Broken Boys: The Failure of Gender Neutrality?
The recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the Summer of 2022 sent social media on a tirade with people posting all sorts of commentaries that began with “if men…”. The assumptions and implications are that the Supreme Court’s decision was based on the will of all men and forgetting a woman voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. Imagine the reactions if the commentaries started with “if women…” or “if people of color…” or “if southerners…”. The point is that we should never use blanket comments or statements of blame about any one race, gender, or population group. Because what you meant to say is not what everyone hears.
Most males have been taught from a young age that if they speak up against injustices that their gender or gender identity will be attacked (e.g., be a man and stay quiet; what kind of a man are you; and, real men don’t whine). Males have also been taught that they should not be a victim because that would mean they are weak. So, males generally say and do nothing about spousal abuse, sexual assaults, or routine stereotyped comments made about them. Instead, they joke about their wife or girlfriend hitting them, glorify the teacher who seduced them, and say nothing when people promote stereotyped comments that begin with if men… Ignoring, glorifying, and joking however are only coping mechanisms to deal with the situation.
The actions of the more distant past have been weaponized against younger males for the past 40 years. Today we have three generations of men and boys who had nothing to do with the injustice perpetrated during the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, in the United States there doesn’t seem to be the will to help our younger males cope. As one of my female colleagues said in response to my concern for young males in today’s society, “boo hoo for boys.”
Gender norms and prevailing sexism in the United States are squeezing young and middle-aged males out of society at an alarming rate. Before the 1970s, there were socially defined feminine and masculine roles in which everything from a person’s name, societal position, career choice, and even the automobile they drove was labeled masculine or feminine. However, the last parts of the 20th century saw social systems in the United States prize everything male and devalue everything female. Unfortunately, this swing was, and continues to be, embraced by both men and women, thereby causing the hypermasculinization of American society. Architecture, traditionally a male-dominated profession, has seen a steady increase of women pursuing an architectural degree. Nicholson (2020) cites the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) as stating that 46% of all students enrolled in first professional architecture programs in 2017–18 were female, and steadily increasing. Compare this nearly 50/50 gender split to the traditionally female profession of Interior Design. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2020) states that roughly 94% of Interior Design degrees awarded in 2018 were given to women. This gender discrepancy is also seen in Early Childhood Education and other traditionally female-dominated professions.
The hypermasculinization of the US population leaves a disturbing proportion of males with fewer and fewer opportunities. We see this inequity in the most basic iterations, such as a name given to a child, to the more egregious forms, such as denying a male a particular position because of his gender. In addition, socially driven sexist attitudes based on stereotyped gender roles have had devastating effects on many men in the United States. For example, the courts award primary custody of children to the mothers 68–88% of the time. Rarely, only 8–14% of the time will the father receive primary custody, and equal residential custody awarded only in 2–6% of the cases (Hughes, 2011). The archaic assumption is that all women are more nurturing. However, the number of filicide (parents killing a child) does not support this stereotype. Brown University (2014) indicates that while fathers are more likely to kill their sons, mothers are more likely to kill their daughters. There was, however, no real statistical difference between mothers and fathers who commit filicide.
Males and females in our modern society promote and embrace all that was, and is, male and devalue all that was, and is, female. Thus, favoring the masculine over the feminine. The Today show’s website, for example, identified 88 traditionally male names routinely given to girls (Satran, 2022). On the other hand, a search of traditional girls’ names given to boys revealed only a few sites but ironically listed traditional boys’ names like Ashley as being a girl’s name. According to Norman (n.d.) of Mom.com, Ashley was originally a boys’ name in England, France, and Germany and remained so for roughly 350 years.
In modern American society, we see educational systems and popular media actively swaying the choice of young women toward traditional professions (e.g., STEM courses), activities, and gender normative behaviors held by men. However, we do not see such positive messaging letting males know it’s okay to pursue traditional female professions, activities, and gender normative behaviors without a homosexual inference or suggesting sexual deviance. Males who pursue female-dominated careers such as being a Nanny or Interior Designer routinely have their sexuality questioned.
Women have made significant strides to bring about gender role equalization. For example, Ellen Degeneres, who wears traditionally male clothing and has a historically male hairstyle, breaks no social rules. Still, males who do the same are labeled transvestites and endure routine discrimination. This double standard is the definition of sexism. Unfortunately, little has been done to bring about gender role equalization for males. Instead, younger males remain in their socially mandated gender normative boxes that require them to ‘man up’ and ‘take it like a man’ by accepting whatever injustices they encounter. What would happen if a man were to tell a woman to ‘woman up’ or ‘take it like a woman?’ If nothing else, these sexist statements epitomize the hypermasculinization of US society and the double standards that are boxing in our young men.
Those males who cannot conform to the narrowly confined boxes that they have been placed in, for whatever reason, feel trapped, worthless, and a failure. Many resort to substance abuse, criminal activity, and suicide. The addiction Center (n.d.) states that 11.5% of boys and men over 12 have a substance use disorder which is almost double the 6.4% of women and girls. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (2022), male to female ratios in the prison system are roughly 93% male and only 7% female. Males have always been treated more severely by the judicial system. According to The Sentencing Project (n.d.), in the last 40 years, there has been a 500% increase in prison rates. The National Institute of Mental Health (2022) states that the suicide rates among males are four times higher than among females, and the incidences of suicide are twice that of homicides. Many young women complain that finding an eligible young man has become difficult, citing laziness, lack of drive, and a preoccupation with gaming. Learned helplessness is a psychological state where a person is repeatedly put into a position where there is no possibility of success and eventually does nothing in the belief that they are powerless (Seligman, 1992). Helplessness is a predictor of depression, low achievement, and poor physical health (Maier & Watkins, 2005).
As a Generation X member who grew up 40 years ago, I have seen and felt the tightening stranglehold of male gender roles and expectations on myself and my friends. Males have very few safety nets at colleges and universities, and everywhere we turn, we are told we are wrong, not valued, and essentially bad because of past wrongdoings by a generation of men who continue to hold power. Judging by the social media reaction to blame men for the Supreme Court Ruling in the Roe v. Wade decision, the message is that I am meant to despise my gender, so, boo hoo for boys!
Luckily, I was raised to embrace and honor all that is feminine and masculine equally, but that doesn’t mean I don’t process the negativity I receive almost daily about how males are responsible for all of the ills of the world. So, I use writing to process my struggles about growing up male. These writings are expressed in my fiction novel Broken Boys Beyond Friendships. My exploration of thought and feeling through these writings has led me to conclude that equality must extend equally across the board to men and women if we are to succeed as a society. Equality means that males need to be seen as being able to nurture, be creative, and be sensitive. They need to be able to pursue any career without their sexual orientation or sexual predilections being questioned. They need to be able to dress and adorn themselves in ways that are most comfortable to them without judgment. They must be free to seek and acquire assistance without anyone questioning or diminishing their masculinity.
Changes in societal attitudes need to be done early in life with the active recruitment of males into early, primary, and secondary education. Boys need male role models. We also need messaging that shows the feminine as having equal value and not lesser or subordinate to the masculine. Equality means that traditionally held female occupations must receive equal pay compensation and prestige as the traditionally male occupations. The judicial system has to abandon its sexist policies and give fathers equal rights to the children in a divorce. We must also stop using sexist language that links behavior with genitalia and sexual orientation. In short, men have to be seen as being more than strong and silent penises with a wallet. They need support and they need to be allowed to be emotional human beings with the capacity to nurture in care.
References Brown University (2014 February 25). Analysis: 32 years of U.S. filicide arrests. News from Brown, retrieved August 26, 2022 from: https://news.brown.edu/articles/2014/02/filicide
Federal Bureau of Prisons (2022 August 13 [last updated]). Inmate Gender. Retrieved August from: https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_gender.jsp
Hughes, R. (2011). Are Custody Decisions Biased in Favor of Mothers? HuffPost, retrieved August 19, 2022 from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-custody-decisions-bia_b_870709.
Maier, S. F., & Watkins, L. R. (2005). Stressor controllability and learned helplessness: The roles of the dorsal raphe nucleus, serotonin, and cortico
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National Center for Education Statistics (2020). Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by sex of student and field of study: 2018–19. Retrieved August 18, 2022 from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_318.30.asp.
National Institute of Mental Health (2022, June [Last Updated]). Suicide. Retrieved August 19, 2022 from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.
Nicholson, K.A. (2020 June). Where Are the Women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture. ACSA, retrieved August 18, 2022 from: https://www.acsa-arch.org/resource/where-are-the-women-measuring-progress-on-gender-in-architecture-2/.
Norman, T. (n.d). Origin of Ashley. Retrieved August 19, 2022 from: https://mom.com/baby-names/boy/19343/Ashley. Satran, P.R. (2022 January 20 [Last updated]). A girl named Ezra? 88 boy names for girls that are crossing the gender divide. Today, retrieved August 18, 2022 from: https://www.today.com/parents/baby-names-88-traditional-boy-names-now-given-girls-t104719.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Helplessness: On depression development, and death (2nd ed.). New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.
The Addiction Center (n.d.). What Are the Differences in Addiction Between Men and Women? Retrieved August 19, 2022 from: https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/differences-men-women/
The Sentencing Project (n.d.). Criminal Justice Facts. Retrieved August 19, 2022 from: https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/