Boys will be boys
Commentary by JOELLEN COLLINS
Along with strides made for women since I graduated
from college, I see men sharing in the rewards of a reconsideration of
their responsibilities and roles.
Recently a group of exuberant fathers at the elementary
school where I work burst in through the entry hall on their way to pick
up their sons. In the process, they were high-fiving it, slapping each
other on the back, and setting times for the next get-together, a tryout
for a kids' summer league athletic team. As the hallway filled with the
presence of these three men, their buoyant good spirits and sense of play,
I could see their sons' boyhoods reflected in the manly repartee. Three
women in the same place would not have seemed as, well, present as these
men were. Their vivacity and high spirits absolutely dominated the space
in front of my desk. They filled the room and the air with their maleness.
I thought to myself, "boys will be boys." I couldn't help but
admire their joie de vivre.
That morning I had also watched Scott Waddle, the
disgraced commander of the American Navy sub that collided with a Japanese
vessel, interviewed on a morning news show. I had noticed his kindly and
responsible demeanor before, of course, and observed that he often choked
up when talking about the accident resulting in the death of nine Japanese
people. I had sensed the weight of his acceptance of the responsibility as
the commander of the sub, confirmed by the navy decision to terminate his
In this interview he read from a letter sent to him by a
victim's widow. She wrote about seeing Commander Waddle on television in
the days following her husband's death. She had noticed him walking with
and being comforted by his wife, something she said she would never be
able to do again for her deceased husband. As he read these words, Waddle
sobbed profusely. When I saw this, I thought how much the rules of
behavior for men have changed since my childhood, when men were taught
never to cry. Then it would most especially have been considered unseemly
for a naval officer to display any public emotion, especially tears.
These two examples lead me to wonder if boys are still
"boys" in the traditional sense of the phrase. I wonder how much
concepts about gender qualities have changed in the last few decades. Our
society is certainly still grappling with increasingly contradictory
expectations and stereotypical definitions of masculinity and femininity.
I am a perfect example. I wish to feel as strong and as secure as do my
male counterparts, and yet I still enjoy the courtly gesture of a man
pulling out a chair for me or opening a car door. Perhaps that is because
I am a confused mixture of attitudes gleaned from my 1950s upbringing and
witnessing the great changes in social mores in the years since.
I must also acknowledge the ascendance of strong women as
role models for the girls growing up today. Mia Hamm is but one of many
dynamic young women who are challenging the hopefully outdated concepts of
feminine behavior with which I was raised.
Along with strides made for women since I graduated from
college, I see men sharing in the rewards of a reconsideration of their
responsibilities and roles. Men of my generation abided by rigid rules of
masculine conduct. Always stoic in the face of adversity, always strong,
always the breadwinner, there was little time for more
"sensitive" pursuits. Nor were they granted paternity leave.
I am thrilled when I see men sharing in the delights of
child care, moved when men show "vulnerable emotions," and
inordinately happy when I see a man reading poetry or discussing emotional
issues. I think we have made great strides in our culture, and I witness
every day the more open nature of the young fathers at our school. Hurrah,
However, I am also intrigued by what I perceive as the
innate qualities that make boys "boys" and men "men."
Most of the men I like have the kind of confidence of spirit I observed in
the daddies in the hall. I appreciate and sometimes envy that male
exuberance, strength and feeling of entitlement of space. I know women who
have worked to acquire that same sense of self-possession and knowledge
that they, too, have the right to belong wherever they choose.
Studies are ongoing, of course, attempting to discern the
validity of gender stereotypes. One research revealed the penchant for
toddlers to fulfill traditional role expectations through play by noting
that boys go for trucks and girls for dolls. Yet another found items both
sexes enjoyed, such as blocks. One mother recently noted how her baby boy
loves throwing things (can baseball be far behind?) while her daughter had
not exhibited such tendencies naturally. Loads of books have been recently
published exploring gender concepts and whether they are innate or
I'm not sure of the validity of any study which defines
what we should be as men and women, but I do enjoy the contradictions I
see. Maybe the two examples of contemporary "manly" behavior I
noted at the beginning of this column signal a new reality for today's
men. Perhaps we have come to a remarkable time where boys can be boys and
still cry. Bravo!