The Message We are Sending to Adolescent Boys When We Berate Male Leaders for Showing Emotion
When we deny young boys outlets like open expression of emotion, we are seriously stunting their ability to live happy, fulfilled lives.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoles ISRO chairman K Sivan after loss of communication with Chandrayaan 2 lander ‘Vikram’ on Saturday.
Around 53% of sexual abuse incidents in India each year are crimes against boys. Boys are less likely to tell a family member about their experiences with abuse. They are also 89% less likely than girls to reach out for psychiatric support after they have been victims of sexual violence. When the country is engaging in a debate on whether a man’s reaction of genuine grief and disappointment is ‘okay’, it is unsurprising that many boys don’t reach out for help.
The rough exteriors we have encouraged our boys to cultivate, cover up a depth of pain that can go along with growing up as a boy. While society speaks openly about the obstacles that accompany girls’ success in school, family, and the workplace (which are extremely crucial to tackle), we are nearly silent about the burdens that are borne by boys and men. And conversations on whether it is ‘okay’ for men send signals to young men as they’re growing up that they should remain silent about their pain.
When boys are wronged, they might rely on outlets like misbehaving in school or exaggerated visibility, what is actually in many cases a desperate cry for support. Boys who have been hurt, rely in some cases on violence as a way to express their pain. When we remove outlets like open expression of emotion from the toolkit, we are seriously stunting their ability to live happy, fulfilled lives.
In the last two weeks, Good Morning America’s host Lara Spencer has ridiculed Prince George, third in line to the British throne, for his love of ballet and some in India even mocked ISRO chairman Dr. K Sivan for crying when communication was lost with Chandrayaan 2’s Vikram Lander on the Moon’s surface.
Among all of this highly visible public discourse, what message are we sending to young men about what is and isn’t acceptable? We are asking them to stifle their disappointment, pain and grief deep within. Is this the message we want to be sending as we strive towards a more gender equitable country?
Biologically speaking, as babies, boys and girls are “programmed” to cry equally. They cry the same amount at birth. They cry the same amount for the first five years of their life. So why do we see so many fewer representations of men crying in movies and other popular media?
According to Tony Porter, “around age 5, boys get the message that anger is acceptable but that they’re not supposed to show other feelings, like vulnerability.” In other words, this expectation is 100% constructed by society.
This expectation from men is exacerbated when esteemed political analysts like Gaurav Pandhi perpetuate this norm vocally and visibly. When you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into something that’s been in the works since 2007, or you see your lander lose communication with ground stations just 2.1 km before touching down on the Moon’s surface, crying is a natural human response.
What would have made our society more comfortable? Would we have preferred Dr. Sivan to respond to the failed landing with a gruff handshake and brief statement? Space exploration is resource-intensive, time-intensive and passion-intensive.
Probing the edges of the known universe is about as Earth-shattering as it gets. One doesn’t enter the field without being passionate about the galaxy’s possibilities. So to have the world look on when a mission you are in charge of does not culminate in the outcome you were hoping for must be a lot of pressure, and more likely, heart-breaking.
The next time we choose to pass comments about men showing their emotions in the public sphere, let’s think about the very real consequences of suppressing emotions for adolescents growing up in this country – what it means for our girls and women, and what it means for our nation’s boys.
(The author works in child protection advocacy at Aangan Trust, India. Views expressed are personal.)
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