This tenderness. We just…erase it.
— Lukas Dhont
This single comment from my interview for Ms. Magazine with Close filmmaker Lukas Dhont speaks directly to the root cause of millions of men’s ongoing violence, anxiety, and dysfunction. Close is a powerful fictional narrative, based on decades of research by Professor Niobe Way which directly addresses how our culture of masculinity bullies our sons out of close intimate friendships, condemning men to lifetimes of disconnection.
“They talk about wanting to share deep secrets,” Way told me. “Boys say these kinds of things directly. Boys want friendships where they don’t get laughed at when they’re feeling sad or when they do something embarrassing. Boys want to be listened to. They want deep connection. This is not some feminist academic spouting about what I think boys need. This is what boys have been telling us for decades.”
Way calls it a boys’ crisis of connection. “The phrase points explicitly to American masculinity. In our culture, the point of maturity is to be self-sufficient and to be independent. We don’t value the ability to have mutually supportive relationships, we don’t associate that with maturity at all. In fact, in American masculinity, that need for connection with others is seen as immature, and our crisis of connection stems fundamentally from that.”
Way’s work is not an outlier. Judy Chu’s When Boys Become Boys documents her research over the course of two years with a cohort of boys and girls beginning in a pre-K class. At age four, her research shows, boys are already hiding their emotional acuity, taking on the stoic, disconnected performance of masculinity our culture demands of them.
Over a decade ago, I wrote about my own deeply emotional response Way’s work titled “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys.” In that article I wrote something which I believe continues to be true:
“Before Way, no one would have thought to ask boys about what is happening in their closest friendships because we assumed we already knew. In fact, when it comes to what is happening emotionally with boys and men, we tend to confuse what we expect of them with what they actually feel. And, given enough time, they do as well.
This surprisingly simple line of inquiry can open a Pandora’s box of self-reflection for men. After a lifetime of being told how men ‘typically’ experience feeling and emotion, the answer to the question ‘what do my closest friends mean to me?’ is lost to us.”
In my interview with Dhont, he shared his thoughts about why Close is having such a powerful impact on audiences:
“We are so unused to seeing the tender friendship of boys. You know, we are so unused to see a boy deeply admire his friend as he plays his musical instrument, because we don’t get those images usually. We get, you know, a little bit of fighting. We get jumping, taking shots at each other. We get all these, you know, visuals that we have copied, and we have seen for a long time and that are part of the canon of masculinity. But we rarely get the tenderness of it. But if you listen to the boys in Niobe Way’s research, it’s actually quite present. …
This tenderness. We just…erase it.”
For those who may be wondering, this is not a paid promotional post. Not here or at Ms. Magazine. Until we all get behind a movement to preserve and encourage boys’ deeply human capacities for connection and expression, we will be failing them and all those whose lives they impact.
Close is now showing in the US. Read my full interviews with Way and Dhont at Ms. Magazine.
Previously Published on Medium