I had the pleasure of interviewing Eve Ensler last week. She’s heading to town for an event this week, a conversation with Isabel Allende at Dominican University.
An award-winning author and playwright (The Vagina Monologues, The Good Body) and creator of V-Day, which has raised some $70 million to fight violence against girls and women around the world, Ensler now wants to start a revolution — a girl revolution. Her latest book, I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, came out in 2010 and a play based on it, Emotional Creature, will have its world premiere at the Berkeley Rep this June. It is a call to girls to be their authentic selves.
I am a fan of Ensler’s work. In researching for my interview with her, I read excerpts from her new book and reviews of it by others. And, as I’m sure many other women have done, I recognized myself in her words of what it is to be a girl, especially the pressure to please:
To please the fashion setters, we starve ourselves. To please boys, we push ourselves when we aren’t ready. To please the popular girls, we end up acting mean to our best friends. To please our parents, we become insane overachievers. If you are trying to please, how do you take responsibility for your own needs? How do you even know what your needs are? What do you have to cut off in yourself to please others?
I was a pleaser. Let me refrain that: I’m middle-aged and I still can slide into that if I’m not being mindful and present, which I have painstaking learned to do (thank you Hoffman Institute!). Wanting to please the people I love is not the same as being a pleaser, in which you lie — to others, yourself or both — about what you actually think, and end up doing things you don’t really want to do. This is not healthy for anyone.
But as a mom who has raised two wonderful sons into young adulthood, 21 and 18, I wonder why no one has written I Am Not Allowed to Be An Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Boys Around the World. Because I don’t think boys are allowed to be their authentic selves, either.
Both my boys are sensitive and reflective, in different ways from each other but they both have often struggled with figuring out, “Where do I fit in?,” “How do I express my pain?”
Ensler acknowledges that boys are just as boxed in by society’s roles:
I have been with boys as well, watched as they have been ridiculed, censored and abused for their tenderness, their doubts, their grief, their need for comfort and protection. I have seen how the tyranny of masculinity has forced boys and then men to cut off their hearts and cast them into a brutal, lonely state of disassociation and isolation.
Yes, the tenderness and isolation.
“I’m viewed from a distance, absent-minded seclusion and unwanted separation,” my younger son writes and speaks in his “I am” film project, “Where I’m From” — it nearly makes me tear up every time I see it. He’s 18, on the cusp of manhood; what will he have to give up to “be a man”?
Despite the best parenting I could give them (I think I must have read just about every book on raising boys), my boys — all boys — have learned what it is to “be a man” early on — on the play yard, from teachers, from coaches, from the media. “Suck it up” is what boys learn. They can’t cry, they can’t be emotional, they can’t express their pain. The one emotion we do seem to allow them is anger — and then, ironically, we fear that anger when they grow up to be men.
Ensler says, You tell me how to be a girl in 2010.
I ask, What is it to be a boy in 2012?
In Real Boys, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor William Pollack took on what he terms “the Boy Code,” our lingering stereotypes of boys as “tough, cool, rambunctious and obsessed with sports, cars and sex.” Casting all boys that way, he says, thwarts their creativity and originality.
In The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience, lecturer John Stoltenberg says the way society defines “being a man” doesn’t encourage intimacy and real interpersonal connection. The more “masculine” boys become, the more they lose their sensitivity, vulnerability, emotions and affections. I hope my boys never lose theirs; without them, how can they give and get the love I know they want, the love we all want?
Boys “learn very quickly how to conceal ourselves through language,” writes Victor J. Seidler’s Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason, Language and Sexuality. “Even though we learn to blame others for our unhappiness and misery in relationships, we also know at some unspoken level how our masculinity has limited and injured us as we touch the hurt and pain of realizing how little we seem to feel about anything.”
Writes Tom Matlack of the Good Men Project: “Boys — perhaps even more than girls — put themselves under extreme pressure to perform in school, in sports, and in social situations. They talk about it less, so the sting of failure can run even more deeply than with girls. … Too often in our culture, boys are pushed to become one-dimensional robots.”
I’d like to see a revolution, too — for girls and boys, women and men, to be their authentic selves. To embrace that in ourselves and in each other. Only then we can truly live with each other — and ourselves.
How are you helping your children to be their authentic selves?