12/20/2012 03:54 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Teaching Boys to Be Half Human

On Monday, a generous family in Iowa donated $3 million dollars to the Bondurant-Farrar school district in Iowa, where their son plays high school football. There's just one catch: in order for the district to actually get the money, they have to agree to have the boys' guest locker rooms painted pink -- the idea being that the home team gets an edge by immersing their opponents in a putrid shade of Pepto-Bismol. If they really want it to work they should best the University of Iowa's pretty-in-pink intimidation tactics and eliminate urinals entirely. The pink is to create a frame of mind: "Naturally, that "frame of mind" is a passive one, with the pink locker room meant to weaken a visiting team's morale and resolve." 

I first heard this story on NPR this morning when the commentator, wanting to provide relief from the relentless sadness that is Sandy Hook's legacy now, told the oh-so-funny macho-baiting sissy shaming story. He moved seamlessly from one the other, making no connections between them at all. This no less than 60 seconds after echoing the question: "Why did this shooting happen? How can we stop it from happening again?"

In the past few days, I, like many others, have written to suggest why making connections between masculinity and violence, race and identity are critical to answering those questions. Specifically, why are we not paying attention to the fact that mass murderers are predominantly young, white and male and thinking about what that means and what to do about it? Jackson Katz wrote, and provided real and valuable prescriptions for change, here in The Huffington Post, Sikuvu Hutchinson's "The Nice White Boy Next Door," appeared in The Feminist Wire Salon's David Sirota started a small conservative cyclone by suggesting in a one minute TV appearance that maybe angry, young, white men are a meaningful criminal cohort. And William Hamby raised similar questions in the Examiner. He followed up with a piece about a surprising response to his critique... that he, a white Southern man, is a feminist propagandist sexist. Many of these writers, scholars and activists have been saying these things for a long time.

So what does this have to do with locker rooms being painted pink?

In case it's not obvious, I feel compelled to say that I know that painting locker rooms pink does not turn boys into mass murderers. Painting walls pink is silliness, not "serious." But, actually, it is serious. Pink, used in these ways, is the very illustration of the problem we have. This tradition and its spawn are demeaning to girls and women, and by extension, anyone who is not heterosexual. It requires open conversation and a cultural shift to understand that this is the case and that it's sufficiently important that we make conscious decisions to stop publicly condoning and engaging in these practices. The man who started the tradition at Iowa said it was because pink has a soothing effect on people and reduced aggression. Good idea. But, so do the scent of vanilla, chamomile tea, Tryptophan in food and the new-agey sounds of Peruvian rain sticks. As far as I know, neither the U of Iowa program nor the $3 million dollar donation make provisions for those. Instead, they choose pink. Why? Tradition? It was once traditional to bathe once a year and we seem to have walked away from that one.

I really doubt that young men subjected to pink locker rooms care. They probably think its a memorable hoot. However, and despite most boys' best efforts to change this, the fact remains that 100 percent of football programs adamantly refuse to provide feminist critique and semiotics materials to players prior to big games. Regardless of this fatal flaw or of the fact that boys might actually love the pink, it is undeniable that the color is significant.

There is a reason they choose pink. Even if it's not conscious and explicit.

The pink locker room is supposed to highlight difference and convey a hierarchy of strength and weakness. These walls quite literally paint boys as better, stronger, superior to "feminized" teammates and girls. They reflect and feed a destructive habit whereby "masculinity" is understood, not as a function of admiral virtues that stand alone or that enable boys to use their strength for good, but through the denigration of what is perceived to be feminine and female. And the mockery and renunciation of behaviors and feelings associated with being female, like empathy, gentleness, compassion. The use of the walls conflates physical weakness with moral weakness and existential inferiority. And leaves no room at all for what it means to be fully human, for boys or girls. The fact that winning is subtly, actually not really, associated with boys and losing with girls is just a bonus. The pink locker room illustrates exactly how boys are taught to be "real men." And, if you think it's all in good fun, and just a "game" you might want to ask Anita Saarkeesian what her opinion is.

So, the pink locker room isn't teaching boys to be "real men" at all. It's teaching them to be half human.

Attitudes that embrace the use of pink like this are the same ones that strip boys, heart and soul, of what it means to be fully themselves without fear of shame, humiliation, loss and violence. There are many ways that boys can be true to themselves, and undermine their opponents, without teaching them to mock and demean not only girls and women, but essential aspects of their own natures. To then doubly use these tactics to impart entitlement and privilege is obscene. That's why we shouldn't be talking about the "end of men," but about how we think about masculinity and what the pressures to perform it can perversely yield. Like angry young men with guns in public spaces.

There is a name for what the writers above and I were describing when writing about Sandy Hook. It is "aggrieved entitlement." In 2010, Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel described it in a paper called "Suicide by Mass Murder." Kimmel, responding to this most recent example, explained again today in a piece on CNN, men like Lanza aren't "deviants, but over-conformists... they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement. This sense of entitlement is part of the package deal of American manhood." And, as Hugo Schywzerpointed out in the wake of the Aurora shooting, "Only those who've marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world's problem with which to deal. This is why, while men of all races and classes murder their intimate partners, it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters."

While I cannot speak for these other writers, I can say that I wasn't moved to write in order to assign guilt and I sincerely doubt they were either. I wrote to provoke open discussion about an evident truth. There is no denying or debating the fact that mass murders in this country come from a clearly defined demographic.  They are symptomatic, extreme but significant, of a larger problem. And, while I have repeatedly heard people talk about mental illness and gun prevention, I have heard scant mainstream analysis of the role that gender construction plays in boys' development and the sense that a "right" exists to anger and violence, as a function of cultural entitlement and privilege. De-stigmatizing mental illness and regulating guns as media has been focused on, will help, of course, but will be insufficient without inclusion of this dimension of the problem. Mainstream media, like critic Jennifer Pozner of Women in Media and News has been saying for a long time, colludes when it fails to report on the gendered nature and motivations of these events.

The pink walls are an infinitesimally minute fraction of an endemic habit in the United States, best captured in the phrase "boys will be boys." There is nothing about this, however, that smacks of an outlier. It is entirely unremarkable that it is happening now, during Round 6,592 of fear of a female planet, involves football and is taking place in Iowa.

How could any school district afford in this day and age to take a principled, anti-gender-shaming stance in the face of $3 million dollar donation? Well, aside from the Title IX implications regarding gender discrimination and funding, maybe the kind of school district asking "Why?" If we don't start making connections between pink locker rooms and the schools they're in having to continuously update their lockdown protocols we will fail to help young boys who need it and save innocent lives in ways that are becoming more, not less, common.