Gilligan’s Island

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015


Gilligan’s Island

In 1996, Carol Gilligan announced the need for a revolution in how we raise boys. The stakes are high, she said. She called for a new pedagogy to free boys from an errant masculinity that is endangering civilization: “After a century of unparalleled violence, at a time when violence has become appalling . . . [w]e understand better the critical importance of emotional intimacy and vulnerability.”1 Gilligan asked us to reflect on these vital questions: “What if the equation of civilization with patriarchy were broken? What if boys did not psychologically disconnect from women and dissociate themselves from vital parts of relationships?”2

But those who followed Gilligan’s earlier claims and campaigns might pose different questions: What if her studies of boys are a travesty of scientific inquiry? What if the programs and policies she recommends do more harm than good? What can be done to protect boys from the trusting educators who faithfully accept Gilligan’s theories?

“Masculinity in a Patriarchal Social Order”

Gilligan claimed to have discovered “a startling asymmetry”—girls undergo social trauma as they enter adolescence. For boys, she says, the period of crisis is early childhood. Boys aged three to seven are pressured to “take into themselves the structure or moral order of a patriarchal civilization: to internalize a patriarchal voice.”3 This masculinizing process, says Gilligan, is psychologically damaging and dehumanizing.

Gilligan’s views on masculine identity built on earlier psychological theories of female and male development, in particular the theories of feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow, which Gilligan made use of in her 1982 book, In a Different Voice.4 In Chodorow’s 1978 The Reproduction of Mothering, she argued that traditional masculine and feminine roles are rooted not so much in biology as in a self-perpetuating sex/gender system that is universal to human societies: “Hitherto . . . all sex/gender systems have been male-dominated.”5 The sex/gender system, says Chodorow, is the way society has organized sexuality and reproduction to perpetuate the subordination of women. The system keeps women down by permanently assigning to them the primary care of infants and children, while men dominate the public sphere.

Because mothers do most of the nurturing, all children start out life more strongly identified with their mothers than their fathers. That identification and attachment, says Chodorow, have profoundly different consequences for boys and girls. A girl grows up with a “sense of continuity and similarity to the mother.” Boys, on the other hand, learn that to be masculine is to be unlike their caregiver: “Women, as mothers, produce daughters with mothering capacities and the desire to mother. . . . By contrast, women as mothers produce sons whose nurturant capacities and needs have been systematically curtailed and repressed.”6

According to Chodorow, both women and men perpetuate male supremacy by the way they socialize boys: “Women’s mothering in the isolated nuclear family of contemporary capitalist society” shows boys that nurturing is women’s work.7 This “prepares men for participation in a male-dominant family, and society, for their lesser emotional participation in family life, and for their participation in the capitalist world of work.”8 In this way, the social organization of parental roles supports a capitalist/patriarchal system that Chodorow finds exploitative and unfair—especially to women: “It is politically and socially important to confront this organization of parenting. . . . It can be changed.”9

In a Different Voice cites Chodorow’s view that “boys, in defining themselves as masculine, separate their mothers from themselves, thus curtailing their ’primary love and sense of empathetic tie.’ ”10 Feeling no corresponding need to disconnect themselves from their mothers, “girls emerge with a stronger basis for experiencing another’s needs or feelings as one’s own.”11 These ideas on the different ways girls and boys develop—girls in “continuity” with their female nurturers, boys in forced “separation” from their nurturers—helped Gilligan explain why women and men should have different moral styles, with women having an empathetic morality of care and men having an abstract morality of duty and justice.

Chodorow believed that males and females have the same capacity to nurture. In males this capacity is repressed, largely because male-dominated societies find it expedient to assign the primary nurturing role to girls and women. In Chodorow’s view, this social ordering of parenting not only can but should be changed. Permanent reform will mean a radical change in gender identities; it will require “the conscious organization and activity of men and women who recognize that their interests lie in transforming the social organization of gender.”12

Chodorow’s call for the transformation of the patriarchal sex/gender system and her condemnation of the “capitalist world of work” do not resonate today as they did in the 1970s. Her theories of child development and the construction of gender are dated.13 The female propensity for nurture appears to be more than an artifice of culture. The more we learn about the power of hormones to shape behavior, the harder it becomes to think of sex differences the way Chodorow thought of them.

Hard, but not impossible. Having read Chodorow in the 1970s, Gilligan appears to have been convinced that her views on the harms inflicted on children by the culture were profoundly right. Gilligan would repackage them, giving them the powerful support of her beguiling metaphorical prose. She was especially impressed with Chodorow’s idea that patriarchy dictates styles of child rearing that are responsible for developmental deformations in both males and females.

Following Chodorow, Gilligan claims that boys get the message that in order to be “male”—to become “one of the boys”—they must suppress those parts of themselves that are most like their mothers. Gilligan speaks of a “relational crisis” that very young boys undergo as part of their initiation into the patriarchy. In effect, says Gilligan, boys are forced to “hide [their] humanity” and submerge their best qualit[y]—their sensitivity.”14 Though this diminishes boys psychologically and morally, it does offer them the advantage of feeling superior to girls. But the male culture that enthrones the boy is dangerously aggressive and competitive. Boys cannot opt out of it without paying a terrible price, writes Gilligan: “If boys in early childhood resist the break between the inner and outer worlds, they are resisting an initiation into masculinity or manhood as it is defined and established in cultures that value or valorize heroism, honor, war, competition—the culture of the warrior, the economy of capitalism.”15 At the same time, the process of masculine acculturation in the “patriarchal social order” is psychologically devastating: “To be a real boy or man in such a culture means to be able to hurt without feeling hurt, to separate without feeling sadness or loss, and then to inflict hurt and separation on others.”16

In 1997, the New York Times Magazine ran another admiring piece on Gilligan, an interview entitled “From Carol Gilligan’s Chair.” “Can we talk about your new work—your research on boys?” asked the interviewer. Gilligan described a boy she had observed the day before: “His face was very still. It didn’t register a lot of emotion. He was around 6, when boys want to become ’one of the boys.’ They feel they have to separate from women. And they are not allowed to feel that separation as a real loss.”17 To this, her interviewer remarked, “Sounds as if you’re trying to discover in boys the reasons men feel compelled to adopt certain models of what it means to be a man—models that many men feel to be enslaving.”

“That’s exactly it,” Gilligan replied. She then explained that this must be changed: “We have to build a culture that does not reward that separation from the person who raised them.” She said she hopes to develop a research method, in particular a way of relating to her boy subjects, that “will free boys’ voices, to create conditions that allow boys to say what they know,”18 and allow her to learn what the boys are suppressing. Through her earlier studies she claims to have learned how to liberate the repressed voices of adolescent girls; now she hopes to repeat that feat with boys. The aim is to devise a new kind of socialization for boys that will make their aggressiveness and need for dominance things of the past. Gilligan envisions a new era in which boys will not be forced into a stereotypical masculinity that separates them from their nurtures but will be allowed to remain “relationally connected” to those close to them. Once boys are freed of oppressive gender roles, far fewer will suffer the early trauma that leads to so many disorders: “We might be close to a time similar to the Reformation, where the fundamental structure of authority is about to change.”

Gilligan’s theory about boys’ development includes three claims: (1) Boys are being psychically deformed and made sick by a traumatic, forced separation from their mothers. (2) Seemingly healthy boys are cut off from their own feelings and damaged in their capacity to develop healthy relationships. (3) The well-being of society may depend on freeing boys from the culture of warriors and capitalism. Let us consider each proposition in turn.

Boys and Their Mothers

According to Gilligan, boys are at special risk in early childhood: they suffer “more stuttering, more bedwetting, more learning problems . . . when cultural norms pressure them to separate from their mother.”19 (Sometimes she adds allergies, attention deficit disorder, and attempted suicide to the list.20) She does not cite any pediatric research that supports her theories about the origin of these early-childhood disorders. Is there a single study, for example, that shows that young males who remain intimately bonded with their mothers are less likely to develop allergies or wet their beds?

Gilligan’s assertion that the “pressure of cultural norms” causes boys to separate from their mothers and thereby generates physical disorders has not been tested empirically. Nor does Gilligan suggest how it might be tested or even allow that empirical support might be called for. We are asked, in effect, to take it on her say-so that boys need to be protected from our warmongering, patriarchal, capitalistic culture that desensitizes them, submerges their humanity, undermines their mental health, and turns many into violent predators.

But are boys aggressive and violent because they are psychically separated from their mothers? Thirty years of research suggest that it is the absence of the male parent that is more often the problem. The boys who are most at risk for juvenile delinquency and violence are boys who are literally separated from their fathers. The US Bureau of Census reports that in 1960, 5.1 million children lived with only their mothers; by 1996, the number was more than 16 million.21 (Today it is 24 million.22) As far back as 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan called attention to the social dangers of raising boys without the benefit of paternal presence. “A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.”23

Elaine Kamarck of the Harvard Kennedy School, and William Galston of the University of Maryland and Brookings Institution, agree with Moynihan. Writing for the Progressive Policy Institute in 1990, they say, “The relationship [between crime and one-parent families, which are typically fatherless families] is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature.”24

It showed up in 2004 when Cynthia Harper of the University of Pennsylvania and Sara McLanahan of Princeton University studied the incarceration rates of fatherless boys: “Young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families. . . . Those boys whose fathers were absent from the household had double the odds of being incarcerated—even when other factors such as race, income, parent education and urban residence were held constant.”25

Effective fathers need not be paragons of emotional sensitivity. In fact, they may possess qualities that would distress gender experts at the Harvard School of Education. As sociologist David Blankenhorn explains in Fatherless America, the typically masculine dad who plays roughly with his kids, who teaches his sons to be stoical and competitive, who is often glued to the television watching football games—is in fact unlikely to produce a violent son. Says Blankenhorn, “There are exceptions, of course. But here is the rule. Boys raised by traditionally masculine fathers generally do not commit crimes. Fatherless boys commit crimes.”26

Given Gilligan’s animus toward the “patriarchal social order,” it is not surprising that her research appears to attach no importance to fathers. All the same, the more we learn about the reasons for juvenile aggression, the clearer it becomes that the progressive weakening of the family—in particular, the absence of fathers from the home—plays an important role.

Restoring fathers to the home is of course nowhere on Gilligan’s to-do list. Instead, she and her Harvard associates concentrate on changing things like boys’ play preferences. In an interview for Education Week, Gilligan spoke of a moment when each little boy stands at a crossroad: “You see this picture of a little boy with a stuffed bunny in one hand and a Lego gun in the other. You could almost freeze-frame that moment in development.”27 The interviewer reports Gilligan’s comment on this crucial development period in boys’ lives: “If becoming a boy means becoming tough, then boys may feel at an early age that they have to hide the part of themselves that is more caring or stereotypically feminine.”

Recall the suggestion of Gilligan’s colleague Elizabeth Debold (discussed in chapter 3) that it is superheroes and macho toys that “cause [boys] to be angry and act aggressive.” The patriarchal pressures on boys to hide their feminine side create the problem. This is something the Harvard team hopes to change.

Describing the purpose of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, Boys’ Development and the Culture of Manhood, Gilligan and her codirector, Barney Brawer, state the following “working theory”:

• “that the relational crisis which men typically experience in early childhood occurs for women in adolescence,”

• “that this relational crisis in boys and girls involves disconnection from women which is essential to the perpetuation of patriarchal societies.”28

A project that posits a crisis engulfing both boys and girls, caused by a patriarchal order that perpetuates itself by forcing children to disconnect from women, is not about to take a serious look at the problem of absent fathers. In his contribution to the statement describing the purpose of the Harvard Project, Brawer seeks to address this point by “adding two additional questions to Gilligan’s analysis”:

First: How do we include in our view of boyhood and manhood not only the problems of the traditional model but also potential strengths?

Second: What is the particular conundrum of boys living without fathers within a culture of patriarchy?

To the first of Brawer’s questions, the answer is, how indeed? Having identified the “traditional model” of manhood as the cause of the boys’ crisis, how can we now turn around to acknowledge that the traditional “manly” virtues (courage, honor, self-discipline, competitiveness) play a vital role in the healthy socialization of boys? The second question oddly hints that the problems being caused by fatherlessness are somehow due to the culture of patriarchy—the default villain of the piece. We can see why Brawer finds fatherlessness a conundrum. The puzzle is why, in a Gilliganesque world where the ills suffered by boys are caused by a male culture that forcibly separates boys from their mothers, the absence of fathers wouldn’t be a blessing. In the real world, of course, fatherlessness is not a puzzle but a personal and social tragedy.

Boys Out of Touch with Their Feelings

Oblivious to all the factual evidence that points to paternal separation as a significant cause of aberrant behavior in boys, Gilligan bravely calls for a fundamental change in the rearing of boys. We must, she says, free young men from a destructive culture of manhood that “impedes their capacity to feel their own and other people’s hurt, to know their own and other people’s sadness.”29 Since, as she has diagnosed it, the purported disorder is universal, the cure must be radical. We must change the very nature of childhood: we must find ways to keep boys bonded to their mothers. We must undercut the system of socialization that is so “essential to the perpetuation of patriarchal societies.”

Gilligan’s views are attractive to many who believe that boys could profit by being more sensitive and empathetic. But before parents and educators enlist in Gilligan’s project, they would do well to note that her central thesis—that boys are being imprisoned by their conventional masculinity—is not a scientific hypothesis. It is an extravagant piece of speculative psychology of the kind that sometimes finds acceptance in schools of education but is not creditable in most departments of psychology.

Gilligan talks about radically reforming “the fundamental structure of authority” by freeing boys from the masculine stereotypes that bind them. But in what sense are American boys unfree? Was the young Mark Twain or the young Teddy Roosevelt enslaved by conventional modes of boyhood? Is the average Little Leaguer or Cub Scout defective in the ways suggested by Gilligan? It is certainly true that a small subset of male children fit Gilligan’s description of being desensitized and cut off from feelings of tenderness and care. However, these boys are not representative of the male sex. Gilligan speaks of boys “hiding their humanity” and showing a capacity to “hurt without feeling hurt.” This, she maintains, is a general condition brought about because the vast majority of boys are forced into separation from their nurturers. But the idea that boys are abnormally insensitive flies in the face of everyday experience. Boys are competitive and often rowdy. But anyone in close contact with them—parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, friends—gets daily proof of most boys’ humanity, loyalty, and compassion.

Gilligan appears to be making the same mistake with boys that she made with girls. She observes a few children and interprets their problems as indicative of a deep and general malaise caused by the way our society imposes sex-role stereotypes on them. By adolescence, she concludes, the pressure to meet these stereotypes has impaired, distressed, and deformed both sexes. However, most boys are not violent. Most are not unfeeling or antisocial. Gilligan finds boys lacking in empathy, but does she empathize with them?

We have yet to see a single reasonable argument for radically reforming the identities of boys and girls. As I argued in chapter 3, there is no reason to believe that such reform is achievable, but even if it were, the attempt to obtrude on boys and girls at this level of their natures is ethically questionable.

A Good Word for the Martial Virtues

Consider, finally, Gilligan’s criticism of how American boys are initiated into a patriarchal social order that valorizes heroism, honor, war, and competition. In Gilligan’s world, the military man is one of the potent and deplorable stereotypes that “the culture of manhood” holds up to boys as a male ideal. But her criticism of military culture is flawed. First, the military ethos that Gilligan castigates as insensitive and uncaring is probably less influential in the lives of American boys today than at most periods in our history. At the same time, it needs to be pointed out, our military and its culture are nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, if you want to cite an American institution that inculcates high levels of human concern, cooperation, and sacrifice, you could aptly choose the military.

Anyone who has firsthand knowledge of American military personnel knows that most are highly competent, self-disciplined, honorable, and moral men and women ready to risk their lives for their country. Gilligan and her followers are confused about military ethics. Yes, the military “valorizes” honor, competition, and winning. Offering no reasons for impugning these values, which in fact are necessary for an effective life, she contents herself with insinuating that they are dehumanizing by contrast with the values she admires: cooperation, caring, self-sacrifice. To suggest that the military ethic promotes callousness and heedlessness is deeply wrong. To accuse the military of being uncaring is to ignore the selflessness and camaraderie that make the martial ethos so attractive to those who intensely desire to live lives of high purpose and service.

The historian Stephen Ambrose, who spent half his career listening to the stories of soldiers, tells of a course on the Second World War he gave at the University of Wisconsin in 1996 to an overflow class of 350. Most students were unfamiliar with the salient events of that war. According to Ambrose, “They were dumbstruck by descriptions of what it was like to be on the front lines. They were even more amazed by the responsibilities carried by junior officers . . . who were as young as they . . . they wondered how anyone could have done it.”30

Ambrose tried to explain to them what brought so many men and women to such feats of courage, such levels of excellence. He told them it hadn’t been anything abstract. It had involved two things: “unit cohesion”—a concern for the safety and well-being of their soldier comrades that equaled and sometimes exceeded their concern for their own well-being—and an understanding of the moral dimensions of the fight: “At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.”31

What Ambrose understands and Gilligan does not is that the ethic of duty encompasses the ethic of care. The martial virtues of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice are caring virtues, and it is wrong to deride them as lesser virtues. Gilligan’s depreciation of the military is standard among certain academics. Ambrose says that after he finished college in the late 1950s, he too shared the anti-military, anti-business snobbery that prevails in many universities today. He writes:

By the time I was a graduate student, I was full of scorn for [ex-GIs]. . . . But in fact these were the men who built modern America. They had learned to work together in the armed services in World War II. They had seen enough destruction: they wanted to construct. They built the Interstate Highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the suburbs. . . . They had seen enough killing; they wanted to save lives. They licked polio and made other revolutionary advances in medicine. They had learned in the army the virtues of a solid organization and teamwork, and the value of individual initiative, inventiveness, and responsibility.32

Gilligan’s Direction

What are we to make of Carol Gilligan’s contribution and influence? Her earlier work on the different moral voices of males and females had some merit; her demand that psychologists and philosophers take into account the possibility that women and men have different styles of moral reasoning was original and interesting. As it turns out, the differences are less important than Gilligan predicted. All the same, her suggestive ideas on sex and moral psychology stimulated an important discussion. For that she deserves recognition.

Her later work on adolescent girls and their “silenced” voices shows us a different Gilligan. Her ideas were successful in the sense that they inspired activists in organizations like the AAUW and the Ms. Foundation to go on red alert in an effort to save the nation’s “drowning and disappearing” daughters. But all their activism was based on a false premise: that girls were subdued, neglected, and diminished. In fact, the opposite was true: girls were moving ahead of boys in most of the ways that count. Gilligan’s powerful myth of the incredible shrinking girl did more harm than good. It patronized girls, portraying them as victims of the culture. It diverted attention from the academic deficits of boys. It also gave urgency and credibility to a specious self-esteem movement that wasted everybody’s time.

Gilligan’s later work on boys is even more removed from reality. The myth of the emotionally repressed boy was taken seriously by many educators and lead to insipid, dispiriting school programs designed to get boys in touch with their feelings. More ominously, it lead to increasingly aggressive efforts to insist that boys behave more like girls—for their own sakes and for the supposed good of society. In this call for deliverance, Gilligan has been joined by some prominent male disciples—with their own research, extravagant claims, and proposals for rescuing a nation of stricken young Hamlets.