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Jewish World Review May 7, 1999 /21 Iyar 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Littleton lesson: Even in tragedy there's 'gender politics'

(JWR) ---- (
THE EFFORTS TO EXTRACT a message from the Littleton, Colorado tragedy continue unabated. It couldn't be long before gender politics were dragged into the fray.

There have been a few attempts to blame teenagers' troubles on working mothers (though the lead partner in the crime, Eric Harris, had a stay-at-home mother for many years). Mostly, however, the gender analysis has focused on how we raise boys.

Some commentators even complain that the gender angle has gotten short shrift. In the Boston Globe, Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally gripe that headlines focus on "kids killing kids" and youth in crisis, when it's a question of "boys killing boys and boys killing girls" and masculinity in crisis. Katz and Jhally speculate that if such a massacre had been committed by girls, the coverage would have focused on why girls, not kids in general, are acting so violently.

If this is true, it may be because the maleness of violent criminals is taken for granted. And gender hasn't been entirely ignored: Newsweek's story, "Why the Young Kill," asked "why the murderers are Andrews and Dylans rather than Ashleys and Kaitlins."

The answer offered by the likes of Katz and Jhally is simple: it's the patriarchy. The teen killers, says Beverly McPhail in the Houston Chronicle, are not abnormal but "well socialized males." Boys are trained to seek dominance and to use force to get it; those at the bottom of the macho pecking order, like Harris and Dylan Klebold, may lash out violently.

Rigid sex roles force boys to suppress their emotions, avoid seeking counseling, and turn distress into aggression. The solution is to retrain boys to be less competitive and express their feelings.

Undoubtedly, in some peer groups and some families, boys face extreme and injurious pressure to be tough. Yet obviously, homicidal boys are a minuscule proportion of male adolescents (whose homicide rates have been dropping in recent years). In a 1997 Commonwealth Fund study, nearly 80% of boys -- compared to 87% of girls, not much of a gap -- said they talked to parents, friends, or counselors when they felt stressed or depressed. The boys from Columbine High who were interviewed on the news or spoke at memorial services for the slain did not seem emotionally stunted.

Besides, the expression of feelings, and even mental health services, may be no panacea for the violent. Klebold and Harris had apparently verbalized their resentment all too well before the shooting.

Harris had been in psychiatric care and was taking anti-depressants.

Some conservatives offer their own gender analysis of school shootings: not too much traditional masculinity, but too little. Boys, they argue, are damaged by a "feminized" environment that denies them a sense of uniquely male accomplishment and provides few positive outlets for their natural aggression and competitiveness; thus, they may be driven to assert their manhood in hideous ways.

But does this make sense?

The recent tragedies have taken place in fairly traditional communities where gender neutrality is an unlikely fad and athletics, especially for boys, are heavily stressed.

True, boys are more likely to feel alienated in school, and efforts to remedy the largely fictional crisis in girls' self-esteem have often left male students behind. More must be done to meet boys' educational and other needs (though the last thing we need in our schools is more psychobabble about feelings). But to link this alienation to such extreme horrors as the Littleton tragedy would be a stretch.

The views of scientists who believe males are biologically more prone to physical aggression cannot be ignored. Still, boys who shoot up their schools are no more common than girls who drown their newborns in toilets. (Non-fatal violent crimes by adolescent females have risen sharply in the last decade; nearly 25% of violent juvenile crime is now committed by girls, up from 15% in the 1970s.)

Those who depict mass murderers as normal males gone slightly astray are seeking to caricature and malign boys under the guise of helping them.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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03/26/99: Left refuses to let bygones be bygones
03/18/99: Do both sides in the ‘mommy-wars’ misuse science?
03/12/99: EXTRA! EXTRA! Va. court rules violence is an equal-opportunity offender
03/04/99: Do even known-liars deserve the presumption of innocence?

©1999, Cathy Young