I bet you found that mean phrase on t-shirts and in books everywhere.
When you type the words, “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them,” into the search bar on Amazon, you will find a range of clothing and books featuring the phrase available for purchase. Why would we wear clothing that calls boys stupid, or read books that encourages throwing rocks at them?
If clothes or books aren’t your thing, you can turn on any comedy and find similar messages. For example, The Simpsons, a long running favorite, features Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. Both of the male characters, Homer and Bart make us laugh at their stupidity. The female characters, in contrast, are exceptionally bright. The Office, another favorite, features a clueless male main character who can’t do anything right.
Plenty of popular memes belittle men online as well. I recently saw: “Man Flu: An illness that causes the male of a species to be helpless and sicker than any other family member. In females: a cold.” Any suggestion that a man feels anything other than strong and powerful provokes merciless responses.
Ridiculing men seems to be one of America’s favorite comedic pastimes. Why is this? To answer that question, I turned to a man named Robert McKee. McKee’s book “Story,” is recommended by all great modern day storytellers and his workshops are legendary. William Goldman, Academy Award winning screenwriter said, “No matter what continent you live on, if you look outside and see a group of writers or movie nuts gathering, probably Robert McKee is in town.”
In McKee’s book, he explains an important rule of comedy. He says, “In Comedy, the audience must feel that no matter how characters bounce off walls, no matter how they scream and writhe under the whips of life, it doesn’t really hurt.” As the audience, we would feel guilty watching characters get hurt and laughing about it, but if we believe they aren’t really hurt, then we can laugh guilt free. Classic cartoons like Tom and Jerry or Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner are perfect examples. Tom and Wile E. Coyote are continually smashed, burned and injured, but they always bounce back good as new; so we laugh without feeling bad.
This theory likely explains why we think it’s okay to make fun of men and boys. No matter how we ridicule and belittle them, we believe at the end of the day they’re going to bounce back and be just fine. There is some evidence to support that belief. Men do have higher average salaries around the world (World Bank). They have more leisure time and spend less time doing unpaid work (OECF). They are also less likely to experience gender based violence (ABA).
But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. Culturally, men are taught from young ages not to cry, not to feel, and not to talk about their pain; but that does not mean they have no pain. In an article called, “A Self Portrait of Male Depression” by Christopher Scott Downing, he writes, “A depressed man will master faking it when he can’t master anything else.” When men become masters of faking how they feel, they limit their options for coping with pain. The lucky ones find friends, family, or a social network where they can be real and find support; but most are not so lucky. A study done by the University of Arizona and Duke University asked men how many close friends they had. The most common response was zero (Social Isolation).
Without social support, it’s more likely that men will turn to substances or activities that disguise or numb their feelings. Alcohol, drugs, violence, and even suicide are common ways men cope when they’re in pain. The Center for Disease Control says almost 1 in 5 men will meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their life (CDC). A National Survey on Drug Use found that 1 in 10 men reported using illegal drugs in the last month (Survey). Men make up 75-80% of violent offenders in the United States (DOJ), and commit 83% of spousal murders (ABA). The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says 77.9% of all suicides in 2013 were male (AFSP).
Despite what we might see in the movies, men aren’t like Tom and Wile E. Coyote. They don’t always bounce back “good as new” tomorrow. One the surface they may fake it well, but evidence shows deep down men are hurting, a lot. Yet instead of building them up, we keep throwing rocks at them. While this may make for entertaining television, it does not make for emotionally healthy men.
I often get criticized when I suggest we treat men with dignity and respect, so let me try saying it this way: many of the problems women experience actually have their roots in the problems men experience. We can’t make life better for women without also making it better for men.
We should all increase our efforts to teach the boys and men we care about that those things traditionally considered feminine, like emotions, warmth and connection are not weaknesses, but rather strengths. A perspective change like this would not only increase respect for women, but would also make it more socially acceptable for men to reach out for emotional and social support when they need it—which would make relying on emotion numbing activities and substances less necessary.
To make this change, we need storytellers, screenwriters and producers to create more stories with characters our young boys can emulate. Instead of bumbling idiots, or violent superheroes, will everyone attending McKee’s story seminars consider creating more depth for our boys? How about wise fathers who feel, connect and maintain committed relationships with their families? Instead of throwing rocks at them, how about skipping rocks with them? And how about more comedies that inspire rather than belittle?
Parents can participate too by pointing out the damaging stereotypes depicted in our entertainment and teaching our sons that they can consciously reject those messages. And rather than teaching our boys their feelings are weak with phrases like “man up” and “be a man,” we can validate and comfort them with phrases like, “that must have really hurt” and “I’ve felt that way before too.” Making it safe for boys (and men) to feel and find support will benefit everyone; and I, for one, am going to start today.