Like many parents around the country, my head and heart have been ricocheting between helpless desperation and new-found resolve since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. As the events of that day unfolded, I sat in utter shock. It was impossible to put myself in the place of those children, teachers and parents, as my mind simultaneously tried to imagine myself in and ran away from the images and stories.
Intellectually, I know that violence against innocents is a regular occurrence in places far away, rarely even a footnote on the nightly news ticker. What we felt in Newtown is a daily horror for many parents around the globe. But Newtown struck at our hearts because it was so close to home.
My entirety screamed for a solution. I wanted an end to this mindless violence, to know what we needed to do as a society (and as individuals) to stop these things from happening. I ran the mental gamut from gun control to mental health treatment to better security in our schools. I read argument after political argument over what our response should entail, trying to answer the question so many of us had: “What can we do?”
Then I saw this advertisement, reportedly pulled from an issue of Maxim magazine.
The weapon pictured in the ad is one similar to the assailant’s weapon in Newtown as well as other recent mass shootings in the United States. The weapon alone is harmless. The red flag is in the message: CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.
The message plainly says that you are more of a man with a Bushmaster in your hands.
There are too many logical jumps necessary and obvious variables ignored to draw a direct line between this marketing message and the decision to walk into a school and end the lives of teachers and students. No one truly knows what motivated that extremely disturbed young man. I’d be foolish and naive to approach that question, however tempting.
The question that I have been asking its place is: What do we need to do as fathers to help our sons understand that no marketing agency has the authority to define them? Shortly after Newtown, blogger Eric Garland wrote The Crisis of American Masculinity, in which he deftly explores the messages about masculinity that pervade media and consumer culture and argues that young men lack adequate role models or paths to express true masculinity.
Garland’s portrait of growing up male in America is bleak. The core of his argument rides on the notion that young men aren’t given the opportunity to become real men, either succumbing to being drones or clowns or — in severe cases — resorting to violence as expression.
He calls for a movement similar to feminism that would promote a re-invigoration of what it means to be masculine. This is where my thoughts diverge from Garland’s. I don’t believe a new “masculinism” will do anything more than create a new male archetype, a new “man card” with a fancy name. It may have higher ideals, but it’s still a restrictive template.
There are undeniably common traits among men and boys, characteristics that bond us together and make us a distinct gender. Watching my son and his friends interact, I can see the “maleness” in every one of them as they approach their teen years. This commonality may bond them, but it is not what defines them. Their expression lives in their individuality. Their success as men, as humans, relies on being able to become their own man — with the support of us as parents, friends and neighbors.
So where’s my solution? I don’t have one that can guarantee tragedies like Newtown will never happen again. Mental health issues are so complex and brain chemistry so fragile, there is no magic cure.
So what can we do? We must let our sons see who we are as individuals, and then give them the love, attention and support they need as they find their own way.
I think we start by throwing away the man card.