The conversation about masculine and feminine expectations and how we socialize children has been going on in academic circles for decades. But it’s only recently that a mass shooting like the one in Orlando launches a different narrative. Of course, the predictable yet important debate about gun policy is re-engergized. But the emerging profile of the shooter at the Pulse nightclub who killed nearly 50 people has also generated a wider, public conversation about the effects of hypermasculinity on boys and young men.
On this edition of CoastLine, we find out why some researchers say hypermasculinity is not only dangerous for those already prone to mental illness but can also foster the more benign, if not increasingly common, “failure to launch” phenomenon in young men.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph, a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at North Carolina State University.
Andrew Smiler, a therapist in private practice who specializes in mens' issues and the author of two books: The Masculine Self and Challenging Casanova. His third and most recent book, Dating and Sex, A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy, is set for release this coming September. Andrew Smiler is the Director of Communications and Media and a past president of The Society for the Study of Men and Masculinity.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: How does hypermasculinity show up in boys and young men? What does it look like?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: It’s a great question. I’d like to start first by defining what hypermasculinity is. When we talk about masculinity, it’s a gender construct. It’s the socially-defined roles that we attribute to males and females. And so hypermasculinity is when we see men who are overexpressing masculine roles: excessively working out, being aggressive, those kinds of extra-expressive aspects of masculinity. And so, I think that what we see— For me, there’s a couple different parts of hypermasculinity that are problematic. The first is, it seems to reflect a little bit of insecurity on some level, that we’re trying to live up to sets of vague standards that aren’t really well codified about what the expectations of men are, particularly young men. And so, if I’m supposed to be strong, what does that mean? Does that mean I have to be the biggest bully? Does it mean I have to be athletic? The other part, that is I think is extremely important in this discussion as well, is that, when we talk about how masculinity is developed, there’s a big chunk of it where masculinity is developed by being punished for not living up to those ideals. Again, the standards are very vague, but what we see is that boys and young men are punished. So, your friends will say, “Oh, if you do that again, you’re going to lose your man card.” Or you have your coach that says, “Hey, you kick like a sissy.” Or, “Pull up your skirt.” We end up with two problems on that. One, we get young men who are feeling ashamed of who they are and their performance and trying to find ways to live up to this obscure ideal, and at the same time, we’re demeaning the whole female population, and we’re setting up this dichotomy that if I’m not man enough, if I can’t meet these ideals, then I’m a woman, and that’s a problem. Going back to your question, that’s where it becomes the problem because now it’s not just about living up to these ideals but we’ve now also reduced women in this process, and they’ve become part of the challenge as well.
RLH: So if we’re looking then at an adolescent boy, let’s say a thirteen-year-old boy, and hypermasculinity is already starting to be expressed, how might we see that in him?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: We look at some of the dating behavior, and Andrew might be better able to answer those kinds of questions. But maybe aggressive activities: sports, we could see bullying activity among his peers, we could see excessive dating, maybe sexual activity, drugs, risk-taking behavior, those kinds of things.
RLH: So, self-destructive activities?
Joe Simons-Rudolph: I think, but not always. I don’t think it’s always that way, I just think those are the kinds of things we’d see most likely. On a college campus, we would identify that with some of the sports culture that we see of the athletes or the fraternity members as kind of quintessential of what we would constitute as this hypermasculine identity. But I wouldn’t say that all members of athletic teams or all members of fraternities would necessarily be hypermasculine.
RLH: Sure. Andrew Smiler, you’ve said part of the issue for young boys and teens is that they develop their sense of maleness through the media. So, is that how we’re teaching young boys and men these vague notions of masculinity that Joseph Simons-Rudolph was just talking about? How are kids learning this in the first place?
Andrew Smiler: The media is definitely a piece of the puzzle here. Boys hear it often from their parents, certainly from their friends the comments that Joseph was mentioning, like “Don’t be such a sissy.” Those are certainly messages that come through in the media as well. We’ve had a series of commercials about earning your man card or “man law” from a few years ago, and then we have particular genres that are very much geared toward a male audience, things like sports, obviously, but also action films and certain flavors of comedies where the content of the scripted programming and the commercials that go with it often present this image of masculinity or being a “real man” that emphasizes violence, often emphasizes sexual promiscuity, may or may not emphasize alcohol consumption, certainly you can’t legally do that if you’re a teen, and media companies aren’t going to promote drug use because that’s illegal in the country, but again, it’s this kind of vague notion, “You should be doing these kinds of things.” Part of what we’ve lost—if you compare TV now to TV fifty years ago—is in some ways the clean-cut good guys. They don’t show up as much now, and they tend to be secondary characters who are more often the punchline. If you look at Alan, the foil on Two and a Half Men, he’s a good guy, but he’s the punchline, so we don’t promote that anymore.
RLH: We’ve established that we have these vague notions around what it means to be masculine and male in our culture. What are some of the contradictions embedded in that, that as a young guy grows up, he starts to come smack up against some of those contradictions?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: At least from my perspective, I think that a lot of what we’re focusing on here is this idea of masculinity as tied to power and dominance, and sort of a separation from relationships, but it’s also— A concept we use a lot in gender research is this idea of privilege, that somehow it’s expected that men would actually have that power or be able to obtain that power. From a social perspective, I feel like this can be very challenging. On one hand, we have this destructive standard where men have to be in power and have to be dominating over their competition, over women. They have to be the head of the household, which means that they’re in charge. But on an interpersonal level, in order to obtain that, I need to continually prove myself. So if I do that today, that’s great, but I have to come back tomorrow and start all over because if I don’t act aggressively tomorrow, then somebody’s going to knock me off the hill. It’s a continually proving process, which means I never get a chance to figure out who I am as an individual. And then I think at the individual level, what we see is that ends up becoming doubt, we end up with self-esteem issues, it tends to isolate us from our friends, we’re unable to connect emotionally with significant others. And I think at the same time, there’s kind of a social expectation, almost a social apology for boys, this idea that “Boys will be boys.” As a society, we’ve been excusing bad behavior of boys and young men for many, many years.
RLH: What’s an example of a behavior that we would excuse in a young man that we wouldn’t excuse in a young woman?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: If we think of elementary school, then aggressiveness on the playground. In college, you know, excessive drinking and sexual behavior. We think, “Well, young men have to sow their seeds.” There’s the case of the young man from Stanford, the swimmer, who raped that woman. The father’s comments were, “Well, for thirty seconds of activity, it’s going to ruin his life.” We’re sort of apologizing for his behavior rather than looking at the context. You asked about the contradictory, we also look at this idea of “men have to go sow their oats” and all these great little quip lines, but part of the story there is that young men will go out and serially date as many women as they can, and as soon as they find the one, something will snap, and then they’ll become the perfect man.
RLH: That’s the myth that we promote?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: Correct. And so, as we all know, hopefully, it takes a long time to figure out who we are and to develop, and it takes a lot of effort to build into that good man or that good individual that you want to be.
RLH: Andrew Smiler, when boys or young men wind up in your office for therapy, what are the issues that they’re typically facing or talking about?
Andrew Smiler: In my office, it runs the gambit. There are some boys there who are depressed, anxious, overwhelmed with school-related issues. Some boys who are struggling with issues at home, difficult home environment. I do work with a number of boys who have been sexually abused, typically prior to age 12. A variety of things. We also often end up talking about what’s next and what they see for their future, whether that’s college or after college. I have a few young men who might fit the definition of so-called “failure to launch” because they finished their schooling and they’re back at home and living in the basement and very aware that they’ve come this cliché and not at all happy about it.
RLH: And when you talk with them about these issues, do you think that hypermasculinity contributes to the exacerbation of a lot of them? Certainly, sexual abuse and difficult home environments are their own problems, but does hypermasculinity come into play most of the time?
Andrew Smiler: I think for a lot of the folks who end up in my office, it’s not so much the extreme end of hypermasculinity so much as it is some of the more regular aspects of masculinity. A lot of the guys, particularly the guys who are in this “failure to launch,” they say things like, “I should have a career by now. I should be well on my way because I’m a guy and I need to be earning money to support and take care of a family.” And I’ll ask them about the gender norms here in 2016, and most women have careers, and especially the college-educated guys want a partner who also have a career, and we’ll talk about, “Do you really need to be the primary breadwinner?” And they’re often split between, “You know, I want my partner to have a career, but I’m the guy and I should earn more money.” So, it’s not so much the violence or the hypermasculinity extreme bits, but still some real difficulty working out these gender-based expectations of where they should be at and what they should be doing.
RLH: It’s interesting because both of you have talked about some of these gender norms, some of the expectations around being male and masculine, like being the breadwinner, being able to earn more money than the woman in the relationship, but some of the other issues you’ve raised, like judgment about always winning or always on to the next thing to prove yourself— To me, that doesn’t sound necessarily masculine, it just sounds like the competitive world in which we live. When does it become a gender issue?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: It’s a very good question. I think that we have historically tied many of those characteristics to men and to masculinity, and I think as society has changed and as our social demographics have changed, I think you’re correct that there is less of an identification of that as a purely masculine trait. I think when we talk about hypermasculinity, those are the kinds of characteristics that men are trying to hold onto, and to me at least, they represent sort of an older understanding of what masculinity is, or go back to the 1950s or whatever you want to call it, it’s sort of an old hallmark to it. For me, what the challenge is is that currently, we don’t have a good model of what positive masculinity is. For me, I think hypermasculinity is an issue because we see it in the media, and for individuals, and particularly young men who don’t have strong role models in their life, who don’t have confident men who’ve struggled through the challenges of life, that’s all they’re left with. Like Andrew was saying, we don’t have a lot of models of the good men being the characters. There aren’t a lot of models out there that say, these are the characteristics of a good man: being responsible, being loving, being emotionally connected to your family, being a good father. These are not the kinds of things that are promoted or rewarded for as men in society. Where I’m trying to take my research is thinking about, how do we more clearly define— Most men are good men. Most men aren’t violent. Most men aren’t drug addicts or alcoholics. But the majority of the time that we talk about masculinity, we’re talking about that small subset of men who are violent or aggressive or alcoholic.
RLH: So talking about that small subset of men, is this Orlando shooting an outlier of an event in terms of one effect of hypermasculinity? Can you link hypermasculinity to Omar Mateen and what he wound up doing at the Pulse nightclub in Florida?
Andrew Smiler: I think so. Some of the story that’s come out about him and some of the background facts— We have this domestic violence piece. We know that oftentimes, guys who are abusing their partners feel a need to be the man in the family and wear the pants, and one of the ways that they enforce that is through violence. They beat their partners. We also see that that reliance on violence, which is again pushed toward boys and men much more so than toward girls and women, is part of the strategy of how you become dominant, how you get in charge and continue to be in charge. At the same time, if we look at Omar’s life, there doesn’t seem to be any place else where he has enough credentials that he can really hang his hat. The bits we’re hearing, he doesn’t seem to be a particularly good worker, not particularly capable, didn’t get along with others in the office. At home, he hadn’t achieved the goals he wanted of being in charge. He did not seem to be on his way to stable career and employment. So, if you’re that guy and you feel like you need to prove yourself, and you’re failing at proving yourself, and you’re not being a “real man,” not living up to this image that’s out there in the culture, then you either slink quietly off into the night and perhaps live a life of quiet desperation or maybe you go out big, as we have seen many other folks do, here in the real world and in the news, as well as in many, many movies.
RLH: Some of the other mass shootings that we’ve seen over the last several decades, did hypermasculinity play a role in those as well?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: I think so. I’d agree with what Andrew said. As sad as this is, it seems to be somewhat of an acceptable outlet for that sub-population, or they view it as an acceptable outlet for the frustration and things that they’re feeling. I think many of these individuals probably feel like it’s the only outlet they have left, that they’ve exhausted all these other options, they’ve failed to live up to these expectations, whatever those happen to be in their own mind, and look at this as the place that they can go. For me, there’s a piece of it though that— There’s a group that I’ve been working with called a Call to Men. I think that one of the problems that we’re running into now is that we, as a society, still need to start talking about how do we engage these men? If we think about domestic violence as an example, for the last forty years, we’ve talked to women about how to prevent or get away from domestic violence without engaging men. Men are the predominant—
RLH: How do defend yourself, how to be less vulnerable, how to not look like a victim?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: Exactly. In the last ten years, we’ve just started a conversation about how we need to start engaging men in violence prevention. So if I’m at a bar, and my friend makes a sexist comment, typically, all the friends will—if it makes them uncomfortable—grab a beer and take a drink. You don’t call them on that because it violates that man code, so to speak.
RLH: Can you actually envision a scenario in which—you know, that environment: all guys, bar setting—somebody makes a racist joke or a sexist joke, and instead of the other guys either rolling their eyes or laughing or taking a sip of their beer, they actually say, “Hey, that’s not—“ Is that realistic?
Andrew Smiler: Absolutely.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: It is, and there’s a number of movements across the country that are actually having people do that. I think many men do that in their own life. They make those choices to not associate with people who are consistently making racial or sexist jokes. I think we make individual choices, and I think we’re starting to get to a movement where we need to say, it’s okay for men to stand up for these values. Going back to this idea of positive masculinity, being responsible, not only for yourself, but for those around you and those who you’re identified with, intervening so if you see somebody who’s hurting, who’s isolated, you know, taking that extra step to reach out to them is not a sign of weakness but a really sign of strength, of being able to care for somebody around you and take responsibility for those in your community is the kinds of things that we really need to be promoting, not just in men but particularly in men.
RLH: As we take a look again at some of these mass shootings that have happened, Andrew Smiler, can you talk us through how a young man might go from feeling isolated and angry to actually loading himself up with guns one morning and heading in to school? Because so often, we hear about depression being a result of a kid feeling isolated or not accepted by his peer group or as if he’s not succeeding. How does it go from depression to this outward expression of massive violence?
Andrew Smiler: That’s a great question, and there are a lot of pieces in there, and I’m not going to take the depression piece so much as I am going to focus on the peer pressure or, perhaps more accurately, guys who feel they need to live up to this vague but hypermasculine image of what it means to be a man. If you look at the Virginia Tech shooter from a decade ago, and I’ll tell you that that’s my alma mater, and if you look at the Isla Vista shooter from two or three years ago and some of the writing and videos that those guys left, they’re very clear that they are failing to live up to this extreme standard. With the Virginia Tech shooter, we have video of him in all sorts of muscle-exposing poses, he’s flexing in all sorts of ways, and in some of those videos, he’s got the ammo belt on him, trying to portray that kind of image that we’ve seen a million times on screen. And at the same time, part of what came out is that he had not really made friends on campus. He felt like a failure. He wasn’t doing as well academically as he thought he should be, and so, this is kind of his way out. “I’m going to prove that you were all wrong about me, and I’m going to do this amazing, macho thing.” In some ways, much of the same story for the Isla Vista shooter. He was very explicit that he wanted to kill the young women who had failed to didn’t give him the romantic and sexual attention that he thought he deserved because he thought he was such an amazing guy.
RLH: That goes back to the idea of privilege and entitlement?
Andrew Smiler: Yeah, and what does it mean to be a successful man. For the Isla Vista shooter, it was about promiscuity, having the hottest and most attractive women on campus wanting him.
RLH: We have a question from a caller who asks, “Is there a racial component to masculinity? I think I've observed young black boys conforming or aspiring to a particular ideal of hypermasculinity, especially when it comes to issues of wealth, strength, and sexual prowess.”
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: I don’t think it’s necessarily a racial piece. I think we do see some differences in culture about how things are portrayed, but at the bottom of it, it’s the same kind of issues: dominance over women, control in your particular environment, money tends to be a big one, winning. I think those themes underneath it are going to be the same, but they may present themselves kind of differently depending on cultural expectations and things we see in different parts of the country. I do think that those images are more likely to be presented in the media, so it’s probably a misrepresentation of those things rather than it being more prevalent in racial communities across the country.
Andrew Smiler: This particular version of masculinity often appears in rap videos, and to some extent, the performers who are making those have this as their onstage persona, where there’s a lot of conspicuous consumption, the videos often feature lots of scantily lad women who, on screen, all appear to want to be with the band or the performer, and oftentimes some element of violence, although that’s a less consistent theme in the videos, and we know that this image is being sold both to African American teens and European American, white teens, and actually white teens are the larger part of the audience, but I think we tend to notice the boys who follow that image more, who dress in that style, who go for that conspicuous consumption more when they are black, and I think that’s as much about what we pay attention to and who we have access to. Byron Hurt’s film Beyond Beats and Rhymes is a good take down of that whole dynamic.
RLH: As a teenage boy, I can certainly understand how a kid could look at these images and say, “Oh, that’s what success looks like,” or “That’s what it looks like to be a strong, powerful man.” But how does he go from that to, “I should have that,” with that feeling of entitlement? I mean, there’s the ideal, and then there’s, “I deserve that. Whether I get it or not, I should have it.”
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: I think it’s just part of our conversation. We expect men to be the head of the household, so we expect men to be the breadwinner. So the idea there is that, “When I get out of college, I’m going to get a good job, and because of that, I’ll be able to get a wife and a house and all these things.” There’s a social narrative that is driving our expectations. The piece that I think we’re missing there is, “What does it take to actually succeed that?” Nobody comes out of college with a 10 billion dollar company. Nobody comes out of college with the ideal career. It’s something you have to work for. It takes time to build up. What we’ve done is missed that middle piece. We haven’t provided that structure. I think we’ve done a much better job with young women, saying, “Look, these are the kinds of responsibilities you’ll have to take and these are the kinds of choices you’ll have to make along the way, and it will take time to develop into your professional, adult self.” I think with men, we’ve bypassed that a lot, this social apology, “Boys will be boys” mentality, we sort of expect that at some point they’ll hit some maturity level, and just automatically understand what it takes to be a successful, responsible man in society and then everything will fall together. The challenge with that is that when we get to that point, you haven’t prepared yourself to do those kinds of things. If you serially dated a number of women, how can you be monogamous and faithful and emotionally connected to that very special woman when you haven’t really practiced that type of thing in your relationships.
RLH: So, we’re not teaching young men, young boys that they have to work for things, that it’s a process.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: And I don’t think we have the expectations that young men need to be trained or have a model in place for what that would look like.
RLH: That they’ll just ripen.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: Exactly.
RLH: Andrew Smiler, if we redefine what we consider to be strength—male strength, masculinity—does that mean we also need redefine femininity?
Andrew Smiler: I don’t think we necessarily need to redefine femininity in order to redefine masculinity, although there is this interesting piece of masculinity—that Joseph had mentioned in the beginning—that is about not being feminine. So when we change the definition of femininity, it kind of inherently leads to some potential for changes in masculinity. I think one of the big thing for me that I emphasize with a lot of my clients and in my some of my writings is that there’s a piece of strength that’s about stamina: perseverance, ability to continue despite difficulties. That often gets downplayed at times, that it is not necessarily seen as strength. So, it makes for an interesting conversation in a lot of ways. What does strength really mean? Where does strength of character come in, as opposed to just physical, muscular strength?
RLH: So that’s picking up the idea of the fact that development is a process and boys don’t magically transform into fully-developed adults without working through some of these issues.
Andrew Smiler: Absolutely.
RLH: So what are some of the other ways that we could redefine masculinity in the culture? What are some of the notions that we might take down and replace with something a little more constructive?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: The biggest gap that I would encourage people to think about is that emotional connection with other people. In the programs that I see that are most successful in working with young men, even older or middle-aged men, it’s finding ways to develop and be comfortable with who you are, but also be comfortable expressing who you are to other people. And I think it’s extremely important for us as social being to connect with other people. I know there’s a number of church-based programs, even the work with Call to Men, they talk about needing a group of men to hold you accountable. And to do that, you have to be a little bit emotionally vulnerable. And typically and historically, we’ve looked at that as weakness in men, when, in actuality, I think it takes a tremendous amount of strength, a tremendous amount of courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to express your weaknesses to other men, to people around you, to women in your life, but we really need those relationships. One of those key pieces that we need to redefine is this idea of the need for men to have strong emotional connections. Especially as the society has changed and women are taking on more roles, I’ve seen some statistics where in two-income families, women are now more likely to make more money than men. I talk to my college students a lot and I will half-jokingly ask, “If your wife is making more money, will you stay home with the children?” And it is still sort of an uncomfortable laugh.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: I stayed home for two years with my daughter, and it was a fascinating experience for me. To this date, I’ve only met two men in my life who identified their primary role as a stay-at-home father without qualifying it in their professional context.
RLH: Did you have to struggle with that in your own mind at all? Did you have to struggle with your own feelings of masculinity?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: As much as I hate to say it, I did a little bit. And I was one of those men who would say, “I’m a stay-at-home father, but also something else…” So the idea of it just being an okay thing is different. It’s a challenge at a practical level, but I think that also, it’s being willing to take on those roles and being willing to step outside of your comfort zone to do what you know is right. If we look at these old models of masculinity—you know, the John Waynes of the world—part of what we liked about them is that they had a strong value system, they stood up for the weak, they were willing to go out on a limb even if it wasn’t popular, but I think we’ve translated those concepts into strength. So, I need to be strong. So, if you don’t agree with me, then you’re against me—
RLH: And I need to dominate you.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: Exactly.
RLH: Like I just did…
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: Exactly.
Andrew Smiler: I would add to one of the things Joseph just mentioned, which is the need for flexibility. A lot of boys’ upbringing and a lot of the spaces that boys find themselves in, it’s very clear who is in charge—some adult, coach, parent, teacher, cadet leader, somebody—and what the rules are. Boys very much get taught that if you do a good job and you follow the rules, then you will move up and you will advance. That model doesn’t work at all if we’re talking about a friendship or a romantic relationship because there’s nowhere to really advance to and it’s not clear what doing a good job means. But what we have seen over the last twenty or thirty years is that in our culture, we expect people to change, and we expect the rules by which the game is played to change, and boys don’t get a lot of experience. In fact, they get almost no experience with, “How do you change the rules?” Or, “How do you change your understanding of this relationship? How do you change your understanding of what your job is going to be?” Or, “You’re not really going to have a job anymore. You’re going to be the primary parent raising this child.” That kind of flexibility is missing from how we often talk to boys.
Churchill (caller): I love this show. It’s one of the few I see that really addresses the social issues that we face on a broad scale. My question today is whether there’s any serious analysis or study of the impact of millions, tens of millions of children growing up playing violent video games and being exposed to media violence over and over and over again as an avenue both to the desensitization of death, or an understanding of what death is and how that is impacting our population of young and even adult men who are avid gamers—you know, it’s warcraft, or blow up this, or blow up that, or shoot this, shoot that, shoot the other thing. I never really hear any comment out in the world about, “Are we just biasing our children’s minds by exposing them to corporate, profit-derived, media violence?”
RLH: Andrew Smiler, what kind of impact do you see with your patients in your private practice when it comes to some of these more violent video games? Do you think that plays a role?
Andrew Smiler: We have about thirty years’ worth of research that tells us that people, and typically boys, who spend more time playing comparatively violent games do tend to be less sensitized to violence. In the moment of playing, they’re actually less aroused, less energized by the violence, presumably due to the extent of exposure that they’ve had over years and years of playing. We also know that that is accompanied by a lack of empathy or sympathy for victims, at least in the extent that we can measure that in a survey or a lab-based simulation. At the same time, we also know that convicted rapists, convicted killers tend to seek out those kinds of media in the ways that the average guy doesn’t and it seems to serve a very different function for that population of violent felons than it does for the average guy in the population. So I don’t think it’s a simple cause and effect, but we do have some real interplay there.
RLH: How much does biology come into play here? We said at the top of the show that masculinity is a social construct. Is it 100% a social and cultural creation of ours, or is this testosterone fueled?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: In some ways, that’s kind of the million dollar question. There’s a great interview by Tucker Carlson of Hanna Rosin who wrote a book called The End of Men, and throughout the interview, one of his primary questions is, “If we stripped all the stuff away, what is the basic difference between men and women?” I unfortunately do not have an answer for you on that particular one, so I think we’re going to have to go with research. So going back to this question about violence and the video games, we talk a lot about the shooting in Orlando, and one of the primary pieces that comes up is that it’s a mental illness issue. But if we look at the statistics, only 3-4% of the violent activities are caused by people with serious mental illness. You know, there are millions and millions of kids who are playing these violent video games, and I do think it has an impact on them, but most of them are not going out and doing mass shootings and other kinds of things. So it does desensitize them to this, but without that larger context, without having those role models in place to reformulate that, to have those critical conversations, saying, “Look, this is just a game, and this isn’t what you can really do. If you get frustrated at work, you’re going to have to talk out your problems.” I think the bigger problem for me, when we talk about violence and men, is substance abuse. If we’re looking at a cause or a problem—we talk about domestic violence, we talk about sexual assault—one of the biggest factors tied to that is alcohol and drug use among young men, and it’s at epic proportions, but there’s a higher and direct connection between substance abuse and violent, risk-taking behavior and all kinds of other social problems that I think is probably something that would be easier for us to more directly address.
RLH: And how do we see hypermasculinity played out in other parts of our culture—for instance, in the political world?
There’s a little bit of quiet laughter off mic because we talked about this before the show started. I, for one, had never thought about hypermasculinity leading to, for instance, unwillingness to compromise or the notion that listening to somebody else with a diverging opinion is actually a sign of weakness. This seems like a new idea for me.
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: Part of this challenge is that, without having this positive model of masculinity, men are struggling to identify what it is they want to control. I don’t think we really know exactly what that means, in terms of what the role of men is, but I think that as the society has changed—with racial demographic characteristics, and I think currently we’re at 51% women, so men are technically a minority in the country—it’s a different world, and I think men are trying to figure out what exactly is their role in all this. So part of that backlash is trying to hold onto what you have, it’s sort of a natural piece. By contrast, I think if we look at some of the positive models in contrast to the hypermasculinity— If we look at Paul Ryan as an example, he took on the role of Speaker of the House, and he very publically came out and said, “I will take on this role, but my family is my first priority. My family won’t be defined by my job, but I will define my job by my responsibilities to my family.” This is one of the first times that we see a major politician who comes out and says, “ I have these responsibilities. I have these multiple roles in my life.” I think that we need more people to take on that discussion. Those are the kinds of choices that we’re making that I think are important, rather than focusing on all the noise that’s out there, try to find these positive models and positive examples of men who are struggling with these real, practical challenges and trying to do the best in all the different realms where they’re working.
RLH: And there are a lot of positive aspects of masculinity. You have mentioned aggression, but if you put a positive spin on that, what would you call it?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: I think there’s a certain protective instinct. I have two young children, and I want to protect them. Being willing to have difficult conversations with your children, it seems like a small thing, but it can be really difficult. Thinking about Andrew’s book about dating and sex and teenagers, that’s probably one of the most terrifying conversations you’re going to have with your children.
RLH: Have you had that conversation?
Joseph Simons-Rudolph: We have started it, yes. And I don’t think it’s a single conversation but it’s an ongoing conversation. Being able to talk to your children about how their bodies are changing or what it’s going to be like in a romantic relationship or what their expectations are, I think is a very difficult piece, but it’s an ongoing process, it’s not a one-and-done, you know, “We’ll finish this game, and we’re finished.” Every day I have to get up and I have to do these kinds of things–
RLH: And show up in this way that requires a lot of courage. Andrew Smiler, if you could leave parents and teachers of young boys with one idea about how to teach them a different way of being masculine, what would that be?
Andrew Smiler: I think the one thing that I would really love to have parents and teachers doing more of is to ask boys to define what it means to be a good man.