Masculinity Crisis

09.13.134:45 AM ET

How We Fail Our Boys

Two new books—including the newest tome from the author of ‘Queen Bees and Wannabes’—explore why young men are falling behind in American culture.

Half a century after The Second Sex, Title IX, and The Feminine Mystique, have we reached a point where women have certain advantages over men? Earlier this summer, Helen Smith’s book Men on Strike tackled this subject with vigor, if not with rigor (the authors main sources were commenters on her blog, arguably a self-selecting group of Men’s Rights Activists —MRAs, as they call themselves—or sympathizers). Her main argument is that the power dynamic has shifted so much that it’s now women, not men, who control America. Men, therefore, have been reduced to impotent slobs, relegated to the basement or cuckolded and divorced while continuing to pay child support for a kid who isn’t theirs, or failing out of college through no fault of their own, or being falsely accused of rape by foolish women.

Many of these arguments are downright disturbing: in a phone interview, when I asked Smith how she could be so concerned about men’s innocence on campus when one in four college women have survived rape or attempted rape, she laughed and said “Those studies are bull,” mentioning a case cited in her book in which researchers determined women had been raped if they admitted to violations like having been forcibly kissed or having sex while drunk. The famous One in Four campaign, however, is based on a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice (the research agency of the DOJ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it strictly defines rape as unwanted penetration. To laugh at this statistic is vile.

Smith also spends a lot of time discussing paternity fraud, where men are stuck paying child support after their son or daughter is proved not to be theirs by DNA testing. While this does happen and is traumatic for the men it affects, the statistics cited are shaky at best. Smith mentions several states where laws have been enacted to prevent this from happening, but when asked which states still have laws on the books requiring non-genetic fathers to pay support, she couldn’t name a single one. (In fact, the answer is complicated, as many states’ laws have loopholes that make it hard to determine who is liable.)

Smith blames most of these problems on the overreach of feminism (“I used to be a feminist a long time ago,” she told me. “I think it’s just reached a point where it’s overkill”). She uses or quotes words like “matronizing” and “the Matriarchy.” Her attack on feminists feels mainly opportunistic (the Men’s Rights movement is a growing trend, at least on the Internet), but even if her heart isn’t fully in the wrong place, it’s beyond harmful to paint men’s problems in such misogynistic terms.

However—and it can be painful to admit this—some of her premises are true, or at least adjacent to the truth. Men and boys do struggle in school. They are often less able to express emotional frustration fluently. And we may owe them more support than we’re currently giving them—albeit not Smith’s kind of support, which in part encourages them to give up on the world and “go Galt.”

Enter Rosalind Wiseman, author of the Mean Girls inspiration Queen Bees and Wannabes, who has a new book that aims to do for boys what Queen Bees did for girls. Out this month, Masterminds and Wingmen has a shared premise with Smith—that our boys aren’t getting the support they need—but executes the argument with far greater insight and accuracy.

Masterminds is a practical parenting book, whose subtitle promises to help your son “Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World.” It deftly navigates the trickiest of topics, including videogames, sexual harassment, porn, physical fighting, homosexuality, and sports (including an enlightening section on lacrosse-playing, madras-wearing, privilege-flaunting “laxbros”). She even tells mothers what to do if their son snaps something like, “Be quiet, woman” (as her son once did to her).

These aren’t trite matters, as Wiseman points out, and boys really are in trouble: “For every 100 girls age 6 to 14 with a learning disability,” she writes, “160 boys have a learning disability … For every 100 females age 15 to 19 who commit suicide, 549 males in the same age range kill themselves … 100 percent of school shooters have been male … 70 percent of high school valedictorians are now female.”

Wiseman certainly doesn’t blame feminism for these trends (she’s a self-proclaimed feminist), but she does raise a valid point: “As a girl matures it’s assumed that her parents need to worry about, prepare for, and then talk to her about body image, mean girls, bullying, eating disorders, physical safety, negative portrayals of girls in the media, and sexual vulnerability.” Boys, on the other hand, don’t get the same level of concern. This harkens back to a point Smith made, that it will take “an Army of Davids to gather steam to change the tide of injustice and prejudice against men that has been brewing now for more than forty years.” While this is an extreme view, it’s heartening to know that feminism has gained enough steam to be considered a Goliath.

To be clear: no one has purposefully neglected boys in the struggle to achieve gender parity. But maybe feminism has made such great bounds, it’s overlooked certain problems that all American children face—not just females. After all, gender issues aren’t just women’s issues. Expecting girls to be weak is inherently linked to expecting boys to be strong, and neither of those allows for complex, authentic human experiences.

Scott Lukas, a social anthropologist currently at work on a project about “toxic masculinity,” says we’re in the middle of a gender crisis. While we’ve done a good job combating the objectification of women in popular media, now men often get the short end of the stick: “If you see an ad that objectifies a man or a TV show that shows a man as a bad caregiver,” he says, “you have to reject initial kneejerk senses that this is a sign of change, because in a lot of ways, it could just be a reinscription of traditionalism.” These depictions merely present men as grotesque, monstrous, obese, ugly, or unsophisticated. To combat such stereotypes, Lukas supports metrosexuality as an alternate mode of representation. Smith also mentions metrosexuality (a term that actually feels rather dated), but as a negative trend that punishes masculinity.

Wiseman strikes the perfect note in arguing for forging families and societies where we give boys “a language for talking about their worries and experiences like we do with girls.” This means paying attention to everything from your son’s “first Halloween costume with a six-pack sewn into it” to the way his friends call each other “gay” when they really mean stupid, immature, or weak.

Boys, Wiseman told me in an interview, “want strong friendships, and they want to be able to navigate bad things that happen: there are betrayals, there are rejections, there are huge disappointments, and boys don’t know how to talk about it, and they don’t even think, in some ways, they have the right to talk about it. Because of that, they get to a place where they just push it down.” It’s time to start helping with this navigation, so that boys can grow up to be emotionally healthy men—and so that they don’t later blame their problems on feminism.