In Adam Sandler’s new film “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” 13-year-old Andy is a villain who mutters coded bro-speak, kisses the lead character in the synagogue’s holiest spot, pranks his wheelchair-using grandmother, and is oblivious to other people’s suffering. Andy is narcissistic and menacing, and what makes his portrayal all the more disturbing is that he’s also a common trope in popular culture.
Men and boys are often portrayed as bumbling, blustering, narcissistic, and incompetent at best — predatory and toxic at worst. For everyone’s sake, we need a new, more nuanced way to talk about and to boys and men.
The prevailing notion is that the males among us are doing just fine, thanks. Influencers like Andrew Tate, a self-proclaimed misogynist and alleged rapist and human trafficker who preaches that women are a man’s property, are sufficient proof for many that men are toxic and abuse their power. The constant attention they command, though, obscures a different reality. For all of the seeming advantages that boys and young men enjoy, they are floundering.
Boys lag behind girls in school achievement and are falling through the cracks even when they get to college. They are less likely to attend graduate school and earn degrees in law and medicine. Young men are also less likely to enter the workforce after high school, a trend that continues into their 20s, 30s, and 40s — even if they have a college degree.
And while rates of depression, chronic stress, and anxiety are higher in women and girls, men and boys are not far behind. Those between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest suicide rate. They also abuse alcohol and opioids more than any demographic does, and they lead loneliness epidemics around the world where individualism prevails.
For all of these data points, the focus of conversations about boys and men is often on their potential for bad behavior. And this influences the way some people talk to them.
Social media has long been rife with memes that tell us that boys could be rapists and sexual predators. Some parents even project bad intentions and behaviors onto their own sons, as one mother whose takeaway from meeting her teen son’s clingy, mostly silent girlfriend for the first time was to worry that her son must be “abusive” and “stifling.”
“I am convinced this relationship is extremely toxic,” the mother wrote to Slate’s Care and Feeding column. “Maybe even abusive, and I want my son to clean up, both for his sake and for any woman he might date now or in the future.”
While this mother’s reaction is extreme, it speaks to a counterproductive mindset among some parents. Author Heidi Julavits wrote that her husband warned their young pre-teen son — by Julavits’s account a kind, thoughtful boy — that if he or Julavits overheard him “making misogynistic or homophobic or transphobic or racist or in any other way offensive comments, even if he doesn’t know what they mean, he will be banned from [playing video games] for a week.”
I have a son, and I’m completely on board with raising boys who are not misogynists, homophobes, transphobes, or racists. But there’s something accusatory about how some parents talk to their boys about these issues. Such an approach reduces all of cisgender heterosexual masculinity to an identity that by its nature is toxic and wired for violence. We have created a culture in which our boys are guilty until proven innocent.
And boys know it. Nico was in the seventh grade when I interviewed him in 2018 for a book project. He told me it hurt him to hear teachers criticize masculinity as “toxic” and to see girls wear T-shirts that read “The Future is Female” or “Girls Rule, Boys Drool.” At 13, Nico said he sometimes felt like “a stranger” in the school he had attended since first grade. “Where do I fit into a future that’s female?” he asked.
His question speaks to the confusion, fear, and, sometimes, resentment, that many boys and young men feel when faced with blanket criticism of their gender. After seeing a Peter Pan play revamped with empowering messages for girls but riddled with denigrating stereotypes about boys, my then 8-year-old son turned to me as the house lights came up. “Why were boys made out so awful in the play?” he asked. A 60-something woman in front of us turned to face him and said, “It’s true, though, isn’t it?”
Why must empowering messages for girls and young women come at the expense of boys and young men? Is it any wonder that some of them find their way to the online manosphere’s darkest alleys, home to incel chat rooms and those who think Andrew Tate is a hero?
Instead of shaming boys and men for what might lurk in the worst of their nature, we need to speak with them with compassion and curiosity — and with the right amount of commiseration and context. I call these the Four C’s, and I use them in small group work at boys’ high schools. When boys feel safe and heard, they will express their confusion about being affectionate with girls they date. “It’s really hard to know how to be around girls,” one high school junior told me. “They can touch us or kiss us, but I’m scared I’ll be called out for sexual assault if I reach for her hand or put my arm around her.”
Many boys are scared and confused, and they need guidance and validation. “I hear you,” I said to the high school junior. I commiserated. “I can imagine how terrifying all of this must feel.” I spoke to the context: There is a power differential between the sexes, making girls more physically vulnerable, and it’s important to keep that in mind. I looked around the room and got curious. “Can anyone else identify with this fear and frustration?” I asked. Some hands shot up.
Boys want to talk, and they deserve to be heard. We just have to ask the right questions and create a safe space for the conversation to begin.