Boys Will Be Boys

The latest in the ever growing field of "You go, girl!" studies
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Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., is a renowned gender scholar at Cornell who has also held a prestigious post at Stanford. Raising Boys Without Men is the result of her "groundbreaking study" into "maverick moms"—lesbians and "single mothers by choice" who are raising sons. It turns out that boys raised by women without men are actually better off than boys raised by mothers and fathers. They may fuck you up, your mum and dad, but two mums can make a "head-and-heart boy" out of you.

Drexler asserts that the most important element in predicting how a child turns out is not the number or gender of his parents but their economic status. Since most maverick moms are relatively affluent and highly educated, their sons are less likely to end up in trouble—legal, educational, or emotional—than are those of the general population. This essential truth trumps almost all arguments against gay and single-by-choice parenthood. What's left are religious objections and distaste for a lifestyle, and those are hardly the basis for public policy.

No sooner, however, is the reader nodding in agreement than Drexler kicks the book into high gear: not since the SCUM Manifesto have we had such a comprehensive accounting of the low-down rottenness of men. A household with a dad in it is a place where "competition, dominance, and control" are the mainstays. Men, if roused to emotion, become like "wounded rhinos"—verbally or physically aggressive. Dads demand too much of sons, expect athletic excellence, bully them. "Not having a dad has let Henry off the hook," one lesbian mom reports; "he doesn't do well if he's pushed into things." The book is full of bad dads, from Austin Powers's crappy father (who missed a school event) to Ward Cleaver, whose crimes are beyond number. (Most feminists consider the producers of Leave It to Beaver to be Burbank's answer to Leni Riefenstahl.)

Like Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty, maverick moms affect a jaded familiarity with male behavior, but the little rascals succeed in shocking their delicate mothers time and again. One mother gives her son a toy hair dryer for Christmas and then is horrified when he pretends it's a gun instead of a styling aid. Two brothers are so full of aggro that they desperately gnaw their toast into guns and start shooting. Occasionally, male problem-solving techniques give the moms a happy surprise. One son gave a broken washing machine a hard kick (a prelude to gnawing it into a rocket launcher?) and—shazam!—the thing cut back on and has been working ever since. Like boys the world over, these ones tend to brood silently over baseball cards and ball games. Of course, nothing makes a woman go bananas like a man who won't talk, so the poor kids have to yak, yak, yak about their feelings or they'll never get to see the bottom of the ninth.

Drexler believes not that gender is a construct, layered on by the culture, but that differences between the sexes are genetic. This is entirely correct—but Drexler takes the idea a step further. She believes that because masculinity arises naturally, boys don't need an actual father on the premises to shape or inform it. In her opinion, maleness is a bit like Jiffy Pop—put the thing on the stove, give it a shake now and then to keep it from overheating, and voilà: let's eat!

Raising Boys Without Men is as much a work of advocacy as objective research. As such, it's the latest entry in the ever growing field of "You go, girl!" studies. There is nothing a woman can do that is so fundamentally self-centered that it won't be met with a cackle of "You go, girl!" from a female somewhere on the planet. It's a way of transforming an essentially selfish act into one of liberation, and thereby protecting it from male criticism.

I've decided to stop cooking and let the kids nuke potpies for dinner.

You go, girl!

I made my husband clean the whole house.

You go, girl!

I stopped dating losers and got myself inseminated.

You go, girl—and here's a groundbreaking study to prove you're doing the little shaver a world of good!

The boys in the study pine for their fathers. Drexler notes that they share a peculiarly intense fascination with father-son athletes from the world of professional sports, and that they have an outsize interest in superheroes. Those who have ongoing relationships with their "seed daddies" mourn piteously when the men fail to take a fatherly interest in them. A humane assessment of these impulses would be that boys want fathers, but when the world does not mete them out (because of either tragedy or maternal intention), good mothers can ease the pain and do what widows and abandoned women have done throughout time: raise their sons as best they can, often with great success.

But this is "You go, girl!" territory, and no quarter can be given to any fact that might suggest the women are slighting their children. None of these boys is exhibiting "father hunger," Drexler reports; it's only natural "to long for what you don't have." Not having a father is a bit like not having a skateboard—kind of a bummer, but at least you don't have to worry about head injuries.

One could logically conclude from this report that the very worst situation for a boy would be to have two fathers raise him—but I'm sure Drexler doesn't mean that. It's straight men she's afraid of, and it's been open season on them for such a long time that her preposterous book is unlikely to raise a ripple beyond its intended audience. Yet the book and its conclusions are not without consequence beyond the tightly circumscribed world she describes.

We are all building a culture together, and it is one with a remarkably consistent message. From the shady groves of our elite universities to the Hollywood offices of Interscope Records, a chorus of powerful voices is telling us that men don't need to stand by their women and children anymore. Male rappers delight in this notion because there is sexual power to be gained by impregnating many women. Feminists like it because it allows them to enjoy the delights of being a mother without the hassles of being a wife.

The ramifications of this new attitude are going to be grave. Belittle men's responsibilities to their families, raise boys to believe that fatherhood is not a worthy aspiration, and the people who will suffer are women and children. For the past forty years women have been insisting that they be able to enjoy the same sexual freedoms as men (You go, girl!), and to become single mothers by choice (ditto!). Surprise, surprise: men have been more than happy to comply. Someday American women may realize that the great achievement of civilization wasn't Erica Jong's zipless fuck of yesteryear. It was convincing men that they had an obligation to contain their sexual energies within marriage and to support—economically and emotionally—the children they created in that marriage. You go, June Cleaver!

Caitlin Flanagan is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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