Tried to give you warning but everyone ignores me
Told you everything loud and clear
But nobody’s listening
Called to you so clearly but you don’t want to hear me
Told you everything loud and clear
But nobody’s listening
This is the second time an article on the Good Men Project has made me think of those Linkin Park lyrics. The magazine posted an excerpt from Rosalind Wiseman’s book Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope With Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Wiseman contends in her book that boys are more complex than society thinks, and that she “didn’t realize how often adults dismiss boys’ feelings, or that boys regularly have experiences where people assume they’re either hormone-crazed jerks or lazy slackers—or both.”
From the portions of the book I read, there is nothing new in Wiseman’s analysis. Many people have written about these issues. Normally I would not pay such a book any mind because most of the issues mentioned in these kinds of books can be solved by people taking the time to actually pay attention and listen to boys.
What made me want to comment on Wiseman’s excerpt was her attack on a particular comic book character:
I’d bet any amount of money that you’ve never said to a boy, “If you have a big problem and admit you’re really upset and worried, I’ll be ashamed of you and you’ll grow up to be a poor excuse for a man.” But somehow most boys have this message to some degree wired into their brains by the time they reach older childhood. Where does this message come from? It’s not like someone has been beaming things into their brains all day since they were little kids about when it’s okay for a guy to ask for help.
Except that’s exactly what’s going on. Think back to when your son was five or six and what toys he was given and what he liked to play with. I’m not about to launch into an argument about trying to get boys to play with dolls instead of trucks, and this isn’t about what color clothes you put him in as a toddler. Just go with me here. Did he get or play with toys that looked like this? [Batman]
Really? We are blaming Batman for boys not talking about their emotions? We are not looking at the mothers and fathers who tell their sons not to cry? We are not looking at the mothers and fathers who dismiss their sons’ feelings with a quick, “He’ll get over it”? We are not looking at the culture that demands that boys show emotion and then mocks them when they do? We are not looking at the scores of activists who want boys to “get in touch with their feminine side” who then call any man or boy who complains about his lot in life and society “whiners,” “entitled?”
Batman is the problem? Please explain:
Do you remember the first time he got a superhero costume? Who got it for him? Did he jump off couches? When you walked through the door, did he attack you? Do you remember how exciting it was for him to be the all-powerful superhero? When you’re a young boy and you’re flying around the room with a Batman cape your grandma gave you, it’s intoxicating. You’re the hero. You don’t have to listen to anyone. You have unlimited power—which, when you’re five, is particularly cool because the reality is that you have very little control over your life.
Speaking as a Batman fan, I can say that was never the attraction to the character for me. I did find him cool, strong, and in control. However, I also found him dependable, protective, and self-sacrificing. Batman saves people. He takes his hurt and pain and instead of becoming a villain or doing nothing he saves people. I am willing to bet that most boys who play as Batman often include that aspect. It certainly was important to one little boy.
If the appeal of Batman is really about control, what does that say about the situation a boy is in? How out of control is his life that his only solace is pretending to be Batman so that he feels he has some impact on what happens to him?
Now I want you to imagine what this Batman looks like when he’s incredibly happy and excited. Imagine him in love. Does Batman ever look like anything other than what he looks like above? No.
It depends on which version of Batman we are talking about. The Adam West Batman smiled all the time. The Bruce Timm and Paul Dini Batman rarely smiled, and if he did you would not like what would happen next. Grant Morrison’s Batman was keen on smiling, while Jeff Loeb, Greg Rucka, and Ed Brudabaker’s Batman was more like Timm and Dini’s. When Dick Grayson took over as Batman a few years ago, his smile actually gave away that he was not the original Batman.
Batman’s emotional range is always somewhere between serious, detached, sullen, and angry.
That might be because he saw his parents murdered in front of him as a child and decided to dedicate his life to preventing that from happening to anyone else. Such dedication usually does not prompt a Cheshire grin.
No matter how physically hurt he is, Batman shakes it off. If he’s angry, he either clenches his jaw or exacts revenge with utter physical domination.
What version of Batman is Wiseman following? I ask only because none of the versions from television, film, or comics acts like that. He is always driven by his desire to help people, including the criminals he battles.
If he really needs advice or he’s being stubborn, Alfred seems to always know what to say to make Batman feel better or set his head straight. Alfred teaches boys that the people who are closest to them should innately know when they’re upset, why they’re upset, and what to do to make them feel better.
Actually, Alfred teaches boys that the people closest to them should pay attention to their behavior and moods well enough to know when something may be bothering them and have enough concern for them to ask them if something is wrong and offer help.
You know, what people do for girls.
The sad part is that most parents and people do not pay enough attention to boys to be able to read those subtle changes in their mood, and as a result never bother to ask, which Wiseman admits early in the excerpt. They instead assume that if a boy has a problem he will bring it to them, which Wiseman suddenly appears to also assume:
But if people don’t get it, boys give up, because otherwise they would have to admit having messy feelings of “weakness” that Batman never shows. When you’re dealing with a boy, it’s like you have one silver bullet to kill the bad thing that’s upsetting him.
I write as someone who hides his emotions very well: everyone who is close to me can see through that no matter how clever I think I am. Likewise, I can read my brothers, cousins, and godson like books. No matter how subtle, I can tell when something is bothering them. It is not that hard to do. It just requires paying attention.
If boys had someone like Alfred in their lives, they would be much better off. Here is a person who actually cares enough to ask if you have a problem, not wait until you speak up. Speaking of Alfred, it is worth noting that it is only Bruce (and to an extent his son Damian) who seems unaffected by Alfred’s concern (which is a ruse). The rest of the Bat cast that knows Alfred sees him like a father figure. All of them, from Dick Grayson to Tim Drake, know that if they need anyone to talk to, Alfred is their man.
As for this idea about Batman showing “weakness” by asking for help, I again must ask what version of Batman the author is talking about. Batman in the comics constantly goes to Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox, and Leslie Thompson for advice. He is not ashamed to as for it when he needs it.
Again, the problem is that most boys do not have anyone like that to turn to. Where are their Gordons, Foxes, and Thompsons? Who are the people who let boys know they will help them and listen? And listen is the imperative word because most “help” for boys is about telling boys how to talk about their feelings like girls instead of letting boys express themselves in the words that work best for them.
The author claims that as a society we do not give boys the language to express themselves, which to many boys may come across as telling them they do not understand the basic tenants of the language they speak. I am sure that most American boys are fluent in English by the time they reach high school. They have same vocabulary as girls, so they should have no problem expressing themselves at all. The difference is that they are not going to express themselves like girls and we should not expect them to.
I asked my soon to be 14-year-old godson to read the article. He got half way before he highlighted a paragraph and said, “That. Doesn’t sound like she wants to help boys to help them. It sounds like she wants to help them because it’d help girls. That’s why boys don’t talk. Don’t sound like she cares.” And he is right. Read the author’s comments:
We owe it to boys to do better. We owe it to the girls who are growing up with these boys to do better. Because even if you don’t have boys, you don’t want girls having to put up with insecure, intellectually stunted, emotionally disengaged, immature guys. Worse is when some boys’ insecurity combines with arrogance and privilege. Then we’re dealing with guys who believe that the right to amuse themselves by degrading girls is more important than behaving with common decency—or they don’t even realize how stupid they’ll look when they get caught.
It is not about boys having problems that never get solved. It is not about boys who turn to hurting themselves, abusing drugs or alcohol. It is not about boys who engage in risky behavior. It is not about boys who commit suicide. It is only about preventing boys from becoming too useless, worthless, or dangerous for girls. It is more about putting boys in their place. No wonder they roar when they see characters like Batman, Master Chief, or Ezio Auditore da Firenze. They need stoic characters as models to teach them to take care of themselves because apparently no one else actually cares about them:
When I show these pictures to the boys at the beginning of my presentations, they respond by roaring. There’s no other way to describe it. They roar. It doesn’t matter if they’re in middle or high school. They jump up and down. They throw their arms in the air. When I ask them if they remember their superhero outfits, they grin and for a moment you can see the five-year-old boy each one of them used to be. Then I ask variations of the same questions I’ve asked you. What would the Halo guy act like if his parents were going through a bad divorce? How would the guy in Assassin’s Creed show he was sad because he just got dumped? What would he do if his friends were spreading horrible rumors about a girl and he knew they weren’t true?
Boys should want to act heroically at certain points in their lives. Being independent and self-reliant, getting up after having been knocked down—these are absolutely critical skills. But because these characters never show sadness, fear, anxiety, or obvious enthusiasm and love, they constantly teach and reinforce that boys should limit their emotions, and they even tell boys which ones they’re allowed to have. They don’t show how a man should speak out in a morally complex situation when his loyalties are torn between friends and ethics.
That was written like a person who has never played Halo or Assassin’s Creed or watched or read anything about Batman. For example, in the 2005 mini-series Identity Crisis, the other members of the Justice League allow Zatanna to mind wipe the villain Doctor after he rapes one of the members’ wife. Batman walks in on this mind wipe and tries to stop it. Why? He does it because even though he hates rape and rapists, he does not think people should torture or psychically mess with criminals. Sure, mind wiping them would solve the problem, but it would also violate their rights, and that is a line Batman will not cross. He tries to stop the JLA, and his team members mind wipe him as well as Doctor Light (for the record, it does not fully work because… he is Batman).
There is another example in The Dark Knight in which the Joker tries to force Batman to kill him, and Batman refuses to do it even though doing so would clearly prevent the Joker from hurting anyone else. That dilemma was used in the comics as part of former Robin Jason Todd’s motivation for getting revenge on the Joker and criminals. A similar problem exists between Batman and Dick Grayson over Two Face. Batman was friends with Harvey Dent before he became Two Face, and as a result he tends to give Dent some slack. This includes when Dent almost beats a young Dick Grayson to death. Dick fears and despises Dent while Batman, as a result of his loyalty to his friends and his ethics, considers Dent a tragic yet redeemable man.
If Wiseman wants to attack the characters boys look up to, she should at least take the time to know what she is writing about.
By the end of the excerpt, she finally admits that Batman is not solely responsible for boys’ “lacking” emotional range:
But as much as the boys love them, these characters (and by extension, the media at large) aren’t entirely responsible for defining and suppressing boys’ emotional range. The adults around them nurture and reinforce those limitations as well. It comes down to this. Many of us talk a really good game, but we aren’t being honest with ourselves. I have watched countless parents say they don’t want their son to bury his feelings, then tell him to “get yourself under control.” I’ve seen parents say nothing when their sons’ coaches call them “pussies,” “fags,” “little girls,” or “ladies,” or their sons report that they’re being accused of “running like they have sand in their vaginas.” I’ve seen teachers and school administrators interpret boys’ frustration as disrespect and punish them for it. Make no mistake: when our boys see that we aren’t saying anything in their defense, they believe that either we agree or we’re powerless to stand up to this kind of treatment. Either way, if a boy is growing up in this atmosphere, why would he ever ask us for help?
Good question. Too bad the content of the excerpt prompts the same question.
It is not just that people say nothing in boys’ defense. My godson cannot see any reason to ask the author for help because it does not seem like she cares about him, only about how he will affect girls. When that is the message you send, why should a boy turn to you for help? What are you doing to reach out to him?
There is something else missing from the excerpt: any suggestion that people listen to what boys have to say. Indeed, that is missing from most articles about boys’ “lack” of emotion. No one, particularly feminists like Jackson Katz and Michael Kimmel, want to listen to boys. Everyone is more concerned with getting boys to emote like girls and follow some political agenda than allowing boys to express themselves in the way that works best for them.
I go back to Alfred and all the other fatherly characters in boys’ stories. All those characters have one major thing in common: they pay attention. Even Wiseman admits in her book that people tend to ignore boys. That should be the thing she takes away from Alfred. Here is a person who pays attention and listens to a wounded man, and as a result that man shares his feelings.
Maybe if more people did that for boys, more boys would show their emotions.