the same way that I do, he’ll go far.
When boys can no longer ‘be boys,’ what can they be instead?
I don’t know. But with the past one hundred years of evolving beliefs in mind, I expect that we are vastly underestimating what’s possible.
- “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library, May 2014.
- “On Gender Differences, No Consensus on Nature vs. Nurture.” Pew Research Center, December 2017.
- “PMS affects 75 percent of menstruating women — but scientists are still baffled by it.” Vox.com, April 2015.
- “Statistics and facts on the feminine hygiene market.” Published by Statista Research Department, Dec 2, 2020
- “U.S. Contraceptive Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product.” Grand View Research, December 2020.
- “Women’s Bureau History: An Overview: 1920–21. U.S. Department of Labor.” Accessed Aug 12, 2021.
- “Women’s History Milestones: A Timeline.” History.com, udpated July 2021.