Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection by developmental psychologist Niobe Way is a must-read for anyone concerned with the so-called “boy crisis,” anyone who is raising a boy in the U.S., and anyone who doubts that feminism can—and should—improve the lives of boys and men.
In this richly-researched book, based on in-depth, one-on-one interviews with teenage boys in the U.S. as they progress through high school, Way debunks the cultural myth that boys don’t have, need, or desire close friendships. By attempting to truly listen—through the distracting noise of our own assumptions and expectations—to what boys themselves are actually saying, she paints a reality that is both more heartbreaking and more hopeful than the myth. She finds that boys–particularly in early and middle adolescence–speak eloquently about the love they share with their male friends, and while many “experience a decline in their willingness to trust and engage intimately with male friends during adolescence, their desires for such intimacy do not diminish over time.”
One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is that it centers the voices and experiences of boys who are often marginalized in such studies. While Way’s research involved a diverse group of boys across the U.S. over the last 20 years, it is primarily focused on poor and working class boys of color from urban communities. As Way writes, “Thus, the boys in this book represent boys in the United States more accurately than the white, middle class and upper class boys who fill the pages of the best-selling books on boys.” And while she emphasizes the similarities her research found across a diversity of backgrounds, she also thoroughly explores the ways the boys are influenced by their familial and social contexts, cultural identities, and the differing stereotypes hoisted on them by a sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, anti-immigrant society.
The most important point to take away from Deep Secrets is the reminder that boys (just like girls!) both accommodate and resist gender expectations—and it is our own biases and preconceptions that cause us to overlook that resistance. That boys are not passive recipients of the conventions of of masculinity should be obvious, I think, to most people who have ever really known a boy. Yet even those of us (feminists!) who believe that masculinity is socially constructed, not biologically determined, too often fall into the trap of seeing its most harmful effects as inevitable. And so the myth of the emotionally illiterate boy persists—even within feminist communities.
As Deep Secrets so powerful illustrates, these myths can be self-fulfilling. Only by acknowledging and supporting the ways that boys are already challenging the harmful gender stereotypes of our culture can we hope to break free of them and build what Way calls a “thick democracy” that “rejects the hierarchical divisions of woman/man, subject/object, nature/nurture, reason/emotion that perpetuate the patriarchy.”
It is a thick democracy where thinking, feeling, learning, and having a range of different types of relationships are possible and encouraged for every “citizen.” A “thick democracy” does not mean we simply combine the stereotypical attributes of “male” and “female” or “black” and “white” but reject, on fundamental grounds, the idea that males and females, blacks and whites, poor and rich, straight and gay, do not share a need for intimate connections, the desire to learn, or the ability to speak about personal thoughts and feelings. In a “thick” democracy, we understand that these desires, needs, and abilities are precisely what make us human.”
Word. Let’s get on that. But first go read this book.