Nobody’s Listening

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?

Wiseman continues:

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.

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12 thoughts on “Nobody’s Listening

  1. I have this book on my Kindle, I need to see what else is in it. I think I thought it was off to a good start, but this “It’s really Batman’s fault” derpery is the second chapter. And thinking back, I do recall Wiseman showing similar blindness in her previous articles.

    Great piece either way.

  2. Pathological narcissism on display. I was afraid that’s what this book would be. Probably sell a million copies, lol.

  3. Just a question/note to remind myself for later before I take my morning walk:

    It’s been years since I saw one of these people cite an actual living adult human male of note as an example instead of a fictional character. Did Wiseman follow that pattern?

    Because it makes me suspect that it’s become taboo in those circles to praise any such as a model. Only fictional ideal men can be used that way.

    And that’s. . .interesting.

  4. I’ve seen parents say nothing”,How times change.What do platoon leader captains and
    nco’s say to their recruits nowadays?Could you please try harder Jeremy?Do I now have a case against the csm even though it was 60 years ago?

  5. I figured it out on the way. It’s because if they point to a real world figure, the natural response is, “But shouldn’t a boy’s first, best model be his father?”

    And then the whole thing collapses like the house of cards it is, at the moment that Fatherhood is brought into the narrative.

  6. Wiseman also fails to note that Batman never kills anyone. Even when he’s had the perfect opportunity (think of the numerous times he’s foiled The Joker), he refuses to succumb to their level (though that changed in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises). If she were so hellbent on looking to negative role models in fiction, why doesn’t she go after ones who actually kill without remorse or reason yet regarded as bad-asses?

    Though the emperor’s clothes are disrobed with this statement:

    “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.”

    So everything before this in the book was just to fulfill a “Please think of the girls” agenda. Talk about selling snake oil.

  7. Wiseman’s motivation strikes me as painfully transparent:In real life, the person who is by far the best position beam messages into a boy’s barin is MOM. That was certainly who put the most effort into beaming it into mine. But that sort of thing isn’t decent to bring up in her ideological circles, of course.

    She also demonstrates the blind spot of every feminist woman I’ve ever seen discuss this subject: She seems to imagine that a man or boy being open about his pain or fear would actually benefit him, and that his inability or unwillingness to do is the problem in need of solving. It wouldn’t benefit him, of course; in most cases it would either do nothing or make things worse. Permanently choking down your emotions is a perfectly rational response to the circumstances in which many men and boys live their lives, and like most women who criticize men for being emotionally repressed she can’t or won’t empathize with something like that.

  8. Wiseman also fails to note that Batman never kills anyone. Even when he’s had the perfect opportunity (think of the numerous times he’s foiled The Joker), he refuses to succumb to their level (though that changed in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises)

    While technically true, Batman is not beyond the threat. In Batman: The Animated Series he deliberately destroyed Clay Face’s cure for his condition as Clay Face took it and watched it work. In the comic, Batman once threatened to destroy Apokolips to get Darkseid to release control over Supergirl. He refused to give up the code to deactivate the bombs even as Darkseid pounded Batman senseless, a move so hardcore Darkseid said, “Well played. Had the Kryptonian or the Amazon taken this gamble, they would have lost. They do not have the strength of character it would take to destroy an entire world to achieve success. But… you. A human. You kill your own kind to win battles. It is… an admirable quality. Take the girl. I will make no move against her.”

    My personal favorite is also from Superman/Batman. Lex Luthor at the time was the President of the United States, and used other superheroes to fight Batman and Superman. Superman disguises himself as Captain Marvel and then confronts Luthor. He is so angry eyes glow red. Luthor taunts him, saying that if Superman killed Luthor other heroes would lose their faith. Superman thinks about how easily he could kill Luthor. That is when Batman appears out of the shadows and says, “I will not stop you. There are ways we could make it look like an accident. Or better still–as if he’d disappeared without a trace.” Luthor looks at Batman and says, “You’re bluffing.” Batman says with a stone cold face, “No. I am not.”

    As much as I love the character, I must admit that the modern version of Batman has some questionable morals in certain situations.

  9. Wiseman’s motivation strikes me as painfully transparent:In real life, the person who is by far the best position beam messages into a boy’s barin is MOM.

    I do not know enough about Wiseman to know about her motivation. From what I read, however, I gather that she relies heavily on feminist tropes about the evils of masculinity while failing to pay attention to what boys actually say. The second part on GMP is a good example of that. She states that boys may internalize their being trapped in the “man box” to the point of oppressing others, yet the two boys she quotes talk about how much pressure they felt from others, not about how much they felt superior to others.

    She also demonstrates the blind spot of every feminist woman I’ve ever seen discuss this subject: She seems to imagine that a man or boy being open about his pain or fear would actually benefit him, and that his inability or unwillingness to do is the problem in need of solving.

    I think talking about problems is helpful, however, I agree that too many feminists are quick to assume that it is the lack of discussion that is the issue. Most males are doers; they want to solve, not just acknowledge a problem. Being about to express certain concerns helps, but they also need to be given the tools to do something about them. Nothing I read of Wiseman’s excerpts sounds like she gives boys any tools to help themselves. She admits that each boy is an individual, but then goes on and on about stereotypes and social pressure.

    I think we need to give boys enough respect to actually listen to what they have to say. That is the primary issue I see with discussions about this topic. Most of the people, feminists in particular, simply do not want to listen to boys in their own words. They are too busy telling boys what to think and feel and what is “okay” for them to do rather than letting boys express their feelings.

    It wouldn’t benefit him, of course; in most cases it would either do nothing or make things worse. Permanently choking down your emotions is a perfectly rational response to the circumstances in which many men and boys live their lives, and like most women who criticize men for being emotionally repressed she can’t or won’t empathize with something like that.

    I do not agree with that. There are situations where being emotional is a liability, but I do not think it is best for anyone to permanently close down their emotions. I do think that people need to realize that boys express themselves differently than girls, and we need to allow boys to do that rather than trying to make them think and act like girls.

    It goes back to the title: nobody’s listening. Wiseman wrote a book that, at least from excerpt, seems to let what boys said about their experiences go through one ear right out the other.

  10. Wiseman is a complete and utter tool. For starters, emotional expression differs between genders and doesn’t come out in the same way. A lot of men find this through artistic and creative means. Shakespeare’s writing is filled with emotion, was he a total robot? No. Wordsworth. Dylan Thomas. T.S. Eliot. Or music? Mozart. Beethoven. Handel. Modern music such as my favourite classic rock band Queen. Brian May’s ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ about his own divorce and being separated from his children as a result. Freddie Mercury wrote ‘Love of My Life’ addressed to his former girlfriend after coming out of the closet. Or even the interviews of veterans of WWI and WWII. The idea that men never express themselves is a complete non-starter.

    Second, “We owe it to the girls who are growing up with these boys to do better.” She’s making it all about girls all of a sudden. To paraphrase the old phrase “It’s not always about you”, It’s not always about girls. It’s not always about boys either, though if the book is about boys, focus on the bloody boys for crying out loud! If the subject is one thing, anything else is irrelevant. Girls are not important if the subject is about boys, just like boys are not important if the subject is about girls.

    Finally, MRAs. Feminists have practically begged, pleaded and cried for boys and men to express themselves. When they finally do in the form of MRAs, feminists are displeased and rage and scream at them. Yet this is what they wanted all along. Men expressing themselves, just not what feminists hoped for. Be careful what you wish for, eh?

  11. For the one who said that men are doers and want to solve their problems… Ever heard the term “Teddy bear debugging”?

    Basically, it’s when a computer programmer tries to fix a program he’s been coding, and tries to explain it to either a non-computer person, or an inanimate object (like a teddy bear). Explaining a problem requires breaking it down to it’s base components. And once you have done the process of breaking a problem down to it’s base components, you have gained an insight on it’s causes and you can solve each base component separately. Therefore, merely explaining a problem can be the source of a practical solution. Just throwing that out there.

    And then, ranting feels very good, especially when you had a bad day, so at least a good long-winded rant to someone who listens can at least let the pressure out. 😛

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