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Books & Culture Corner: Boys Will Be Boys

Dec 10, 2002 01:45 PM EST

The title of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen's new book, My Brother's Keeper: What The Social Sciences Do (And Don't) Tell Us About Masculinity (InterVarsity), is a little misleading.

It is not a book about what the social sciences do or do not tell us about masculinity. It is a book about "the general state of males in the Western world after the advent of second-wave feminism," seen through the eyes of an intrepid feminist professor of psychology in the Reformed tradition.

In its introduction its author writes of having "made the case" in an earlier volume "for mutuality rather than hierarchy in gender relations and for flexibility rather than rigidity in gender roles"—and this is what she seeks to do here as well, the difference being that here her focus is on masculinity: how to study it as a Christian; its cultural setting in the early church; what several scientific disciplines have to say on this subject; masculinity's changing place in religion; the impact of feminism; and finally, how men are faring so far as marriage, parenting, sexuality and work are concerned.

Her underlying thesis is that masculinity, like ethnicity, is an ongoing cultural production, "not something that just happens to us by reason of biology or socialization, though…these too are important." "'Doing gender'," she writes, "is a responsible cultural activity whose mixed blessings need to be critically examined, not least from the standpoint of a Christian worldview." The worldview she refers to is one in which "postfall man is continually tempted to turn the legitimate, God-imaging dominion of Genesis 1:28 into domination, and to impose it in illegitimate ways on the earth and on other men, but also on woman…In complementary fashion, womanhood as a creational power is warped by the woman's postfall collusion with the man's domination."

The remedy proposed for reversing "fallen" gender relations is "for men to be less assertive and women more." Van Leeuwen believes women especially need encouragement "to start living as God's stewards, heirs and priests"—but if women need encouragement to do more, "Isn't it time [she quotes theologian Philip Cary asking] for men to stop? Isn't it time for men to acquire a conscience about male prerogatives and use of power?'" Some second-wave feminists are raising questions about prescriptions of this kind due to the debilitating impact they see their broad acceptance having had on the lives of men—but this is obviously not the viewpoint of this volume.

Van Leeuwen too, however, is concerned by "the negative trends in men's lives" over the past forty years. The statistics she cites in this regard are sobering. Except for suicide and crime (in which males excel by far) women are now outpacing men in high school diplomas, college degrees, and master's degrees, and are moving into traditional men's professions at twice the rate of men entering traditional women's jobs. Most troubling of all, men are proving to be far less interested than women in caring for the children they procreate. At the turn of the millennium, Van Leeuwen writes, some "twenty million U.S. children were living in single-parent households," the vast majority headed by women alone.

On the face of it, men appear to be in decline and in need of doing more, not less. So how then is Van Leeuwen's renewed call for flexibility and mutuality in gender relations still relevant? I see her book as a well-written, erudite, wide-ranging, sincere, but flawed attempt at answering this question. That it is well written, wide-ranging (perhaps too much so) and erudite is only too apparent. That it is sincere is evident from her many personal asides about family and friends (she is married and the mother of two sons). That I regard it to be flawed is primarily due to inadequacies in her analysis of why masculinity is now proving to be such a problem in a culture awash in egalitarianism of the kind she espouses.

I fully agree with Van Leeuwen that gender identities are vulnerable to cultural ideologies and applaud in particular the amount of attention she devotes to cultural issues surrounding male identity-formation in early childhood. Her forays into this vitally important but neglected subject area are among the book's strengths—but her analysis is truncated and confusing at points.

For one thing, while recognizing that gender identities are formed in early childhood and while acknowledging the special difficulties males have in this regard due to being born to opposite-gendered mothers, her account of these difficulties lacks precision and depth due to a neglect of the phase-specific nature of this process. She is unaware or dismissive of the substantial research indicating that gender-identity formation occurs (or does not occur as the case might be) during the 18th to 24th month of children's lives, right at the point they are learning to talk.

Knowledge of this underscores the degree to which males are vulnerable to gender-confusion at a specific early stage. It also pinpoints the urgent need of small boys for the presence of fathers at precisely this time in their lives, to be a counterweight to the encompassing emotional presence of their mothers. Furthermore, being phase-specific, once gender identities are formed (whether weak or strong or confused) it is extremely difficult to alter them, which is why males who internalize feelings of being females when small children (as some do) may seek relief as adults through sex-change operations.

Were Van Leeuwen more cognizant of the depth and persistence of the challenges males face in this regard, I believe she would be less perplexed about the continued existence in our egalitarian culture of what she refers to as the "boy's code" ("no sissy stuff"; striving to be a "sturdy oak"; a "big wheel"; standing up to others)—and more understanding perhaps of why her prescriptions for changing it are so anemic.

There is yet another deficiency (or confusion) in Van Leeuwen's analysis of male development. She seems out of touch with how different a father's role in a son's identity-formation is from that of a mother. Van Leeuwen's tendency is to meld the two roles and picture fathers as little more than supplemental co-nurturers. This is especially apparent in her discussion of the phenomenon of "defensive autonomy and/or destructive entitlement" in adult males, which she attributes to a too early separation of males from their mothers, augmented by the fact that childcare in our culture is too often defined as a women's domain only. She believes (as she puts it) that "boys need freedom to stay attached to parents longer than our culture has allowed them to" and that the presence of fathers as nurturers of small children would help in facilitating this.

The error here (and it is a serious one) is not to distinguish between a son's dependence on his mother and his quite different relationship to his father. Fathers do not simply replicate or prolong the symbiotic emotional dependence of children on their mothers (so essential to their well being in the first months of their lives) but through a more reciprocal (yet also trusting and loving) relationship facilitate their transition from the maternal tie to the realities and values of an autonomous adulthood.

An adult male's reactive display of "defensive entitlement" is the consequence in most instances, not of a too "early or sharp separation from the mother," but to a lack in paternal involvement that has left him still too maternally dependent and desperate for manhood.

The point I am making is one that Van Leeuwen herself makes in another part of her book when discussing the cross-cultural findings of David Gilmore. She quotes him as stating that manhood rituals in all cultures are "men's ways of reassuring themselves that they have separated from their mothers and the feminine world they represent." "The blissful experience of oneness with the mother," Gilmore continues, "is what draws the boy back so powerfully toward childhood and away from the challenge of autonomous manhood."

The lesson the author draws at this point in her book is that, "A crucial factor in the formation of a culture that neither oppresses women nor resorts to extreme cruelty to form responsible men. is the presence of nurturing fathers during children's early years."

There is a reason, I think, why this clearly articulated, seminal insight remains undeveloped and poorly integrated into the larger perspectives of this book—and this is because it contradicts its unexamined presupposition: namely, that the ideals of "mutuality rather than hierarchy in gender relations" and "flexibility rather than rigidity in gender roles" are what "fallen man" is urgently needing.

In childhood the genders are not equal—males begin their lives utterly dependent on their all-powerful mothers. Both gendered children require a great deal of help in divesting themselves of this intense maternal bond and becoming mature autonomous adults—but males especially so. In both cases for this to happen a father's strong, caring presence is vital. When it is realized that this is in truth the case, a different cultural agenda will emerge and come into focus than the one pursued in this volume.

John W. Miller is professor emeritus at Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada).

By John W. Miller