Where the Boys Are(n’t)

Ah, pendulums.  They swing back and forth, always on the move, never staying put.

Societies swing like pendulums.  Over time, social preferences regularly move from one end of the spectrum to another.   Remember how tired the country was of ‘W’ by the end of his second term?   In his own presidential run, Senator McCain found that the political pendulum was now swinging too far the other direction, and, right or wrong, McCain simply didn’t measure up to the tone of the times.

But pendulums never stop moving, and now, eight years later, the nation has swung a long way back the other direction.

But pendulums aren’t just about politics.  They change hairstyles from short to long, they decree what part of the body will be uncovered in this year’s fashions, and they help decide whether fuel efficiency or gas guzzlers will win the day on America’s highways.

Pendulums even swing in the movies, as they pursue the shifting norms of society.  Remember when Christopher Reeve starred in a movie called Superman in 1978? Eight superhero movies were released in 2016.  Seven more are scheduled for 2017.  The pendulum has clearly been on the swing.

Meanwhile, my wife and I recently saw the new Disney movie Moana.   A gorgeous, funny, thoughtful, poignant piece of cinema.   And as we cheered the young heroine pursuing her quest with her plucky (get it?) sidekick, I couldn’t help but think that I’ve seen it all before.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:  young girl finds herself trapped in a socially restrictive environment, where she’s told she must stifle her dreams and accept the role assigned her by society.  Instead, she rebels, pursues her dreams and achieves success, broadening the horizons of everyone around her in the process.  I’m thinking Pocohantas, or Mulan, or Cinderella, or Tiana, or Ariel, or Elsa…

And now Moana takes her place among all the other Girl Power entertainment continuously rolling forth from your screens.  (For fun, Google ‘girl power movies and television shows’ and see what happens.)

I’m not against girl power.   I’m well aware that society does not yet provide men and women with evenly paved roads in the pursuit of opportunity and happiness, and that women must often work harder for sometimes less pay than their male counterparts to move ahead in life.  The exploitation of women in third world countries is horrifying, and the over-sexualization of women in American society can’t help but mess with a young girl’s head.  Simply put, girls need all the positive role models and encouragement they can get.   I’m fine with that, and so is society at large.

But as the pendulum swings hard in one direction, it necessarily leaves the other direction behind.  Where, I wonder, are the media role models for the boys who must find their way?  To whom do they look for examples in the world that awaits just outside the front door?   Music videos with blinged-out misogynists?  Sports and political figures who brag about sexual conquests?   Situation comedies in which men are simply loutish hormone-driven dolts?   Even Moana contained only two male characters: a father frozen in place who denied his daughter at every turn, and an immature demi-god in love with his own muscles, although by the end of the movie both were raised to a higher consciousness by, predictably, Moana.

Yes, girls need to internalize the message that they can pursue every worthy goal without compromising their selfhood.  But so do boys, the same boys who see the men of the media portrayed too often as clueless incompetents, or as ‘roid-raged gunslingers whose response to every crisis is to man-up and open fire.   One indication of our problem with boys:  in the US they commit suicide at a higher than 2-1 ratio over teen girls.

I hope the girl power message continues to ring loud and clear.  But I’m also hoping that the pendulum will begin to swing back somewhat in the other direction, so that boys can also find themselves mirrored in positive messages of what each gender can accomplish, in reinforcement of what is hopefully being taught in the home.

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