Globe and Mail

MARGARET WENTE on boy trouble

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, August 24, 1999

They are tormented by unattainable ideals, constantly assaulted by commercial images of physical perfection that drive them to strive obsessively for the right look. They hate their bodies. They are riddled with self-loathing and crippling psychological debilities. They are objectified by the opposite sex, who only care about looks. Many of them live in constant fear of physical attack.

They are ruthlessly constrained by sex-role stereotyping that channels them into a stiflingly narrow band of conventional behaviour. They are damaged by their own parents, who try to mould them to fit society's gender expectations. They are shortchanged in school by a system that favours the other sex. Their cries for help go unheard; they are silenced.

We're not talking girls here. We've done girls to death. We're all sick of girls, who will, in any event, be fine. The victims du jour are -- you guessed it -- boys.

"The Troubled Life of Boys," says the cover of the latest New York Times magazine, which devotes most of its issue to the miseries of male adolescence. (Villain Number One turns out to be G.I. Joe, whose biceps, if life-sized, would measure an astonishing 32 inches.) Books with titles like Real Boys, Raising Cain, Wonder of Boys, and Lost Boys are flying off the shelves. Forget Reviving Ophelia. It was Hamlet who had the real problems.

The lost-boys industry has been given a huge boost from the shootings in Littleton, Colo., and other schools, which have produced an orgy of introspection about how a seemingly benign middle-class culture could have produced such monsters. Experts like William Pollack (Real Boys) claim not to be surprised. "I think we have a national crisis of boys in America," he told the American Psychological Association last week. "It's boys who are doing this, because of this code about what they can say and can't say, how they feel about their body self, how they feel about their self-image, how they feel about themselves in school." (Some people might quibble that we have a crisis of guns in America, but that's another subject.)

Some of the most sought-after experts on masculinity in crisis are, oddly, feminists. Among the most-hyped books of the fall is Susan Faludi's Stiffed, which will explain how men "are at the mercy of social forces distorting their lives." It promises to be as big as her last book, Backlash, which explained how a patriarchal society wages war on women.

All of these experts paint a picture of a boy's world so bleak and cheerless, so soulless and lethal, it could come straight out of Lord of the Flies. The weak are endlessly bullied by the strong, beaten up, pushed around and taunted. Any sign of difference is an excuse for ostracism, and any sign of emotion or sensitivity is cruelly ridiculed. In the unforgiving hierarchy of boy culture, only the handsome jocks have status. Everyone else -- nerd, geek, Goth, or plain, unlabelled loser -- is subject to emotional abuse whose scars may last a lifetime. Worst of all: They can't share their pain. The culture demands that they suppress it.

If much of this sounds eerily familiar, it is. What we have here is the pathologizing of normal adolescence -- just as we had in those phenomenally popular books of a decade ago delineating the tragedy of teenage girls. The dreary truth is that modern adolescence is, for nearly everyone, an excruciating time when peer pressure reigns supreme, self-esteem vanishes, hormones rage, sex roles are exaggerated, and the struggle for identity begins in earnest. So what else is new?

The experts propose various contradictory remedies for the malady of adolescent boyhood. Some of them say we need to encourage boys to act more like girls: to express their feelings, to openly care and share. Others think we need to help them be more like men used to be, back in the days when every man could hold a good honest job and a good honest place in family life. Take your pick. Either way, consider yourself warned: Your son needs help, and lots of it.

E-mail:mwente@globeandmail.ca

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