Patriarchy harms boys and men, too. Helping them realize this is key to erasing toxic masculinity

What a "BoyMom" has learned about fostering positive masculinity and how that can be feminist

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 8, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Two little boys covered in mud standing in a mud hole and laughing. (Getty Images/Andreas Kuehn)
Two little boys covered in mud standing in a mud hole and laughing. (Getty Images/Andreas Kuehn)

“It really did feel like, ‘My tribe is abandoning my kids,’” recalls author Ruth Whippman. There she was, pregnant with her third son, already facing sympathetic reactions that gave her the sense that “girls were more of the prized gender,” and then the #MeToo movement broke. “Then the conversation exploded.” And, as she recalls, “It felt like this weird set of culture war divisions had co-opted my own children into this politicized narrative, which was really hard.” 

So Whippman, author of “America the Anxious” channeled her complicated feelings into “Boymom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity,” a supremely levelheaded examination of how we got here — and how we can guide our boys away from the abyss that’s harming all of us across the gender spectrum, in different ways. It’s a frank look at the rising rates of depression and loneliness in men, the academic gaps between boys and girls, and how our contemporary American culture both privileges and sabotages males from before they’re even born. She makes the case that raising a healthier, more emotionally intelligent population of boys is possible — and that we all have a stake in making it happen.

As a mother of girls, I was excited to read Whippman’s deeply researched yet intensely personal account of American boyhood, and even moreso to talk with her recently about why  boys today feel "so isolated," and why masculinity is a feminist issue.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start where you start, with the wild things people have said to you when they you found out you were pregnant with a boy, or that you have sons. 

You would think that it was a feature of having three children of the same sex, but even from the very first, it felt like a little disappointing to people when I said, “We're having a boy.” You could tell the reaction was kind of muted. Then people would say, “Oh, well, you can try again. You’ll have a little sister next time.” That sort of thing. Then there were all these sort of threads online for you know about gender disappointment, and they're pretty much about mothers who are pregnant with boys. 

I think, for mothers, there’s this idea that you don't want to disappoint your family by not giving it sons, whereas the idea that you're bringing other men into the world is treated like a collective disappointment.

"I already had this sense that girls were more of the prized gender, at least in our liberal bubble."

I already had this sense that girls were more of the prized gender, at least in our liberal bubble. But then when I had a third boy, people would look at me as if I was going off to a war or something. It was almost an object of pity. Then the conversation exploded. There were all these articles about how it's okay to be disappointed it's a boy, that sort of thing.

Then #MeToo happened, and it ramped up exponentially. I started to buy into it as well, the horror show of bad news about men. We were just exposing this underbelly of the world. It was this problem that we knew existed but we hadn't had words for and suddenly, it was this kind of clarity, just like, “Men are terrible.” To be giving birth with a boy in that moment, was quite an extreme. I had some quite conflicted feelings about it. 

I identify as progressive and as a feminist, and it felt like this tribal thing was happening was if you were a liberal, progressive, you err on the side of women and girls, and if you identified on the right, you were on the side of boys and men. It was this total false dichotomy, but it really did feel like, “My tribe is abandoning my kids. They don't care about what happens to them.” That was really hard. I had to really look at that and think, what was going on here? Am I just being unnecessarily defensive? I absolutely support the cause of women and girls, and I was so thrilled that we had this voice and clarity, but at the same time, all these complicated feelings are coming up.

Because you're raising your children. 

You don't have the option to just be like, “Shut up, boys, time for somebody else to have a time.” These are my children. 

I had this line in the book where the feminist part of me wants to smash the patriarchy, and the mother part of me wants to wrap the patriarchy up in its blankie. Where I ultimately landed was that these two things are not in opposition. Patriarchy harms men and boys, as well as women. We’re all trapped in this system together. It’s central to the feminist project to to support men and boys. It's not in opposition to it. But in that moment, it felt like this weird set of culture war divisions had co-opted my own children into this politicized narrative, which was really hard. It was the inspiration to write the book, because if I'm feeling this, lots of mothers of boys must be feeling similar things, and people were telling me that they were feeling similar things.

"Patriarchy harms men and boys, as well as women. We’re all trapped in this system together."

I wanted to look at where we are going wrong with male socialization that we've allowed this to become completely normalized. That sexual violence is just normal fact of life. And not just sexual violence, but all kinds of other violence and incels and school shooters and the manosphere. Where are we going wrong and on a systemic level?

Obviously, nobody wants to raise some sexual predator as their child. We're doing something without realizing it. I also was really interested in this whole narrative does to boys, psychologically, because we've got this microgeneration of boys who were going through puberty when the #MeToo movement happened, and now they’re voting age, college age. They had their whole adolescence play out in the shadow of this conversation about toxic masculinity and framing them as harmful beings. What does that mean to be a boy growing up in this very historic moment? 

Let's talk about how the patriarchy harms men and boys. 

Men are going through this loneliness crisis. One in four young men says they don't have any close friends at all. I interviewed so many boys, and even the ones who felt like they did have friends felt that those friendships were kind of superficial, that they couldn't really share their problems with them, that they couldn’t talk about anything intimate or personal with them. They had to put on this performance of masculinity. I think masculinity norms and the expectations and these demands of men are really harmful for them. It's really getting in the way of forming healthy, connected relationships.

We are at this moment that absolutely scares me with the rise of these incels, with guys like Andrew Tate, who are indoctrinating men, especially young men. It’s not just this older generation who want us all to go back in the kitchen. It’s these 20 year-olds.

It’s getting worse. Boys are moving more to the right, and they're identifying as more conservative, which is a really unusual direction. Men are lonely, they're angry, they're resentful, they're pushing back, they blame feminism for everything. And these influencers are exploiting those feelings. 

It comes up often, that women and girls are granted and presumed a rich emotional range. And boys and men are given one: anger. 

I saw that time and time again. “You can be happy, or you can be angry. Those are your two options.” Boys were telling me that, and it was so damaging to them. We teach boys to code every emotion as anger. At the same time, we spend less time listening to boys feelings. We spend a lot of time listening to their opinions, and much less time listening to their feelings. So it's not really that surprising. If you give them the options of anger and opinions, then they're going to have angry opinions. That's the only outlet to express all those feelings. 

Masculinity intersects with race, with gender identity, with sexuality. And the implications of masculine expectations on you are going to be so much more corrosive for different groups. 

"We teach boys to code every emotion as anger."

I would argue that what we demand of boys to meet society's expectations for masculinity is harmful for all boys. That's not to say that the traits associated with masculinity are harmful, necessarily. There are lots of great things that are associated with masculinity, like bravery and strength. Even emotional stoicism sometimes can be a good thing. It's not that those traits are wrong. But we give boys this impossible ideal. If anything, those expectations are ramping up, in the same way that girls and women have these impossible expectations to be pretty, thin, submissive and likable. There's this role that we have to play that's oppressive.

Boys and men have this standard they have to meet. They have to be physically tough, they have to be muscular, they have to be emotionally invulnerable. They can't show their feelings, they can't show weakness. There's the superhero myth that we feed boys from right from the beginning, which is like, you don't even have to be human, you have to be super human. It's just this recipe for inadequacy. Boys, I think, carry this sense of shame and inadequacy, because it's impossible. No one can meet that standard. And when they don't, they feel a real sense of shame and loss. 

I write in the book that there's a weird combination of entitlement and inadequacy. You're entitled as your birthright as a male to women's bodies, you're entitled to power, you're entitled to glory, you're entitled to this heroic position. But you're also never going to meet it, so you're always going to feel shame and inadequacy. That combination makes is like a perfect storm for this resentment and emasculation. And those are the feelings that promote violence. 

That's your incel mindset completely. Inadequacy and entitlement.

There is all this research that shows it's not masculinity that makes men violent. It's the feeling that they're not masculine enough. Researchers call it masculine discrepancy stress, this idea that you don't meet the required expectations for manhood. Men who suffer from that are much more likely to commit all kinds of violence. 

What is really paradoxical about the entire movement, though, is that it cuts both ways. These incels, their whole shtick is like that they've basically given up on ever meeting society's expectations for masculinity. Their whole founding premise is that there are these Chads, the alpha males, and they’re right down at the bottom of this hierarchy. For some of them, that went in the direction of shame and violence. For other ones of them, it was quite freeing in a way. It was, “We're never going to be able to meet that this standard, so we might as well be emotional and vulnerable.”

So you see this weird paradox in those incel spaces where you see the worst, most toxic, masculine, violent, repulsive, misogynistic stuff imaginable. And you see the other extreme, which is this tender brotherhood and emotional vulnerability and loving support that men in society often feel like they can't really give each other. I saw both extremes. 

You use a phrase in the book that I really like, “sub toxic masculinity.” Tell me what that means in the day to day.

"It's not masculinity that makes men violent. It's the feeling that they're not masculine enough. "

We all know the obviously toxic things, the Harvey Weinstein or the school shooter. It's easy to disengage from that and think, “Well, that's not me, or that's not my kid, and so none of this really applies.” But there's this whole spectrum of little ways in which we enforce masculine expectations onto boys, which are really subtle. It might be the difference between wrestling and roughhousing with your boy and sitting and talking to your girl about her emotions. Or you giving your boys stories about battles and fighting and competition, and giving your girls stories about relationships and friendships.

These little differences in socialization add up to really quite a big difference. And so, by the time they reach adulthood, boys have had much less engagement with emotions, with relationships, with caregiving, with nurture, and so they don't have those skills. Obviously, these are averages, not everybody. There are incredibly emotionally intelligent men, but they're fighting against a system which is pushing them away from that. 

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We all have to interact with each other, whether you're a boy mom or not. So what can any and all of us do? 

I think there are two pieces to it. There’s the wider cultural piece in the political discourse, and then there's the piece in the home. I think the response is kind of similar. The patriarchal system has harmed boys in the sense that it's cut them off from their emotions, it's cut them off from connection.

In the home, we want to promote that and to give boys nurture and to talk to them about their feelings, to name their feelings and to make them feel heard and safe. When you have a boy, everyone’s main parenting advice you receive is like, “Boys need more wrestling. They need more physical play.” I hear that all the time. They get a lot of that. All anyone wants to do with the boys is wrestle them. But actually, what they need is engagement with emotions and nurture in more quiet reflection. Then, exposing them to role models, both in life and in arts, where they can see themselves reflected in these relational emotional ways, which girls get as absolute standard. 

In the wider cultural discourse, especially the progressive left, it's time to really listen to boys. When I say listen to them, I don't mean take their toxic opinions at face value and engage with them. I mean, really listen to the pain that's driving those opinions. I think that there's this tendency on the left now to be like, “Men, you've had your chance. Shut up, pipe down, you're so privileged.” A lot of boys just don't recognize this privilege. The idea that a man on Wall Street is making more money than a woman on Wall Street is so remote to a teenage boy, they don't they don't see this privilege that they're supposed to have. All they feel is that they're being shut down from all sides.

It's like if you voice your concerns, you’re taking away from a woman or a more marginalized group. And I think boys just feel so isolated. If we can listen to boys’ feelings and make them feel heard, and safe and connected and loved, rather than ridiculed and shamed and demonized, then I think that will go a long way to creating more emotionally healthy men.

And it's hard because people feel like men have had way more than their fair share of concern already, and now it's someone else's chance. That's true in a way, but they've handled the wrong kind of attention. Everyone's listened to their opinions, but no one’s listened to their feelings.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Boyhood Boymom Interview Masculinity Patriarchy Ruth Whippman