The first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting came and went last month with surprisingly little fanfare. Since that tragedy a year ago, another 24 school shootings — one every two weeks — barely registered in the public awareness.
There’s been finger pointing, often by politicians and pundits, trying to explain these tragedies. Everything from violent video games to American gun culture to the lack of access to mental-health resources has been in the crosshairs, so to speak.
But we overlook one aspect of these violent public outbursts: in every case where a suspect is known, the shooter is male. (Notice how the word “gunman” fits comfortably within our vernacular, unlike its feminine counterpart.) There isn’t enough public conversation about our culture’s unhealthy image of masculinity and its role in violence committed by men. This popular conception of manhood can be summed up in cliches we direct at boys: Don’t cry, be cool, toughen up, walk it off, be a man.
The women’s movement has helped women redefine themselves, freeing them from societal expectations and gender roles. Although that work is far from over, we have barely even begun with boys, largely leaving them to fend for themselves. In 1972, former NFL defensive star Rosey Grier sang “It’s All Right to Cry” on the “Free to Be …You and Me” album. However, even though our attitudes have evolved somewhat, we still haven’t learned how to liberate boys and men from the superficial and destructive expectations imposed on them.
Today, the film “The Mask You Live In,” produced by The Representation Project, seeks to break the silence and give boys and communities the tools to shape a different masculinity and a healthier future. As the film’s trailer explains, our culture makes boys insecure about their manhood, so they are constantly trying to prove it to one another. Every boy postures in response to his peers’ posturing, so they rarely connect past the masculine display. As one of the film’s psychologists points out, we don’t value what we feminize: caring, relationships, empathy. And a culture that doesn’t value these things becomes coarse and toxic, making the people who live within it “go crazy.”
For men, the results go beyond the already egregious incidents of mass shooting. What we often dismiss as boys being boys — aggressive acting out — can be symptomatic of depression. Fewer than half of boys and men seek out help for mental illness. Boys are acculturated from a young age to believe they shouldn’t need help but that instead they should just man up and walk it off. Couple that attitude with our collective failure to treat depression as a serious illness, and you have a perfect storm of fallacy and neglect that leaves boys and men with little recourse.
Look at the statistics of suicide. Every day in America, at least three boys commit suicide. Colorado ranks sixth in the country for suicide rate, at 16.7 per 100,000 people. The Aspen Hope Center confirms that the rate is higher in our valley and markedly higher among men than women. Nationally, the suicide rate is four times higher among men than women.
Jennifer Tuder, whose one-woman show “Suicide Punchline” dramatizes her experience of surviving her father’s suicide, explains the correlation: “We teach men that their most fundamental function is to protect and provide. We teach men that they should always be in control, especially of their emotions. We tell them the myth of rugged individualism, where solitary struggle and achievement are the purest markers of success. We flash guns at them through every available screen, telling them that if they have a problem, a gun is the solution.
“The flip side to these scripts is practically a prescription for suicide: If your role as a protector and provider is shaken in any way, including forces beyond your control, you are failing … If you reach out for help, especially help with those emotions you are supposed to control, you are failing. If you reach for a gun, though, that makes you a ‘real man.’”
For men and boys, and for those who love them, this should be a wake-up call. This is not about coddling boys or simply being politically correct. This is about caring enough for the men and boys in our lives to look beneath the masculine posturing and create a safe space for them to be themselves and to ask for help when needed. After all, if you only see someone by what society’s script says he should be, then you’re not really seeing him, are you?
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.
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