"If you want to be 'man enough,' you don't cry. You can't show pain. You can't show upset."
These are the messages teen boys are getting from our society, as revealed in an interview with NBC's Stephanie Ruhle. She sat down with five teens aged 13 to 17 to talk about what it means to grow up as boys and men in the U.S.
The interview, aired on March 25, was partially inspired by a New York Times op-ed by actor Michael Ian Black published in February. In "The Boys Are Not All Right," Black describes our society’s culture of masculinity and how it’s affecting boys:
"Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don't even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine."
Black explained in the Sunday segment that boys are the ones pulling the trigger in almost all mass shootings. In fact, 94% of mass shootings have been carried out by men (about 50% of whom have histories of domestic violence).
"Most boys are going to grow up and never ever commit acts of violence like this," Black pointed out. "But I feel confident in saying most boys would also rather starve to death in their homes than ask their male friend for help shoveling their driveway. This rigid model of masculinity — it's killing us."
Michael Ian Black speaking in North Hollywood in May 2017. Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images.
Our society tells boys that they need to "man up" — but no one really knows what that means.
The teens interviewed seem to confirm Black's analysis. When Ruhle asked them which of them has been told to "man up," all five boys immediately raised their hands.
When asked what it means, one teen responded, "No clue." Another said, "Show no emotion."
Ruhle asked what they felt was the hardest part about growing up as boys. 17-year-old Jordany Robleto-Baltazar responded, "Hiding the pain."
Ty Duggins, 13, replied, "Not being able to express yourself."
"It kind of makes you feel trapped, almost," added Tyler Gamett, 15, "because it’s like you have nowhere to go."
Boys don't know how to seek comfort from each other — or how to offer it without embarrassment.
Dr. Niobe Way, professor of developmental psychology at NYU, also offered some thoughts in the segment, noting that all kinds of emotional challenges hit boys right about the time they're being told to "man up."
"Not needing other people — that is at the root of masculinity," Way told NBC. "And if you look at all the school shooters, including the one at Parkland, every single one of them has said in some way that they feel desperate for connection."
Dylann Lippiatt-Cook, 16, spoke about feeling like he shouldn't cry, even though he knows it's a normal way to express human emotion. "It's normal, but it's not normal," he said. "It is human, but it is not 'man.'"
Mourners embrace at a vigil for Parkland shooting victims. Photo by Rhona Wise/Getty Images.
Robleto-Baltazar described an incident where a friend he was with started crying. He didn't know what to do. He'd never been confronted with having to comfort a guy friend in that way.
The friend finally said, "I think I just need a hug," so Robleto-Baltazar hugged him. Then afterward, they looked at each other and said, "We are never going to say anything to anyone."
Still, there might just be hope for our boys — especially if they ask for help.
At this point in the video, I just wished I could hug these teenagers!
Despite the historical gender inequality women have had to put up with, at least we're allowed to have and express our feelings. I'm raising a son and doing my best to counteract the societal forces that create an unhealthy sense of masculinity — but it's not easy.
These boys struck me as being pretty aware of their own conditioning, and, obviously, they were able to express how it's affected them. But they still struggle with the stigma of showing emotion.
At the end of the interview, Ruhle asked the boys, "How can we make things easier for you?"
"I think it starts with kids," said Jake Hillerman, 17. "Teach them about expressing yourself without viewing it as a wrong."
Gamett made it sound easy: "Get rid of the old stereotypes that we have in our society of a 'manly figure.'"
As difficult as it is to hear that boys in our society are struggling, these teens' self-awareness gives me hope. And I'm seeing more and more men talking about this stuff openly and without shame.
For example, in addition to Michael Ian Black's op-ed, actor Justin Baldoni recently brought together a group of other celebrity men to film a new show discussing what it means to be a man. They tackle vulnerability, body image, emotional expectations, and more.
"We Are Man Enough" serves as a wonderful example to young men who yearn for more emotionally open relationships with other men.
The boys may not be all right now, but as a mom of a boy who's trying to break through old ideas of manhood, this changing culture of masculinity makes me confident that they'll get there.