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A New Model of Masculinity

A New Model of Masculinity


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March 3, 2018 Credit…Morozov Photo/iStock, via Getty Images Plus

To the Editor:

Re “The Boys Are Not All Right,” by Michael Ian Black (Op-Ed, Feb. 22), which links violence by boys and men to our concepts of masculinity:

Mr. Black asks how we can help boys. Humans are not born empathetic. Empathy is taught. Parents, caretakers, teachers and coaches must teach boys empathy by showing them affection, compassion and understanding. By responding to their needs. By giving them a safe place to express emotions and an ear to discuss them. By nurturing them.

When someone tells my 5-year-old son, “Boys don’t cry,” he answers, “That’s not true.” Boys cry as much as girls until they’re scolded or insulted when they do. When our son cries, we let him. When he hurts himself, we comfort him. When he’s angry, we try to understand what’s bothering him. The result? His teachers tell us how kind, gentle and thoughtful he is to other children. He is still a confident, outgoing, pirate-loving boy. But we have raised him without false, demeaning, sexist views about what it means to be male or female. To us, it isn’t about gender. It’s about love.


To the Editor:

I play pool with a friend of mine three to four times a month. Pool is just the excuse — the vehicle to get together to understand what’s going on in each other’s lives. Implicit in those conversations is the expression of understanding of manhood. It’s all indirect, often subtle, but it’s unquestionably there.

Women just need to listen to men converse without assumptions. We’ll rarely use such terms as mindfulness, journey, vulnerability etc. They simply do not suit our gender. But we cover these topics all the time. Women and men discuss identity differently. And that’s O.K. Really. But the last thing men want to do is talk about such stuff directly. But it’s being discussed all the time. All the time.


To the Editor:

By continuing to look at gender, and specifically at boys, through a heteronormative lens, we’re solidifying a binary: men as emotionally repressed, testosterone-driven predators, and women as emotionally available caregivers and targets of men’s rage. Tragically, we’re obliterating men who fall outside this narrow template of masculinity. This encourages a culture that does not recognize men as complex individualized selves. No less than women, men should not be collapsed into a rigidly stereotyped gender identity.

In our current American culture, where women, in many areas of their lives, incorporate masculine threads and men, feminine ones, many men today actually live multigendered lives. Isn’t it time to look at men — and gender — more expansively? Only then can we begin to recognize men not only as producers and predators but as the guardians in young boys’ lives — fathers, uncles, teachers, coaches — who encourage these malleable selves to embrace their own and others’ uniqueness.


The writer is a psychoanalyst and the co-author of a forthcoming book, “Beyond the Phallic Man: A Socio-Psychoanalytic Inquiry Into the Private Lives of Men.”

To the Editor:

Michael Ian Black raises a compelling question about American masculinity. In America, the popular conception of manhood has always come primarily from movies. The male protagonists of the silver screen, from John Wayne to Sean Connery to Harrison Ford to George Clooney to Denzel Washington, have defined our ideal of what a man should be. In movies, men’s cleaned-up, choreographed, heroic representations of gunfire and fistfights have presented for us romanticized, highly unrealistic notions of what violence is all about. We have accordingly developed a warped sense of how to handle aggression.

The hero (we tend to see ourselves as the hero in the movies of our lives) says, “Bring it on,” and starts firing automatic weapons. Unlike, say, Shakespearean protagonists, he has no serious character flaws, conflicted feelings, fears, guilt or regrets. He always knows what is right and acts on it unfailingly. He has, in short, no vulnerability.

Superheroes, from Superman to the Black Panther, are likewise fearless, intrepid and invulnerable. This ideal hardly squares with our inner life as men. Obviously movies are not to blame for the mental illness that sometimes causes gun violence. But they play an underrated part in the roles we assign to gender identity.


The writer is an actor.

To the Editor:

This was a great article about the complexities of growing to a different manhood. The boys are not all right, but then a large portion of our business, social and personal lives are controlled by men who still promote this “suffocating, outdated model of masculinity.” We do have some different models of masculinity, such as Barack Obama, John Lewis, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, many religious leaders and more. They are mocked and belittled by the macho culture of our society. Changing this macho culture is the solution for our boys as well as our girls.


To the Editor:

Michael Ian Black is correct when he asserts that “America’s boys are broken.” One way to begin to fix them is through books. In this digital age, too few American boys take the time to read great literary texts. That is sad because studies have shown that engagement with great literature builds empathy and fosters healthy self-reflection.

We need to encourage boys to put down their phones and pick up good books that deal with the issues that growing boys face. Begin with Mark Twain’s great classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the story of an abused teenage boy who runs away and bonds with a kind runaway slave.

Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories feature a boy who grows into manhood and experiences the horrors of war. To regain his emotional balance after the war, Nick reconnects with the natural world that he loved as a boy. He regains control of his life with a fishing rod, not a gun, in his hands.

James Baldwin’s fine short story “Sonny’s Blues” is narrated by an older brother who has survived the hazards of ghetto life but whose younger brother Sonny has surrendered to drugs. But after a prison term, Sonny gets high by stroking the keys of a piano.

Please send your boys to the libraries.


The writer is a professor of English at Roger Williams University.

To the Editor:

Michael Ian Black points out the difficulties boys have in finding a reasonable model for manhood among the conflicting expectations in our society. For many of us our earliest examples of how men should behave involved physical power and violence. As a boy I wanted the opportunity to demonstrate physical courage, which I equated with manhood. But I missed the many opportunities I had to exercise moral courage.

My heroes today are children, both boys and girls, who take unpopular stands against injustice and cruelty. They might teach adult leaders about real courage: compassion, honesty, restraint and truthfulness.


The writer is a psychologist.

To the Editor:

After reading “The Boys Are Not All Right,” I was struck by the similarities between gun violence and the sexual misconduct/harassment cases that have flooded the media. As Michael Ian Black states, “manhood is measured in strength” and “manliness is about having power over others.” Some men turn to guns as an expression of rage, violence or revenge, while other men, perhaps with more fame, money and recognition, use their power to express themselves through sexual acts involving domination and control.

Whether it be with a gun or sex organ, the harm that these groups of men and boys are inflicting on society needs to be understood.


To the Editor:

Michael Ian Black writes: “There has to be a way to expand what it means to be a man without losing our masculinity. I don’t know how we open ourselves to the rich complexity of our manhood.” There’s a very simple answer. Make sure boys grow up with some gay male friends in their life. That would go a long way to help them understand that empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity are not to be feared. They might also benefit from better modeling on how to treat and get along with women.


To the Editor:

Michael Ian Black is right, technically, when he says there’s no movement for men that’s “commensurate” with feminism. But if he’s implying that there’s no men’s movement, period, he’s wrong.

I know because I’m one of the thousands of men in it. Every week, I meet with about a dozen other men in the poorly ventilated library of a church, on a night when A.A. isn’t using it. Some of us are fathers, some not; some are straight, some not; some were born into male bodies, some not. All we have in common is that we’re men and we’re trying to embody a mature masculinity that welcomes the whole male experience — shame and sadness, anger and desire, tenderness and joy. I think of us as trying to, as W. H. Auden wrote, “give back to the son the mother’s richness of feeling.”

It’s hard, slow work. But men are out there doing it. Get on the internet and you’ll find them.


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