What we need to learn from a 12-year-old boy’s tragic suicide.
On Wednesday, December 3, Ronin Shimizu took his own life. He was twelve years old.
He is remembered as a positive child who was not afraid to follow his heart. He was also the only boy on his cheerleading team, and he was bullied incessantly for it.
“Ronin was a target of bullying by individuals that could not understand or accept his uniqueness. Ronin was not just a target of bullying because of his participation in cheer, but for him just being Ronin.” — Brandon and Danielle Shimizu’s statement on their son’s death
The news of Ronin’s death has spread worldwide, initiating and contributing to a very important conversation about bullying among youth. Bullying prevention is absolutely an important response, but this tragedy deserves another conversation: an acknowledgement of the consequences of societal ideals of masculinity, and the question of how many more boys need to die before we say enough is enough.
I’m not saying that tongue-in-cheek; I mean it seriously. Ronin’s story is achingly familiar. He didn’t conform to society’s expectations of his gender identity, so he was bullied. He was called gay. He masked his fears. He died by suicide.
None of this should have happened. Ronin Shimizu did not need to die.
Boys can’t be themselves
Ronin was being bullied badly before he switched to homeschool, and it didn’t stop. According to his parents, he wasn’t a target solely because of his involvement with cheerleading, but for the specialness he possessed.
Youth who identify (or are identified) as male live within a narrow construction of masculinity that prohibits qualities and behaviours that are perceived to be feminine. They are told, explicitly and implicitly, to fit within boys-will-be-boys behaviour, and to strive for the ideals of being a ‘real man.’
“The ways in which we view and respond to boys continue to be heavily influenced by conventions of masculinity, including those that have been shown to be outdated or harmful to boys’ and men’s well-being.” — Judy Chu, When Boys Become Boys (2014)
Yeah, this is harmful. Because when a boy refuses to adhere to rigid gender-based expectations, whether by wearing ‘feminine’ clothing or joining the cheerleading team or anything else, he is punished. Masculinity requires conformity. The punishment often comes from other boys, but the message is perpetuated by parents and media sources. Through feelings of shame, fear and isolation, boys learn that it is not okay to be different — and more often than not, to resist is to stand alone.
“Although constructions of masculinity may look as if they are changing, with more heterosexual boys and men wearing earrings and skinny jeans in 2011 than in 1989, they are changing mostly on the surface — in what people wear — and not necessarily in how we think and behave. Evidence of this pattern is found in the recent spate of suicides of boys who have been harassed by their peers for being emotionally effusive, liking to dance, different, and thus ‘gay.’” — Niobe Way, Deep Secrets (2011)
Again, this is harmful. According to Dan Kindlon, suicide rates for teenagers have more than tripled since 1950. By far, most of those who die are boys.
And boys can’t be vulnerable
According to Ronin’s classmates, he never revealed how much he was hurting. His friend Hunter said: “He just kept going on with life. He was always so happy, like the happiest person I’ve ever met.” In the photos circulated by local news channels, there is no hint of depression or inner struggle.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t hurting.
‘Big boys don’t cry.’ We’ve all heard it before. Not only that, we’ve justified it as a necessary part of growing up and building self-reliance, believing it will provide protection. In reality, when we teach a boy to deny his feelings — especially feelings of pain and vulnerability — we set him up for failure.
“We see many boys with a lot of pain and a lot of dignity; they’re bearing it the best they can, doing the best they can to be good soldiers, just digging in until the battle’s won. […] Boys try to minimize their feelings. Like a Clint Eastwood character, a boy imagines himself to be willing to take the bullet — take the emotional pain — and act as if it doesn’t matter. They believe that, if they’re brave enough and strong enough, they can steel themselves and go on.” — Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (2009)
Boys hold on to that stoicism as tightly as they can. And in hiding their sadness, they inadvertently prevent themselves from getting the support they need when they are not doing well emotionally.
As William Pollack wrote, every boy needs to cry sometimes, to tell someone how much he hurts and have them respond with empathy. Yet society teaches him to avoid vulnerability, which leaves him feeling lonely and uncertain, or pushes him towards more serious consequences.
“We have come to grips with the fact that every boy has an inner life, that their hearts are full. Every boy is sensitive, and every boy suffers. This is a scary idea for many adults, who, consciously or unconsciously, don’t want to acknowledge a boy’s emotional vulnerability.” — Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys(2009)
His life could be at stake.
I hesitated to write this article out of compassion for Ronin’s parents, and out of respect for his privacy and how little I really know about his life. I decided to follow through in order to honour his memory and work to protect those that are struggling the same way he did.
I hesitated to write this because after hearing of Ronin’s death, I am not feeling angry or political or thoughtful.
I am utterly heartbroken.
“There is no reason we should wait until a boy feels hopeless or suicidal to address his inner experience. The time to listen to boys is now.” — William Pollack
We need to listen, and we need to address the consequences of idealized constructions of masculinity. Until we do, boys like Ronin — and genderfluid boys, boys of colour, nonhetero boys, and anyone else who might face masculinity-based bullying — are not truly safe.
Because Ronin Shimizu did not need to die, and he did.
This post originally appeared at medium.com. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: Screen shot/Fox40