I’m trying to raise a man here, and you’re not helping.
Raising a human being is daunting enough, let alone nurturing a compassionate, expressive, confident boy. Now that I have a son and have started to tune in to some of the issues and trends that affect boys today, this task seems even harder.
This past summer, I was watching our female athletes — Missy Franklin, Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh and Gabby Douglas, to name just a few — kick ass in the 2012 Olympics. The program cut to commercial and a Nike ad came on featuring women discussing the obstacles they overcame in order to participate in sports. They spoke of being spit on and beaten up, insulted and dismissed, just because they wanted to play the sport they loved.
The ad and its message moved me to tears. In that moment, I felt thankful to be a woman in this time and in this place, and my heart swelled with feelings of hopefulness and pride.
The ad ended and — in an abrupt departure from the moving commentary on women’s rights — the screen shifted to three doofuses discussing “The Law of Pizzaplicity.” I found myself thinking, And … here’s what our boys have to aspire to.
Thanks to Oprah and Lifetime TV, we’re finally talking about the troubles facing our young women. Everywhere I look, I see strong, inspiring role models for our nation’s girls: Michelle Obama. Malala Yousafzai. Tina Fey. Hilary Clinton. Jodie Foster. Marissa Mayer. Lena Dunham. Betty White.
But what about our boys?
Lucky for us, my son is blessed with a strong male role model at home and in both of his grandfathers. But it scares me when I look at some of the men our society idolizes. Before long, my son will idolize them too.
So many of our boys’ role models showboat on the playing field; they lie, cheat and boast of accomplishments they did not earn. They objectify women and tear down people and ideas that scare them. They put monetary and political success before their families. And, possibly most concerning, they’re portrayed in TV and movies as lazy, helpless idiots while their competent female counterparts shake their heads and smile condescendingly.
Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. David Petraeus. Brett Favre. Chris Brown. Roger Clemens. John Edwards. Mel Gibson.
Granted, there are plenty of women out there doing harm, as well: Honey Boo Boo’s mom, those harpies on “Dance Moms,” Ann Coulter, Lindsay Lohan. Even Courtney Cox has let our nation’s girls down now that she’s had more plastic surgery than Chandler Bing’s dad.
The difference is that society has shined its collective light on the plight of our young women, and the increase in awareness seems to be working: According to the Pew Research Center, not only do women greatly outnumber men in college enrollment and completion, but women also have a more positive view of the value of education. This disparity is only projected to increase substantially in future years.
And if we can’t agree there’s reason to worry about our boys in light of the frightening increase in school shootings we’ve seen, I don’t know what it will take. Every single one of these horrific events has been perpetrated by a man. Every. Single. One.
When it comes to our boys, we’re turning a blind eye to some disturbing trends: violent behavior, emotional immaturity, low self-esteem. According to Dr. William Pollack, author of “Real Boys”:
“Many boys today are struggling either silently, with low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness and isolation, or publicly, by acting out feelings of emotional and social disconnection through anger and acts of violence against themselves or their friends and families. While academic performance and self-esteem are low, the rates of suicide and depression are on the rise.”
As a society, we need to stop championing athletes who never grow up, celebrities who debase women or minorities, politicians who lie with no ramifications. We need to agree that a change in how women are portrayed in movies and on TV doesn’t have to come at the expense of men. We need to speak out against a company who rewards an 18-year-old kid for skipping college and entering the NBA draft with an endorsement deal worth over $90 million.
Perhaps, if we start to change what we value, we can stem the tide of male role models falling from grace. Lance Armstrong is not solely to blame. Nor is Tiger Woods or our most recent athlete to publicly embarrass himself, Manti Te’o, whose father recently defended his son’s poor judgment by saying, “He’s not a liar, he’s a kid. He’s a 21-year-old kid trying to be a man.”
Soon enough, my boy — my precious baby boy — will be on his own journey toward “trying to be a man.” I see how closely he watches his dad. I know that, in time, he’ll widen his idolatry to include the athletes and celebrities we hold up as heroes, but who are really just men. By that time, I hope our society will be doing better for him than we are now.