Yes, we need a White House Council on Men and Boys — but not for the reasons you think

A shorter Saturday night post.

Conservative culture warriors Kathleen Parker (she of Save the Males) and Marybeth Hicks have opined in complaint this week about President Obama’s creation of a White House Council on Women and Girls.

Both determined anti-feminists, Parker and Hicks wonder why the president hasn’t created a council on men and boys. Parker:

Where’s the White House Council on Men and Boys? Okay, let men fend for themselves. But boys really do need our attention, not only for themselves but also for the girls who will be their wives (we hope) someday. We do still hope that boys and girls grow up to marry, don’t we? Preferably before procreating?

Certainly, the Obamas seem to have this hope. A model family, they undoubtedly want their girls to excel and, eventually, to marry equal partners. But boys won’t be equal to girls if we don’t focus some of our resources on their needs and stop advancing the false notion that girls are a special class of people deserving special treatment.

Hicks:

A council on men and boys would promote stable marriage as the best avenue to improve the lives and living conditions of America’s women and families. A council on men and boys would address the crisis in American manhood that results in the scourge of infidelity, divorce, lack of commitment and fatherhood with multiple partners….

Such a council would work to train a new generation of boys to become real men, who honor and uphold women as equals in the workplace, the community and the home – not because the government regulates such an attitude, but because it’s right.

A council on men and boys also would address the underlying problems that create “women’s issues” such as child care, inadequate pay and domestic violence. These aren’t “women’s issues,” but issues related to the systemic collapse of the American family.

Sigh.

And though I’m not sure I’ll ever say this again, but I agree with Parker and Hicks. At least, I agree that a Council on Men and Boys would be very useful, and I would love to see President Obama create just such a White House department. But of course, the vision I have for such a council is worlds apart from that sought by these two conservative pundits.

It’s true that at least in some socio-economic groups, young men are increasingly underperforming their female counterparts in school. It’s true that at least in some subcultures, a large number of young men are disaffected and alienated; many, as brilliantly documented by Michael Kimmel in his magisterial Guyland, are entitled and angry:

Many young men today have a shockingly strong sense of male superiority and a diminished capacity for empathy. They believe that the capacity for empathy and compassion has to be suppressed, early on, in the name of achieving masculinity. That this is true despite the progress of the women’s movement, parents who are psychologically aware and moral, stunning opportunities for men and women, is disappointing at best. But there is no way around it: Most young men who engage in acts of violence — or who watch them and do nothing, or who joke about them with their friends — fully subscribe to traditional ideologies about masculinity, The problem isn’t psychological, these guys aren’t deviants. If anything, they are over-conforming to the hyperbolic expressions of masculinity that still inform American culture.

A White House Council on Men and Boys would confront this entitlement and this “diminished capacity for empathy” as the crisis that it is. It would see that traditional masculine ideals, far from being the solution as Hicks suggests, are at the very root of a series of problems; the futile attempt on the part of so many young males to live up to the “Man Code” is at the root of both the epidemic of violence against women and the profound disaffection of so many “guys”. The White House Council on Men and Boys would bring together leaders from the fields of education, sociology, medicine, psychology and gender studies to begin a very public national conversation about the destructive myths of manhood. The Council would identify strategies for developing empathy and the capacity for emotional sophistication in boys at all grade levels; role models would be identified and recruited to offer a new vision not for masculinity, but for simple humanity.

The goal of the Council would be to drive home the message that biology is not destiny. The Council would press the message that one can be born into a male body and still have unlimited emotional and intellectual potential. Traditional masculinity, with its impossible, “hyperbolic” expectations, is a straitjacket so confining that it ends up deforming almost all those who attempt to fit their lives into its rigid, narrow, brutal rules. Few adult men in American society escape unscathed. Even those of us who have worked hardest to unlearn the ugly lessons of “no sissy stuff” and “be a big wheel” often contend for years with a damaged capacity for empathy and emotional depth; the wound of having been taught at an early age not to cry or show fear can take a lifetime to heal. A White House Council on Men and Boys would work to develop curricula for everyone from kindergartners to college students, with age-appropriate materials and workshops and exercises designed to revision what it means to be male. Men from across the socio-economic and ethnic spectra would be recruited to work in elementary education, not as instructors in single-sex classrooms (single-sex education is a dangerous chimera, a false solution) but as teachers and mentors for boys and girls alike. Those who are willing to bring their empathy and their tenderness as well as their maleness to the classroom must be encouraged to pursue careers in early childhood education.

Above all, a White House Council on Men and Boys would understand that feminism is not the enemy; indeed, it would understand exactly the opposite. Feminism offers opportunity: the opportunity for males to live as full and complete human beings, unencumbered by rigid, cruel, and ultimately impossible expectations for violence and prowess. This Council would work with its already existing counterpart to build a world where biology is not an obstacle to female power or male empathy. Parker and Hicks are right. Our boys do need help. But they don’t need help becoming “men”. They need help becoming fully human.

39 thoughts on “Yes, we need a White House Council on Men and Boys — but not for the reasons you think

  1. The council would also have to focus heavily on minority boys and men, which I rather doubt either of these professional lapdogs would find appealing.

  2. I have a feeling this would be looked at as an attempt to gain male superiority by people who are not as open minded as yourself, even if it is a good idea.

  3. A council on men and boys would address the problems that men and boys face. All of them. I like this article, but there are many more problems.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Let’s see, we have a Council for Women and Girls run by feminists, and your proposed way to balance this is a Council for Men and Boys run by – feminists!
    (How about a Council for Women and Girls run by Mens Rights Activists instead?)

    Also your suggestion that leaders in “gender studies” should help run the thing is a bit self-serving, n’est-ce-pas? Your students having trouble finding jobs in this economy, perhaps?

    Having a government council to try to get males more in touch with their empathetic side? Gimme a break – for one thing, that will never work as long as women show sexual preference for “macho” men, as they still do.

    For another, it might help western men’s empathy if existing government policies could be changed to stop brutalizing them, starting at birth. Challenges for a men’s and boys council might include:

    – genital mutilation of our infant sons (there’s an empathy-killer for both victim and the mothers who predominantly sign those circumcision forms).

    – an education system which marginalizes boys. (We need not just more male teachers, but more teachers that are understanding of boys’ nature and needs. Some female teachers who have worked at this do an amazing job with boys while still being inclusive of and fair to girls in the classroom).

    – workplaces that shrug off men’s injuries and deaths in a way which would not be tolerated if women were so affected

    – institutionalized gender stereotyping in family law which is used to strip fathers of their children and homes. (For some reason NOW and feminists in general don’t care to “de-construct” those stereotypes which benefit them).

    – the death gap, the draft gap, the prison sentencing gap (aka female sentencing discount), the homelessness gap, the spending power gap, …

    – the lack of a male Pill even though the demand (from men, not women though) and the science are both there.

    At least we agree that a Council on Men and Boys would be a good thing. Although in reality I doubt they would address any of the above, and instead foist upon us that toxic mix of chivalry and feminism which seems so commonplace today.

    “Just leave it to the feminists”? No thanks.

  5. Absolutely. We need to show men that they have to move beyond the strict code of masculinity that praises courage and the ability to face violence and danger in the service of the weak.

    We should start developing models of the “new man” by inculcating those new values in those directly employed by the government: the police, firefighters, prison guards, and the military. That is the first order of business.

    Take the police for example. If there is ever an example of “toxic masculinity” it is the police. Police are praised when they show intelligence, courage and persistence when tracking down a criminal, and even killing them when necessary. Some of us weep at their funerals when they “die in the line of duty.” How archaic! The toxicity of this can be seen in the elevated levels of family breakups, suicide and alcoholism among police, and this must stop.

    The “new policeman” will have no use for courage or bravery. Sensitivity, empathy and compassion will be the focus on their training, and we’ll praise police who demonstrate those values in the line of duty. Tracking down criminals will be secondary to the need listen carefully and with patience to the stories of woe they hear along the way. Measuring results, like reduction in murder, rape, robbery will be secondary to the need to show compassion and empathy for the victims. If you are the victim of a violent crime, don’t be surprised if the policeman who takes your report breaks down in tears, and don’t be so self-centered as to suppose those tears are for you. With their background study of sociology, gender justice and multiculturalism, they may be crying for the real victim, and that may not be you.

    We’ll also have to forget any notion that if someone is breaking down the door of your home, that you can call 911, and actually have a complete and total stranger rush to your aid and actually risk their lives in your defense. That might be nice, but you’ll have to realize that we can no longer afford ourselves the supposed benefits of such quaint, retrograde chivalry. The cost to us all is just too high. Similarly you should forget the idea that if you trapped in a fire you can expect strange men – and it is mostly men now – to risk their lives for you.

    The first and most important thing that “new men” have to learn is that fear is not a fault, it is a virtue. We need to completely and thoroughly expunge any archaic “macho” qualities. The “new man” must be encouraged to recoil from violence and danger, and flee from it like everyone else. Action isn’t what is needed – we need more tears.

  6. And. more seriously, Hugo, since you decry the “masculine code” and suppose we need to invent another, can you take this list of the most successful, influential men in the Western world, and tell me what masculine code they have in common.

    Benedict XVI
    Elton John
    Bill Gates
    Barack Obama
    Tiger Woods
    David Letterman
    Stephen Hawking
    Al Gore
    David Petraeus

    What common code have they all adhered to?

  7. Sigh. Tweesdad doesn’t know the comment policy, and won’t be posting here again. For the 23rd time, this is a feminist blog, and while you don’t have to be a feminist to post, you do need to not be openly hostile to the goals of contemporary mainstream feminism.

    STF, you give me a list of extraordinarily successful men and suggest that their prowess somehow argues against the existence of a masculine code; it’s a bit like pointing to the fame of a Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century and using her as proof that sexism didn’t exist.

    I have a former student of mine, a woman — ex-Army now, and recently hired as an LA County Firefighter. She’ll be running into buildings if necessary. The idea that masculinity alone is the repository of virtues like courage is absolutely absurd. Women have always faced death and pain (think of maternal mortality statistics from the pre-industrial world).

  8. Sweating through Fog: Don’t be ridiculous. Hugo wasn’t saying anything of the sort, and you know it. Empathy and courage are not opposites!

  9. STF makes a good point: there are useful, positive aspects of traditional masculinity, just as there are positive aspects of traditional femininity. I don’t think Hugo or anyone else was actually implying otherwise, but: the solution here is not unilateral. We should advocate a code of adulthood in which both women and men are asked to be brave, helpful, and protective of the weak, empathetic, communicative, and nurturing of those in need.

  10. Hugo,

    As you see, men are going to be your major stumbling block in what you propose to implement. And, as it is supposedly something for them, clearly there is some fundamental error in your proposal.

    In short, I don’t think you are ever going to get any significant number of men to buy into an ideal that proposes to make them more like women, and make women more like men.

    (No, I am not saying that’s what you propose. However, that is how the majority of men would see it, I think, and they are never going to agree to give up their monopoly, voluntarily seek out lower-status behaviors, and share higher-status behaviors with the lower-status people [women]). They are perfectly willing to continue to inflict and receive physical violence and die at greater rates than women and have less emotional freedom to maintain the status quo.)

  11. Indeed, Daisy; the goal is to liberate our sons and our daughters to be complete people, with a full range of emotions and ambitions at their disposal.

  12. Lisa, it’s not just for them, but it has benefits for them. It takes time to see those benefits. But if a black man can carry the state of Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, in a presidential election — then a lot of what was once thought impossible can be possible. In the end, radical equality between men and women is going to happen. By every measure, we are winning the so-called culture war. And what will happen, I predict, is that those most hostile to egalitarianism will, like the southern white racists of the past, discover that what they feared most isn’t really all that bad. Indeed, just as many former bigots came to embrace civil rights, so many men will, in time — a long time — come to embrace the liberating power of feminism.

    I believe that to my core. But I’m an evangelical by nature, inclined to deep and profound optimism!

  13. Hugo,

    I claim that your masculine code is a gender studies construct, a way of blaming men in general for the bad behavior of particular men. It is your way of holding up examples of bad male behavior and characterizing that as intrinsically masculine, a consequence of some relentlessly enforced masculine standards of behavior that men and men alone. In contrast I argue that men have now, and have always had, many paths to success, accomplishment and praise. These paths – art, science, learning, spirituality – are ignored by gender studies, because gender studies needs to promote the existence of a toxic masculine code as a justification for its existence.

    No, I am certainly not arguing that men alone have courage. In what I wrote above I wasn’t talking about courage in general but a specific type of courage – the willingness to risk your life for strangers, and yes, lots of women have that as well. But men are encouraged to do that and they are shamed when they are confronted with a situation and they don’t do that.

    The reason I wrote what I did above is because of your belief that this council should focus on education. Education is the “nice” side of government – why not start with the violent edges of government – the police, corrections officers and the military? The part of our society that often lies invisible beneath our relative comfort and security. But of course we won’t start there – toxic men somehow seem less toxic when we think their behavior serves our interests.

    So by all means start teaching boys about empathy and compassion, and pretend that this is something new and revolutionary. Pretend we don’t already teach them about Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Einstein, Gandhi and Eli Wiesel.

  14. Lisa, Hugo,

    I think you’re pointing to something important, Lisa: Female mating habits and their power to define masculinity. It’s not masculinity per se that makes men brave – it’s their explicit or implicit knowledge that by being more masculine they will get laid (more). If you get women to find men who cry a lot more sexy than tough guys, it won’t be long before men will take crying lessons. If women will still pick tough guys because they like them better, you can promote the ideal of the crying full-emotional-range person with as much money as you like and create as many councils as you like, the ideal of masculinity will not change become kinder and gentler. Women have the say on masculinity in the medium and long run…

  15. For heaven’s sakes, STF, I didn’t mean education in the classroom alone. The masculine code is not taught by Mrs. Jones in second grade. It’s taught by slightly older male peers on the playground at recess.

    Joe Ehrmann, America’s preeminent pro-feminist football coach, has it right. Read about him here: http://hugoschwyzer.net/2005/02/02/honoring-joe-ehrmann-and-men-transforming-football-culture/

    We need to raise up more Joe Ehrmanns, and put them into positions of power in the institutions (the military, prisons, sports) which are bastions of the Guy Code.

    By the way, you know which American college football coach is taking the lead on providing gender sensitivity training to his players? Pete Carroll of USC. His teams have done pretty darned well, and his professed disdain for machismo is legendary.

  16. Hugo,

    While I read your post and comment about Coach Ehrmann and reacted favorably, there was something that troubled me, and it took me a little while to put my finger on it.

    He’s being held up (rightly in my view) as a model for two things 1) a positive mentoring relationship with boys, and 2) the fact that his teams have been successful.

    It is that second part that bothers me – pointing out outward success to legitimize human relationships. Outward success as a measure of human value … I thought we trying to move beyond that aspect of the code? And to just judge men on their personal qualities, not whether they are winners or not?

    I’m thinking if there is some code (and I remain skeptical) it may be a bit harder to move beyond than we thought.

  17. Something to annoy everyone today…

    Hugo, I would like to see the cultural ideal of masculinity change in the ways you describe, but I don’t see how the government (which is essentially a bureaucracy with bombs) can or should be involved in reshaping our psyches, particularly in such an intimate area as sexual identity. Whereas my guess is that the “Office of Women and Girls” would address more concrete legal and economic disadvantages faced by women.

    Sweating Through Fog, can we please retire the “man who cries” argument? It’s a false choice between the macho brute and the narcissistic boy-man. Those are not the only two ways to be male.

  18. Jendi,

    Agree completely that those are not the only two ways to be male – I’m the one arguing that there are many, many ways to me a man in today’s society. I’m the one arguing that there is really no masculine code that we’re all forced to adhere to.

  19. Sweating Through Fog–I was under the impression that the success of Coach Ehrmann’s teams was important because there is a perception (as brought up in your “crying policeman” comment) that men who reject the toxic, unemotional parts of masculinity must also necessarily forgo the parts where they can be assertive, physical, and successful.

    More generally, it’s my observation that boys who are brought up to be sure of themselves, and who have positive rolemodels for masculinity, have the freedom to pursue success and personhood in a very wide variety of ways, as has been pointed out. It’s when that system falls down, and when boys are forced to flail around to find a concept of masculinity without any help or guidance from adult male mentors, that they and their friends fall into the emotionally rigid “guy code” Hugo describes.

    (I think feminism needs to be part of the discussion of what’s happening to men and boys. If men perceive womanhood as a weak and loathsome state, they will quite naturally turn themselves into human pretzels–or emotional cripples–to avoid ever being “feminine”)

  20. Lis,

    In my policeman example, I wasn’t trying to draw some false dichotomy between being macho and being weak. I was trying to point out that many of us who claim to be more empathetic, more compassionate and just plain better human beings than those poor stunted brutes rely on men like that in order to be able to sleep at night.

    In my challenge to Hugo I listed lots of well-known men, many of whom are not macho or brutish in any sense, and who are seen as models that many men wish to emulate. Hence there is no masculine code. No one, but no one, believes more in a universal, and brutal masculine code than gender studies students. They need to take an adolescent manifestation of behavior and define it as the linchpin of what it means to be a man. They do this because they want to characterize men in general as wounded, predatory and dangerous.

    Now I agree with you that lots of man are in fact wounded, predatory and dangerous. Lots of women are too. I just think that is a continuing manifestation of human sin – and, unfortunately it isn’t something unique about our society.

    In general I agree with Daisy – we need to teach all people, not just men, compassion and empathy. Making this a gender issue, supposing that men alone require some remediation in this area, is what I object to.

  21. And what’s so great about “equality”, anyway? Rather than demanding that everyone be the same, why not demand that everyone be allowed to be who they want to be, and let the chips fall as they may? Instead of trying to control what people are, why not try to liberate what they can become?

  22. Sweating Through Fog: I agree that many “traditionally” masculine men have done a lot for society, and their sacrifices are valuable and should be honoured. On the other hand, it isn’t necessary for men in those roles to utterly sacrifice empathy, and I think we agree that reality doesn’t match the stereotype. “Guy Code” is an ideal that’s only sometimes seen in the wild. I grew up in an army town. Some men came home and couldn’t put that armour down–they were distant, angry, and sometimes abusive with their families. I saw it as a child and teen–they had no patience with their children being weak, uncertain, or at all emotional. Others (most, really) had a wider emotional range, and could act as their job demanded in the field, but come home and deal with their emotions normally.

    “Instead of trying to control what people are, why not try to liberate what they can become?”

    That’s what feminists are pushing for. A society that tells men from infancy that they can’t experience things like empathy and must always be invulnerable and in control, and tells women that they can’t be intelligent and capable, is not interested in letting people be who they naturally are. It is interested in controlling them.

  23. Hugo,
    Send this post to Obama! This is a fabulous idea and I believe “you” should be on this Council for men and boys, or at least be an advisor.

  24. Lis, it’s true that feminism pushes to allow women to be intelligent and capable, and men to be empathic and vulnerable. And that’s great – but it’s not the same thing as pushing for people to be free. It’s pushing for people to be allowed to do what feminists want them to do. I don’t claim that our society is oriented around letting people be who they wish to be – but neither is feminism.

  25. “If you get women to find men who cry a lot more sexy than tough guys, it won’t be long before men will take crying lessons. ”

    Men who cry are totally hot.

    As for the seeming belief that some men have that women prefer macho men, some may prefer macho men. It has been my experience that many women, however, are literally dying for men who are soft and gentle in relationships with them.

    Plus, women are -taught- that more traditionally masculine men are more attractive. Just as men can unlearn that traditional masculinity is not attractive, so can women.

  26. Anyone who thinks old-school tough guys lack empathy or sensitivity has never stood next to a friend who is a highly decorated combat veteran, retired from Special Forces, and rock-ribbed conservative Republican weeping at the Vietnam memorial.

    There is a simple reason that you don’t see their tears, and that they don’t share them with you – because you’ve mocked those tears, belittled their source, and told them to suck it up, because your causes are much more worthy of their tears.

    The day you understand that they weep as much that such men died as that they lived to begin with, will be the day you understand why they reject your philosophy and the “solutions” you derive thereof.

  27. “There is a simple reason that you don’t see their tears, and that they don’t share them with you – because you’ve mocked those tears, belittled their source, and told them to suck it up, because your causes are much more worthy of their tears.”

    It’s traditionally very “masculine” institutions like the military that mock men who cry, not feminists.

  28. As a feminist, I see the normalisation of violence towards and by men as a central issue. No feminst I know ever objected to a war vetran grieving. I’m a pacifist AND a feminist and I see the two things as very much linked. This is why I will never see Maggie Thatcher as a good female role model – too many unnecessary wars – too many dead, injured and traumatised men. Same with Blair, and Bush etc in the US – I couldn’t see them as good male role models either.

  29. Currently believed to be one of the most sexiest men alive by a great number of women:

    Patrick Dempsey for his role in Grey’s Anatomy.

    For anyone who doesn’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, Dempsey and his character are very far from being tough. Dr. McDreamy is, in fact, downright feminist. Dr. McDreamy is compassionate, empathetic, and treats the women around him with the utmost respect. Quite damn far from being traditionally “masculine”. And, yes, as someone who watches the show on a regular basis, I believe that it is Dempsey’s character as well as him that women are overall attracted to. I wasn’t attracted to Dempsey at all until I started watching the show.

    (I put quotations around the word “masculine” because I ultimately reject the words masculinity and femininity all together.)

    http://www.tvguide.com/tvshows/greys-anatomy/photos/191535/326

  30. Not totally on topic, but it’s something I’ve contemplated before…re men crying–in the intimate relationships I’ve had with men, the vast majority of whom have been “old fashioned” manly men, two of them hard-core ex-military types, they’ve all cried. Interestingly enough, they’ve all cried for the same reasons I’ve cried–I hurt their feelings, or a close relative hurt their feelings, or somebody died, or they experienced an episode of extreme humiliation among their peers and superiors, or etc. The illusion that these “old school” types don’t cry and/or don’t do it for the exact same reasons women cry is one that’s clearly widespread, and bought into by other men as well. I’m guessing this is because the only person these guys figure they can cry in front of without losing their social standing as “old school” manly men (read: far superior to women and girly-men) is their female significant other, but it doesn’t negate the fact that yep, men no matter how traditionally masculine cry and yep, do it for the same reasons the girlies do.

  31. Hugo, by stating that men that are against what’s going on like the ‘racists in the southern states’ is like comparing apples to oranges. Racial equality and gender equality is probably something most people if not all people would want.

    However, if you’ve been to a college campus lately and seen the lack of the desire to date or looked at how young ‘girls’ (yes girls not women) at the age of 9 are getting pregnant due to this so called movement then you’d be just as skeptical as me.

    I really and truly want equality for all. It just seems that sexual liberation for women means that they can be overly sexual and men won’t want that kind of woman for a wife.

    Also you are completely wrong about men getting mail order brides for a submissive, vulnerable woman. I’m sure there are a few men that would do that for that reason but the overwhelming majority of men go overseas to seek out women that look and act feminine, not submissive and vulnerable.

    The attitudes of women from this so called movement have made a very large number of men prefer (probably larger than you’d want to admit) to stay single or head overseas for marriage.

    I really hope that things would work out but I already see the effects on women my age and younger. Equal pay should always be challenged but I think you’ll just get a more and more rebellious younger generation as you try to pass this along.

    If you really don’t think women aren’t becoming more masculine then I think you don’t really know what’s going on in the cities of the Western countries and if you think that men want women to behave like men (as they are starting to do) for a possible marriage partner then I don’t know where you’re coming from at all.

    Also, there are many women from overseas that know how to be independent and are intelligent as any woman living in western countries.

    Humanist-

  32. Pingback: Father-Trauma And The Gender System (Or, Traditional Masculinity Is The Problem, Not The Solution) « Dear Diaspora

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