A group of teenage girls are in a church class discussing what traits they hope to find in a future husband.
Meanwhile, next door, a group of teenage boys are discussing what traits they hope to find one day in a wife.
The girls click through their list. Kind, considerate, strong, brave, attractive, funny, dedicated to the family.
But in the next room the boys are struggling. The question is greeted with shrugs and squirms. Finally, to simplify things, they’re asked to come up with just three traits they’d like to find in a future marriage partner. After a lot of smirking and staring at the floor, here’s what they were able to agree on, in order. #1: Pretty. #2: Pretty. #3: Pretty.
I was present when the boy’s list was shared several weeks later with a separate group of girls. There was an audible gasp, and then a palpable feeling of despair, followed by a certain amount of indignant anger.
Frankly, I was surprised myself. Are young males (and perhaps some older ones too) really that simplistic? That shallow? That arrogant? That stupid?
Then I realized the problem. These boys developed their list while surrounded by other boys. It was, therefore, a trap.
Like their female counterparts, adolescent males aren’t anywhere near the top of the maturity ladder, but that doesn’t stop them from working hard to understand their world. For example, guys know that girls are the talky ones. Guys have figured out that girls spend a great deal of time feeling things, and then comparing notes with other girls to see if their own feelings are in line with what the other girls are feeling.
Meanwhile, a guy will tell you that guys are stoic. They’re strong, brave, and certainly don’t possess any of the mushy feelings other guys their age will just laugh at.
So after a moment’s reflection I wasn’t surprised that these teen boys were only capable of saying that a future wife should be pretty. What were they supposed to say in front of a bunch of other guys—that they wanted a wife who is caring, supportive, nurturing, and likes to take long walks on the beach?
Get real. They know talk like that would instantly get them tossed out of their male social circles. They’ve seen too many music videos, too many macho blow-‘em-up movies. In their world men are tough, cruel, commanding, alone, and nonverbal. Deep down, our boys are pretty sure that the silent, alpha, lethal male is what all women want whether they admit it or not.
And so boys do what’s expected and shut themselves off from deeper human connections with either gender. There’s a name for this: toxic masculinity. Search the term and you’ll find a great deal of good social science about what this kind of cultural idiocy is doing to the emotional development of our young men.
Caring adults can try to convince boys that it’s okay to have a feeling or two, and that open, honest friendships with both genders is not a sign of weakness. But getting a teenage boy to believe anything a grownup says when both popular culture and his peer group are saying the opposite is going to be a very tough sell.
So to the girls who were stunned to learn that boys just want hotness, I offer this truth: Deep inside boys really do want more from a future wife than big eyes and a suggestive smile, but they literally don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings—feelings that by the mere fact of their existence repudiate what our boys think is required of true manhood.
The good news is that as our boys slowly evolve into men, most will grow out of the infantile and toxic boundaries set by their equally toxic culture.
But it may take them a while. To all you young girls, please try to understand. The boys with whom you share the world aren’t that stupid. They’re just trapped, and at this stage of life they have no idea how to break free.