Me First!

Boys are back on the culture's center stage—with a vengeance.

FOR THE PAST year or so a rumor has been circulating through the realm of pop psychology. Apparently the American Boy is being mistreated—we ask far too much of him, we expect him to be stoic and brave when really he feels like a wimp, a drone, a basket case, a pervert. The burden of .masculinity is becoming too heavy, causing the poor thing to become violent and suicidal. We are turning our boys, says Dr.William Pollack, into “unthinking sexual predators.”

Pollack’s book is called Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, and the paperback is currently a huge best-seller, set out on bookstore displays as if it were Men’s History Month or something. Other books in this genre include Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, James Garbarino’s Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, and a forthcoming companion to Real Boys called Real Boys Speak, which promises “perspectives on adolescence from the male point of view.”

Dr. Pollack and various contributors to Raising Cain have appeared on Oprah and Nightline in their best white shirts. They are nice, gentle doctors who hope to ease America out of its Boy Crisis.

Raising Cain argues that a big part of the problem is R-rated movies. These nasty, lowbrow films, “full of horrible violence and aggressive sexuality,” plant bad thoughts in boys’ innocent minds, making them feel like doing something dirty or outrageous. The authors long for a time when “children were protected from the adult world,” a bygone time when boys didn’t dream of blowing up the school cafeteria. Similarly, Pollack .believes we must protect boys from “wounds to their already fragile male psyches,” and in an attempt to heal these wounds, he conducts workshops for stressed-out male executives. Pollack appeals to corporate bigwigs who can’t handle all their power and just want to run home to mama.

Not surprisingly, thinkers about the Boy Problem lay a lot of the blame for boys’ sad fate on women—specifically mothers. Pollack writes that “we need a new kind of mother.” We need a woman who does not push her son away and force him to become independent. She should be perpetually available to him, waiting at home when he returns from his adventures, always manifesting “the natural flow of love and empathy.” These uppity women who keep harping about having their “own lives” are unwittingly turning boys into monsters.

The Boy Problem is selling lots of books, which is bad news for feminism and a great example of backlash in action. This so-called crisis of adolescent boys eclipses important, incendiary revelations about the lives of adolescent girls—problems that came to light in the early ’90s. Carol Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads, Peggy Orenstein’s School Girls, and the Take Our Daughters to Work Day project all focused on the fact that adolescence is the point at which girls begin to limit themselves, speak in small voices, and behave as if their power is running out. Defined by Carol Gilligan as the crossroads where girls stop “believing what they say,” adolescence became a good way for feminists to talk about feeling ripped off by the past without sounding bitter, a way to indict the social mechanism of patriarchy without sounding like man-haters.

WHAT WAS GREAT about the discovery of the Girl Problem was the way it felt like the past was becoming a political frontier. Gilligan’s urgent, poetic style hinted at the possibility of a new kind of logic, one based not on outdated sociological methods but on testimony—long, meandering conversations that last for years. So powerful and original were these hidden stories that academics started to chatter about “girl studies,” and in bookstores on the new releases table it was girls, girls, girls.

But talking about childhood is a tricky business, and inevitably the girls’ story was undermined by the forces of nostalgia. At the height of the girl trend, Mary Pipher went to the top of the best-seller lists with Reviving Ophelia, a stomach-churning pep-talk of a book that complained of “cultural abuse” and longed for a society with the “structure and security of the fifties.”

Pipher helped turn the political personal again. The problem with girls wasn’t sexism, it was the disappearance of family values. Parents who went to church on Sundays and had dinner together every night could cure their girls of all these vague, shitty feelings. The drama Gilligan had uncovered became a melodrama, a Television for Women feature presentation, a Microsoft “Where Do You Want To Go Today” commercial. Pipher’s book took the momentum out of the dialog surrounding girls, thereby clearing the way for the boy-problem industry. Pollack treats girls as yesterday’s news. “While girls have recently been encouraged to express a wider range of previously unacceptable behaviors,” he writes, “we continue to keep boys in the tight straitjackets of nineteenth century models of masculinity.”

This pity-party shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Its purveyors are great guest pundits on shows about high-school shootings where the topic is “Why Did Those Boys Do It?” Nothing will be learned from such discussions, yet they persist, like comforting stories you tell: Fear not, fear not, the doctors are looking into it.

For all their claims about saving “our boys,” what really drives these writers is anger—anger that the girls were getting so much attention, anger that girls’ experience was for a brief moment being given such cultural importance, anger that all of a sudden the girls were acting like they were entitled to something—to a future that has learned from the limitations and lies of the past. Who does this girl think she is, anyway? How long does she want us to listen to her tale of woe before she pipes down and allows us to return to the real story—the boys’ story, the story that has always been at the forefront of the world?