This week’s International Women’s Day came and went, as it tends to do, with great media fanfare. The day, originally cooked up at the 1910 International Women’s Socialist Conference, rolled in with triumphant declarations of girl power, repeated celebrations of women in STEM jobs — paired with a host of obligatory reminders that there are simply not enough of them — and impassioned pleadings for greater female representation in things such as farcical cartoons featuring the secret lives of high-school ninjas on Mars.
Across its websites, McDonald’s turned its world-famous arches upside down to form a “W,” which stands for “What’s really in the McRib, anyway?” Just kidding. You know what it stands for: Women! Not to be outdone, Kim Kardashian, a person who is still famous, cheerily promoted a brand-spanking-new line of KIMOJIs — these are custom-crafted Kardashian emojis, which I did not know existed until this very moment — with a “feminist” edge. Two feature naked people, one references abortion, and another reads “The future is NASTY NASTY NASTY.”
In short, in our culture, International Women’s Day was pretty much like any other day. In America, cheers for women abound. Girls are often praised, in fact, just for being girls. They’ve been long oppressed, we’re told; we need to eternally shore them up. “Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone,” actor Michael Ian Black recently wrote in a much-discussed New York Times op-ed.
They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.
For boys, it’s a dramatically different story. The title of Black’s op-ed, in case you’re wondering, is “The Boys Are Not All Right.”
If you’re a parent to multiple boys in this day and age, perhaps you know the drill: Every once in a while, a friendly-yet-awestruck stranger will approach and publicly note the apparently terrifying gender of your children. It happens more often than you might think. On planes. In restaurants. At Target. “Oh, my goodness! You have all boys? ALL BOYS? I’m so sorry!” Insert a pause, a dramatic gasp, and a knowing/troubled look here. The weirdest part comes when they stand and wait for you to agree.
“Boys are fantastic,” I usually say, moving right along. Alas, not everyone thinks so.
We are told that boys need forced female friendship to curb their aggressive instincts.
“It’s tempting to believe that boys are not ‘hardwired’ to care about feelings or friendship,” notes a recent New York magazine piece, part of a larger and questionable chin-stroking series called “How to Raise a Boy.” Really? Who finds this belief tempting, and has that person ever interacted with a real live boy? Further in the piece, we are told that boys need forced female friendship to curb their aggressive instincts, and that “by the end of elementary school,” boys are “starting to sexually objectify girls.” In other words, by going through puberty, they’re automatically oppressing women. Ah. Okay.
“The power white American boys have been taught to seize for generations comes from the already powerless, women, people of color, everyone who isn’t us,” notes another piece in the “How to Raise a Boy” series, written by a man. “Which is why, in a macro sense, the lessening power of men (straight and white particularly) is an unquestioned societal good. When others rise, we must fall.” I could point out that this is an almost flawless example of Milton Friedman’s fixed-pie fallacy — the mistaken assumption that “one party can gain only at the expense of another.” Ideally, we should work together to grow the proverbial pie and lift all proverbial pie-stocked ships, but hey, why bother? That’s apparently no fun at all.
“Teenage boys and men are almost entirely the bad actors in certain crises the nation is facing, like mass shootings and sexual harassment,” noted a recent New York Times piece, detailing a growing American parental “bias against boys.” Michael Thompson, a “psychologist who studies the development of boys,” told the Times that “there is now a subtle fear of boys and the trouble they might bring.”
One of those fears, according to “The Drugging of the American Boy,” a 2014 Esquire investigation by Ryan D’Agostino, is attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — a fear that is leading perfectly normal and active boys to be drugged in potentially harmful ways. “By high school, nearly 20 percent of all boys will have been diagnosed with ADHD — a 37 percent increase since 2003,” the report noted. Among the kids diagnosed with ADHD “are a significant percentage of boys who are swallowing pills every day for a disorder they don’t have.”
For many, the “disorder” involves simply acting like a boy: “We are pathologizing boyhood,” psychiatrist Ned Hallowell told D’Agostino. In an age of increasing gender-related anxiety, this seems to be true in more ways than one.