Monday, January 16, 2017

Patterns And Models

     Among the advantages one accrues as the years pass is the acceptance of and surrender to change. Things change, and we must be prepared to adjust. It appears to be the one constant in all of temporal existence.

     And now, as I look back on that paragraph, I feel a smile rising. Of course things change! What would be the point of time if they didn’t? But it’s incumbent upon us to decide on the direction and magnitude of our adjustments.

     In some cases, and for some persons, the proper adjustment is to fight.

     Among the changes uppermost in my thoughts today is a particular kind of homogenization that’s been urged upon us, all unawares, by the major media. When I was a lad, there were many acceptable ways a lad. Here are a few:

  • The boy boy: Horsed around with the other neighborhood boys; stinted on schoolwork in favor of play and miscellaneous boy-type mischief; generally aspired to adulthood and its mysterious pleasures forbidden to the underage.
  • The bookish boy: Spent a lot of time reading, exploring the sciences and the realms of imagination. Dreamed of becoming a scientist, or perhaps an astronaut.
  • The sports boy: Obsessed with his skills and accomplishments at his preferred sport. Put a lot of time and effort into getting better at it, in hope of making it his adult career.
  • The artsy boy: Pursued one of the arts: singing, playing, dancing, painting, sculpting, what have you.
  • The church boy: delved deeply into his religious faith, its origins and its tenets. Perhaps aimed at becoming a priest or a minister.

     I remember these well, because at one point or another in my maturation I was each one. I remember equally clearly how boys in each category tended to look down on all the others. But most important of all is that each category was accorded a certain legitimacy, as an “accepted course” of boyhood.

     Yes, parental influences played their part. Many a father tried to coax (or coerce) his sons out of their preferences. Some succeeded, though whether that was for the best was always open to question. The point is that none of the categories was regarded as so aberrant that it had to be expunged. Parents who were displeased with their sons’ category would mostly tell themselves that “he’ll grow out of it.” Sometimes we did.

     With the rise of the mass media, especially television with its imagistic powers, certain categories acquired a stigmatic overlay, a sort of subliminal “don’t be like this” with which boys of the generations subsequent to mine had to cope. Some withstood those influences and matured to become healthy men; those that didn’t had a rough time of it. The stresses might help to explain some of the social pathologies we endure today.

     The most important aspect of the legitimization of those diverse courses toward juvenile masculinity was that no matter which of them little Johnny occupied, he was not alone. He would have confreres, other boys in his chosen category who saw things roughly the same way and who accepted him as “one of us.” Acceptance by a group of the like-minded is critical to one’s sense of security, as Abraham Maslow has told us. Few “lone wolves” turn out well.

     Boys of our time are subtly urged by the media to “be like this,” where “this” is a pattern displayed by a promoted model: one of the characters in the entertainment being pushed upon them. Those patterns sometimes change, though in recent years they’ve exhibited a certain consistency. The power of the influence exerted will depend on the appeal, achievements, and general notoriety of the model. That will be the case even when the model is obviously neurotic, psychotic, or defective of character.

     This might seem unclear until mated to a compelling example. Consider in this regard a popular situation comedy: The Big Bang Theory. The several deficiencies of the major protagonist, Sheldon, are both pronounced and consistent. The message being conveyed is plain: “This is what science nerds are like.” To some boys, that will be an effective discouragement against choosing that category (bookish boy). To others, it will say “if you intend to be a science nerd, you must go the whole way and be like this.

     Neither set of pressures is good for those it presses.

     This is on my mind because of a phenomenon that might seem at first to be unrelated: transgenderism. Now as it happens, I have an acquaintance who decided some years ago that despite the Y chromosome in each and every cell of his body, he is nevertheless a woman. He’s gone most of the way in that direction. And he is a mentally sick, almost completely nonfunctional individual.

     This is not to say that all decisions to “transition” (a word that will eventually lose every other meaning it once possessed) are insane, nor that every individual who does so will turn out badly. Here’s a case that appears to be successful, although the transition is not yet complete. However, the typical individual who aims in that direction might be a victim of categorization-stereotype pressures. Indeed, I think it more likely than not to be the case.

     Imagine a boy who finds himself drawn to the arts and completely indifferent to “boy boy” or “sports boy” inclinations. Imagine that his father is something like Robert Duvall’s character in The Great Santini, or Colonel Fitts in American Beauty. Intensify those pressures with relentless entertainment media portrayals of artistically inclined young men as fops at best, homosexuals at worst. Simmer for eighteen years, stir, and serve.

     Get the picture?

     Very little of one’s personality or character remain to be formed after puberty. It’s pretty much all there, and pretty much set for life. Today’s boys' lives are overfilled with stereotypes, particularly categorization stereotypes, that can warp them permanently.

     Our boys need counterexamples to those stereotypes: healthy, accomplished adult men in each of the categories who undermine the stereotypes by diverging radically from them. Such counterexamples exist. They don’t get nearly as much exposure as we need them to get.

     In our time, parenting is a frustrating and difficult job. The entertainment media make it far harder than it once was, and not merely by its commercial enticements. Once again I find myself compelled to write a five-word sentence two of whose words are on my Anathema List:

     The moral should be obvious.


Linda Fox said...

I like your point about the malleability of those roles. During different times in my childhood (and, even as an adult), I have been:
- a tomboy
- interested in science (still am)
- passionate about cooking & baking
- making my own clothes, a fashionista
- a 'girly-girl'
- a mother, wife, homemaker
- a professional worker
- a spiritual seeker

and more.

I'm not keen on the artistic types being tagged as gay. It not only keeps out men, but it encourages boys on the fence to commit before they have grown.

Bob T. said...

Interesting take on how males are formed, as it were... Of the most interest to me as I look at where I am a half-century down the road, is the order in which a lad passes through the various ways of being a lad. In particular, the "church boy" phase happened late in my maturation. It *should* have happened prior to (or concurrent with) my confirmation, but my recollection of the confirmation process is/was a public declaration of my *desire* to learn more about my faith, rather than a public recognition of having accomplished anything of note in that regard.

My "sports boy" phase involved solitary sports where the primary competition is with one's self rather than others: cycling, bowling, hiking, etc. I was (and am) extremely competitive when it's appropriate to be that way, and learned early on that the stress associated with that competitive spirit is not something on which I thrive. People who don't think chess can be physically and emotionally exhausting have never spent four hours of their time "enjoying" a game with a worthy opponent. I had to give up playing in college because it was affecting my ability to concentrate on coursework *and* get adequate rest. These days, I read and solve puzzles to keep my mind agile.

Curiously, "solving puzzles" maps well to being a successful diagnostician, regardless of the primary field of endeavor (doctor, mechanic, engineer, etc.). I used to be a fair wrench-twister in my youth, and recently had occasion to find out I've "still got it" when it comes to working on motorcycles of various brands.

Mostly, I was the bookish and artsy boy. Having a primary schoolteacher and college professor for parents, in hindsight, practically guaranteed that developmental course. It was certainly possible (and the exceptions were statistical outliers back in 70's) for a male to be artistic without being effeminate. If the entertainment media had been as devastatingly pervasive and successful in "portraying artistically inclined young men as fops at best, homosexuals at worst," I would have been denied an important part of shaping who and what I am. More's the pity... Straight males are becoming an endangered species where the arts are concerned, and I saw that trend becoming too obvious to ignore back in the 80's. As I approach retirement age, the only artistic organization with which I'm still active is church choir. Homosexuality and transgenderism didn't drive me away from the other organizations in which I participated *in and of themselves*. Rather, it was the political activism and "victim class" mentality of the people around me that drove me to leave as an act of self-preservation. One shouldn't be around emotional sinks for any length of time beyond "briefly" if one wishes to preserve his own mental health.

To put it another way, when did people become so inappropriately needy? The debate about takers vs. makers is at least tangentially apropos.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your thought- full and thought provoking essay.
It seems that more people from the extremes of the multiple distributions of human belief and behavior are expressing themselves as individuals and as members of their cohorts. This is good in the same way that Trump has shaken up the system of parasitism and irresponsibility and BS.6
It's time again for the ever-changing demos to express themselves in word and deed what they stand for and against, and why.
Let's eschew the perversity in diversity of viewpoints. Let's promote controversy and insist on evidence -in-context for opposing viewpoints, and insist on warts-and-all debates as debaters become required, by debate rules, to switch sides and then be judged for prize winners based on the pertinence of their arguments on both sides of the question. Open-mindedness need not be a hole-in-the-head affair when it can be an uplifting whole head experience. Have the neocortex dance with the limbic system. Insist on cysticide. Let's not balk at embarrassing talk as we bare our lies to the laughter of the audience. The embarrassment proves we still have a conscience.
"If it were true that the soul could fling the dust aside, and naked on the air of heaven ride, were it not a shame for it in this clay carcass to abide?" How we reply to Omar's question? Do we go into a Fitzgerald foetal contraction or insist on an.evolutionary expansion?
Up your attitude!