Jewish World Review July 14, 2000/ 11 Tamuz, 5760
Recently, the afflictions of boys finally appeared on the media's radar screen. Psychologist William Pollack's book Real Boys became a best-seller last year, after the Columbine High School massacre and a plug on Oprah Winfrey's show. Now, "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men" by "dissident feminist" Christina Hoff Sommers is getting a lot of attention.
There are two very different arguments being made on behalf of boys. Pollack and his supporters say that boys are suffering because our culture traps them in the rigid codes of traditional masculinity, forcing them to be tough and unemotional. Sommers and her supporters say boys are suffering because our culture won't let them be boys and because traditional masculinity has fallen into disrepute, and that people like Pollack are "pathologizing" boyhood.
So who's got it right? Do boys need to be liberated from patriarchy or from feminism?
Sommers correctly takes Pollack to task for depicting the average American boy as a near-basket case if not a walking time bomb. Mark Kiselica, chair of the department of counselor education at the College of New Jersey and past president of the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, does not share Sommers's conservative views of gender but largely concurs with her critique of "boy crisis" literature and with her view that most boys (and girls) are fairly well-adjusted. The notion that boys are "repressed and cut off from relationships," says Kiselica, is a baseless exaggeration.
Sommers is also right to cast a critical eye on some educators' coercive attempts to "resocialize" boys by making them play in mixed rather than single-sex groups, or banning rough-and-tumble play. While such dubious projects have become fashionable, little attention is being paid to boys' real needs -- particularly their academic deficits in reading and writing.
Unfortunately, Sommers's let-boys-be-boys argument is rooted in an overly rigid view of the sexes: Girls cuddle dolls and talk with friends; boys brandish toy guns and compete in physical prowess. Indeed, she seems to believe that it's normal for boys to be somewhat disengaged from emotions and social interactions.
Many feminists have been ridiculously dogmatic in their denial of sexual distinctions. Yet reality is also more complex than sex-difference hype. Boys may shun dolls, but they engage in nurturing play with stuffed animals and pets. I know a little boy who loves his toy gun but is much more sensitive and less rambunctious than his sister.
The War Against Boys raises the alarm about attempts to make boys "less competitive, more emotionally expressive, more nurturing -- more ... like girls." While I agree that schools should not be training kids to express their feelings, the rhetoric about "feminization" is troubling; it seems to suggest that emotional, nurturing, and non-competitive boys are less than masculine.
Sommers also ignores the fact that in some segments of society, boys still do face a lot of pressure to be macho. I suspect the tyranny of the jock culture is still far more prevalent in our schools, and more damaging to boys' learning, than teacher-enforced androgyny. Yes, efforts to make boys and girls to play more like the other sex can amount to "tampering with children's individuality" as Sommers charges. But it is also true that today, a boy who loves ballet has less cultural freedom to follow his dream than a girl who likes sports.
When Sommers was a guest on the CNN show "TalkBack Live," an e-mail
comment from a male viewer was posted on the screen: "Boys should be allowed
to be more masculine or more feminine, as their individuality dictates."
There's a bit of wisdom our educators could