Michael Ian Black, whose bio line says he’s “a comedian, actor and author,” recently published an essay in the New York Times that attempted to shift some of the blame for school shootings away from guns. He wrote about a joke that used to be in his repertoire: “If you want to emasculate a guy friend, when you’re at a restaurant, ask him everything that he’s going to order, and then when the waitress comes, order for him.” According to Black, that’s “funny because it shouldn’t be that easy to rob a man of his masculinity.”
The comedian revisited his old joke because, the week before, 17 people, most of them teenagers, were shot dead at a Florida school. “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” he wrote, “now joins the ranks of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine and too many other sites of American carnage. What do these shootings have in common? Guns, yes. But also, boys. Girls aren’t pulling the triggers. It’s boys. It’s almost always boys.”
In fairness, Black makes it clear that he doesn’t really blame the boys – that it’s a societal shortcoming – but his is one of those frustrating essays that sits on the border between emasculation and an appropriately masculine response. He tells readers about his own son, “16 years old, swallowing his frustration, burying his worry, stomping up the stairs without telling us what’s wrong.” The response dad feels like he should, but is unable to, provide? To show the boy how to be “vulnerable and open.”
From one father to another, I’d suggest that this misunderstands the problem. Society watches the boy stomping up the stairs and feels like it has to get him to respond more like a girl would, with more emphasis on his feelings and the expression of them. As someone who has self-expression at the center of his identity, I certainly know that it can be healthy, and most people will find some mix of contemplation and action to suit their personalities, but the masculine way to teach boys to address problems is to help them channel frustrations into doing something.
You’re angry. Use that. If the action that you take requires addressing the problem that’s frustrating you, it may require some self-reflection. But “being vulnerable and open” in that case is framed as an action, as part of the fix. Emoting isn’t the point.
Alternatively, sometimes our best strategy is to channel frustrations into something else altogether. You’re frustrated at X and can do nothing about it, so apply that energy for Y.
The crisis we’re now facing is that our feminized society forecloses many of those channels. Boys with too much energy are drugged in schools. Sports that seem aggressive have come under fire, and we’re now several generations into the Title IX project to require bean-counting equality in the number of sports on college campuses.
A kid who wants to turn his boyish frustration into an intellectual pursuit and the heroism of curing some disease or something might find that – sorry, pal – the mission of the moment is promoting women in STEM. Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has an annual “Governor for a Day” writing contest from which Rhode Island boys are excluded.
Most of all, far too many homes have no father to provide the subtle example that boys need to follow. We see the result in school shootings, but also in suicides and drug overdoses, all of which disproportionately involve boys and men.
Black’s straw-man joke about ordering food illustrates the thinking. He relies on the assumption that ordering food really is all there is to masculinity. That’s baloney.
Even if a real-life situation might play out that way, the fault lies with the woman in the story, who sets out to emasculate her “guy friend.” And the difficulty sets in because society has told the guy that any sort of response would be “toxic masculinity.” Whether it’s aggressive or good-natured, any attempt to win the encounter would be an indication of misguided testosterone.
Men and women who share Black’s thinking can’t see any way forward for masculinity except to evolve it in a feminine way. If only they’d take the time for some productive self-reflection.
Justin Katz is Research Director at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and Managing Editor of the Anchor Rising & the Ocean State Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.