In the tense hours leading up to the identification of the Boston bombing suspects, a number of pressing questions swirled around their identities. What was their nationality? Did they act alone or were they operatives in a network? Was this an isolated incident or part of a larger plan? Here's one question nobody asked: Were the bombers male or female? That question was answered before it could even be posed; it was treated as a given that the perpetrators were men.
Whenever there are acts of mass violence in this country from Columbine to Aurora to Sandy Hook law enforcement, the news media and the public all assume that men are behind them. As assumptions go, it's a pretty safe bet. In February, Mother Jones published a survey of gun violence in the United States that found that of the 62 known mass shootings since 1982, only one was carried out by a woman.
But just because an assumption is well-founded doesn't mean it's neutral or made without an implied judgment. Watching the Boston coverage, I started wondering how it affected men to know that our culture seems to expect them to be violent, to commit terrible acts. As a domestic violence advocate, I've had plenty of occasions to think about gender and violence, and question why even the positive messages we send about masculinity messages about strength or protectiveness so often also carry the seeds of aggression.
Changing masculine gender norms has been on feminists' wish list for decades. However, it's an extremely tricky problem to engage in practical terms without seeming to criticize masculinity generally, or at least being accused of it. With a recent spate of mass shootings focusing media attention on gun violence, and with Ariel Castro's rape and kidnapping arrest providing yet another high-profile example of violence against women, the question of male aggression has a renewed urgency. Anti-violence crusaders and women's advocates are again starting to speak up about how and why it is that men are socialized to behave in ways that can be harmful or dangerous.
Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder and CEO of MissRepresentation.org, has a new film project in the works called "The Mask You Live In," which addresses problems that arise when men act out extremes of masculine gender norms for example, through physical aggression. I asked Newsom what prompted her, as a feminist, to take on the topic of masculinity. She said her research made her understand that if we want to achieve true equality between the sexes, society will have to reevaluate the way it treats not just women, but also men.
"I knew we needed to start looking into what was going on with our boys and men, and what if anything was holding them back from being a bigger part of the gender equity solution and revolution," she said. "It occurred to me that boys and men were really confused and were receiving so many mixed messages regarding healthy masculinity. I realized that we have to uncover this messaging and acknowledge the boy crisis at hand if we are truly going to create a healthier culture for all involved."
The implicit belief that "manliness" means constantly asserting your social or physical dominance over other people puts men in a terrible bind. On the one hand, we demand that men be powerful and reward them for expressions of strength. On the other hand, if they express that strength too forcefully, if assertiveness becomes aggression, we punish them for it. No matter what path they choose, men run the risk of condemnation, either for being weak if they defy masculine norms, or for being dangerous and even criminal if they carry those norms to an extreme.
How do we salvage what's good and valuable in our definition of manhood, but still have an honest conversation about the ways that definition is outdated and dysfunctional? Newsom hopes her film ultimately will be part of a movement toward redefining manhood in terms of strength of character rather than mere physical brawn. She said sociologists have found evidence that being trapped in the double bind of masculine power/aggression can make boys feel lonely and anxious.
"They've found that boys who stay true to their empathic, authentic selves ultimately win in the end," she said. "But this depends on whether or not they can avoid joining the male hierarchy and avoid conforming to those extreme masculine norms."
If adult society collectively can't muster a coherent answer about what behavior it values and expects in men, it's a pretty tall order to ask young boys to navigate those daunting questions. But any productive conversation we have about how to begin to change harmful masculine norms will have to include those boys, and the men that they are growing up to be.
Camille Hayes, a Sacramento writer, is a domestic violence advocate who works for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Partnership or its member agencies. Read her blog, Lady Troubles, about politics and women's issues, at www.ladytroubles.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.