What Does It Mean to Be a Boy?

In truth, I have (of course) no answer to the question in my headline. But it's something I think about, in all sorts of ways: life, school, literature. Many of the things I love seem…inhospitable to boys. I see my girls in school, watch them thrive, and wonder at the extent to which school (especially elementary school, with its focus on behaving yourself and being orderly) seems to be tough on boys.

And of course I know that even beginning to talk about these things means I'm heading into the Land of Gross Generalizations. Which is no place to be. But still.

I thought of this when I read The Marbury Lens of song and story. Or OK, not song and story but of Wall Street Journal kerfuffle, which is no doubt less meaningful. For those of you with better things to do than watch fights on the internet, here's what I am talking about: a column bemoaning the unremitting darkness of contemporary YA appeared, and one of the books the writer singled out was this one.


Of course, then I had to go and read it. I expected to be grossed out a bit, and righteously angry, and to maybe bring up how Stephen King would for sure be called YA if he were being marketed now for the books he wrote when I was in high school (Carrie? Right?) and how a bit of horror and/or gratuitous violence never hurt anyone (in books at least).

But here's what got me: the violence in this story (and yes, there is A LOT of harrowing violence) is not by the farthest stretch of anyone's imagination gratuitous. It's strangely and absolutely essential to the story—a story of abduction and rape (even if it isn't consummated), of the rage and terror and destructiveness inside a boy—and yes, I think this has to do with his being a boy—and how he grapples with these terrifying feelings (and their reality), whether there's any possibility for redemption in any of it. At least that's what I think it was about.

It sort of killed me: here was this writer finding one of the few books that seemed to be speaking to boys—or young adults, or teenagers or whatever they hell you want to call them—and somehow everything she said about it embodied the fear of the story: the judging unforgiving eyes of the world saying "No, it's not OK to be a 17 year old boy and have those feelings, it's not OK to be full of rage and terror and violence, it's not OK to acknowledge all the fear and horror inside you. If you do that you will not be loved."

I can't fathom it. And it makes me fear for my nephews, and the boys of my friends, and the angry pent-up boys I see riding on the subway not reading. It makes me want to grab someone and scream: It's OK to be angry, and think horrible thoughts, and wonder if you're crazy, and dream dark dreams. It's just how people are. Boys and girls. And it's got to be OK to speak the truth about it. No matter how disturbing that truth is. That's why we have language, isn't it? To communicate with one another? Because if you can't speak the truth about the ugly stuff, you can't speak the truth about the beauty either. That's the funny thing about the truth. And this book spoke a truth, or at least it read that way to me, about how it feels to be victimized and enraged and ashamed. And speaking the truth is the right thing to do.

4 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be a Boy?

  1. I am standing and clapping in an ovation for you. Thank you. You, once again, are absolutely right on the money. Now I need to read this. It has been on my list since that article, but no time. I need to make time. xo


  2. Yes. We all need to give kids – especially teens – the right to be angry and hurt, and to grapple openly with all the feelings that adolescence inspires.
    It bothers me tremendously, as the mother of a very gentle boy, to hear the generalization that boys are violent/physical/rambunctious and girls are sweet/emotional/quiet. Neither generalization does either gender any real good… and I don’t think that we do a particularly good job, as a culture, figuring out just how much we are projecting our own gendered expectations onto our kids.
    And, while I’m on a tear, I think it’s wise to separate the very natural feelings of anger from the acts that those feelings can inspire. Violence is never okay, and I think we can all agree on that… we just need to be clearer in the cultural messages we send our kids.


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