Over the past few days, I’ve been gratified to see and hear some in the news media start talking specifically about how all of these killers are men–most of them young, overwhelmingly white and also overwhelmingly socially isolated. Inspired by this comment from Susan, I wondered this morning how many mothers and fathers of hypothetical 20-year old daughters who 1) had problems with school, 2) live at home, 3) don’t go to college and don’t have a job, and 4) are as completely isolated as this murderer appears to have been would not have sought some kind of counseling or mental health evaluation for their child?
I do not mean to engage in victim-blaming here (of the murderer’s mother). My question is an honest one, and it jibes with a concern I’ve had for a long time about the different standards to which boys and girls are held by their parents. Recently, it has struck me that daughters are held to much higher standards than sons are–higher behavioral and academic standards–and that this in the end has benefited girls. This is one reason why I think we see women in the majority among college students and M.A. students in the U.S. There are many high-achieving boys, but (anecdata, not a scientific sample) it seems to me that their parents (mothers, especially) are much more involved in managing their academic lives compared to their female peers. Some women I know appear to serve as their sons’ academic and social concierges or personal assistants, whereas the mothers of daughters I know expect their daughters to take care of their own business and shift for themselves. Again–I do not believe that this kind of draft on parental labor and concern in the end benefits the boys in the long run.
In sum, what I’m proposing is that a large part of the toxic culture of white/privileged masculinity is fed by parental permissiveness, so that what privileged boys learn as they grow up is that there are no limits or boundaries which they must respect. Little boys are permitted to be more destructive in their play and in their relationships with others than little girls are. Drug and alcohol abuse is more tolerated among bigger boys than among adolescent girls, not to mention the ownership and use of dangerous tools and weapons from pocket knives to semi-automatic rifles and handguns. Poor academic performance is more tolerated among boys than girls–we’re told that the boys are just “different learners,” not meant to sit in academic classrooms quietly and obediently all day long. (Never mind the hundreds of years of history in which only boys and young men were permitted to sit quietly and learn–and most of them did pretty well, and a damn sight better than their female peers who were excluded from classrooms entirely.) Again–I don’t think this works to the advantage of these boys or the men they become. What I’m suggesting is that this permissiveness is bad for them, yes, but it’s also bad (and potentially dangerous) for everyone else.
I think that it is highly unlikely that parents would permit a daughter to become as entirely isolated and angry and anti-social as the murderer in Newton, Conn. was permitted to become. Would schoolteachers and neighbors feel more empowered to speak up with their concerns (or their fears) about an isolated, strange teenaged girl or young adult woman? Would social services have been more eager to intervene when faced with a teenaged girl so isolated? Would parents have felt that it was more imperative that their daughter get help so as to overcome this isolation, because while isolation isn’t really valued in our culture, there are masculine social scripts and male roles of which isolation is a part (the computer nerd, the lone scientific or musical genius, etc.)? It strikes me that to the contrary, women’s social isolation is read as pathological.