A few years ago, in the staff room of his high school in Surrey, England, Matt Pinkett was discussing a poem with his female colleagues of the department of language and literature. Somehow the talk veered towards the complexes that boys have during adolescence. “You are men. All you think about is sex and the size of your penis,” one of them blurted out. She was joking, but it seemed so reductionist (and so widespread) that he kept ruminating on it until it became a ball. After spitting it out, Pinkett came to the realization that this masculine stereotype was still valid among people who were not necessarily sexist. Many of his colleagues, progressive women and feminists, had not moved on from the old concepts about the problems and concerns of male teenagers.
In recent years, essays, debates and cultural artifacts have redefined what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, but few have considered the place of men in this new world. What problems affect them, specifically. Why they are three times more likely to die by suicide. Why they have fewer close friends. What leads them to commit more violent crimes at an overwhelming rate. From all these questions a first book emerged, Boys Don’t Try? (2019), an initial approach to the mental health of young boys. Now, Pinkett delves into the subject with a second essay, Boys Do Cry. In it, the author draws on his 12-year experience as a high school and sociological studies teacher to explain the problems of teenage boys and gives advice to teachers and parents to help improve their mental health, reaching striking conclusions, such as that kids need to be open to the prospect of having a bromance.
Boys need to hug each other, say that they love each other, as their female classmates do by nature. Resorting to literary examples, he cites Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings, or Watson and Holmes, as good examples of this kind of friendship. On the other hand, he mentions James Bond as a model of outdated, lonely masculinity, for whom romance means conquest; a model reinforced by pornography and taken to the extreme by misogynist influencers like Andrew Tate. Beyond condemning these ideas, in his essay Pinkett tries to understand why they are successful. How the internet can become the breeding ground for rape culture. How poor anger management during adolescence can lead to suicide in adulthood. And what can parents and teacher do to avoid it.
Question. How have we changed from the 2019 release of Boys Don’t Try? to today, with the publishing of Boys Do Cry?
Answer. I think that as a society we’re evolving. We’re more in tune with what happened after 2019. Obviously, the #MeToo movement was just starting then. As a society, we are becoming more aware of what harassment is and also realizing that it’s not just “boys will be boys.” I also think we’ve become a lot more aware of male mental health since 2019.
Q. Not all the changes have been positive, have they?
A. Of course, now we have Andrew Tate and other misogynistic influencers like that. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on. I think we’re in the middle of a huge revolution in gender politics. We’re holding them culpable now more than we ever have done. I think we do need to hold men to account, but we also need to better understand men. And I think sometimes I’m guilty, too, when I advocate for men, I feel that I’m being misogynist, or sometimes I might talk about the reality of being a boy or the reality of being a man, and even as I’m speaking, I can hear myself saying, “shut up,” you know?
Q. But someone has to ask those questions, right? There are many books on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. Shouldn’t we men also ask ourselves that question and redefine the concept of masculinity?
A. Yeah, I mean, in England you go into a bookshop and there are so many books about what it means to be a woman, and the male role in that book is almost like a binary opposition to that. We need to recognize the positive aspects of masculinity, but at the same time understand that men are a problem in many ways, or masculinity is a problem. The problem with gender is, by definition, that there are two opposing sides, and we don’t make much room, when we’re discussing gender, for grey areas. It’s like either you’re a man who’s horrible, or you’re a good man. And if you’re a good man, you never make mistakes. Well, the reality is you can be a bad man who does some good things, and you can be a good man who does some bad things. We need to talk about masculinity if we want women to be empowered.
Q. And the men who do not fit the canon, too. Those who are not athletes, those who cry, those who are not heterosexual... Can toxic masculinity be a problem for men themselves?
A. I used to reject the term “toxic masculinity.” But the problem is that too many high profile men and non-high profile men are being toxic. So now I use the term toxic masculinity. You asked me earlier what has changed since 2019. We’ve become much more aware of where men are going wrong. And what we have to accept is, yes, many aspects of masculinity are toxic. We tell boys: “be a man, grow up, be independent, be a man.” And they think being a man means objectifying women, being aggressive, being violent.
Q. There is another term with which you have recently made peace and which you vindicate in your book: bromance.
A. It’s a hybrid word between brother and romance. It is a relationship between two, platonic, non-romantic males who like each other and are willing to express that love for each other. It can be physical, like hugging, you know, shaking hands, or kissing. In England, men are not physical with each other. When I go to the continent, I see men greeting each other with a kiss or a hug. That doesn’t happen in England. In England, if you hug another man, a friend, or kiss him on the cheek, you’re gay. Who cares if you’re gay? But heterosexual men believe that they cannot be physical with other men.
Q. That’s why you defend that literary or historical bromances must be discussed in class.
A. Yes. That is on the rise in this country. The problem is it’s only really happening around the age of 19, 20, 21. What I argue in the book is we could teach younger kids about this, tell them, “this is what’s happening to people that are slightly older than you.” They just they want this physical touch, you know. But it’s always underscored with violence. And it would be nice if someone told them: “It’s okay, you can show affection physically, you can have a bromance.”
Q. In 2020, 72% of all the teenagers who killed themselves in the U.K. were boys. You analyze this phenomenon in your book. Why is teenage suicide mostly male?
A. I think it’s the outdated ideas about what it means to be a man. Teenagers want to become adults. Boys want to become men. And they’re told that men don’t talk about their feelings. Men are tough. And so, being a teenager, it’s very difficult when you feel weak, when you feel vulnerable, when you feel scared, and you’re not meeting that expectation of what it means to be a man. When we look at the statistics around adult suicide, women are much more likely to try to kill themselves. But men are three times more likely to die by suicide. Because men have been taught that violence and anger are socially acceptable. And so, sadly, boys and men tend to use methods that are more likely to result in death.
Q. Statistically, 74% of all violent crimes are committed by men, and 98% of rapists are men. Do these overwhelming numbers have to do with biology, or is it a cultural thing?
A. I don’t like the biological argument, because it suggests that it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it is inevitable. You look at Marvel [movies] and the men solve their problems with their fists, not their brain. As young boys and men, we’re told we have to be like James Bond, you know? We have to be sexy, tough, irresistible and cool all of the time. And if we see something that will make us manly, like a sexual conquest with a woman, then we have to take it. Sadly, so much of masculinity is intertwined with sex, like winning sex and having sex. And pornography teaches us that violence is acceptable, that men should be dominant and women should be submissive.
Q. With mobile phones, pornography is now within reach. Is that part of the problem?
A. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with watching pornography. People get sexually aroused. Pornography, or the naked form of sex, has been arousing people for centuries. The problem is that we’re not willing to talk to children openly and honestly about pornography. If anything, I’d say we stigmatize pornography. We tell children pornography is inherently bad. And so, if they have questions about it or they’re interested in it, they don’t talk, because they don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed. And so all these boys are watching this violent pornography. They must be watching and thinking, “is this what sex looks like?” In this country recently, there was a big kind of Twitter storm, somebody said on Twitter that in schools all teachers are teaching children how to masturbate with sex toys, about sadomasochism.
Q. In your book you talk about Section 28 [a reform introduced by Margaret Thatcher that prohibited talking about homosexuality in the classrooms, which was in force until the early 21st century] as something that had been overcome. But there are similar initiatives around the world. In Spain they are talking about the parental PIN; in Florida, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill has been signed.
A. It’s dangerous because if you openly talk about sex, the right is going to tell you that you are a pervert, as if teachers were trying to encourage teenagers to try things. But people don’t know what it’s like in the schools. And now there’s all this uproar and the government is saying, “You should not mention this stuff.” And then they’re wondering why boys are learning that it’s okay to do anal on your first time or that it’s okay to choke a woman.
Q. And if you don’t talk about sex, you can’t talk about other issues like homophobia either. Why are schools such complicated spaces for non-heterosexual individuals?
A. Things have changed since I was in high school as a student, but they still have room for improvement. I’ve taught for 12 years and I have seen two lesbians who are couples, but I have never, ever, seen a gay boy who is openly in a gay relationship in school. Even heterosexual men aren’t telling other heterosexual men that they like them. Heterosexual men can’t even be nice. They’re just horrible to each other. I think the idea of a gay kid being treated kindly and normal… I don’t think we’re close to that yet. It’s sad.
Q. Boys do cry, but they also smile. What can adults do to help them be happier and better citizens?
A. We need to realize that boys are more complicated. So often we reduce boys to a stereotype, like, they just want violence and they don’t want to talk. But the boys are talking. They want physical affection. They want to talk about their feelings. We need to stop normalizing toxic behaviors. Heterosexual men can talk openly about our feelings, criticize homophobia, racism. We need to break free from our own barriers. I do think there is hope. Like I said, bromances, they’re on the rise. I think things could happen.
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