Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection

Deborah Cameron considers the harm that our current constructions of masculinity do to men

April 7, 2011

In her 1990 bestseller You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Deborah Tannen popularised a view of girls' and boys' peer groups that has since been recycled in both expert and popular literature. Girls value intimacy and seek connections with others: their social and emotional lives revolve around close, mutually supportive same-sex friendships. Boys, on the other hand, hunt in packs, and their relations with each other are emotionally shallow. Valuing status over connection and action over talk, they do not feel the need for intimate relationships with other boys.

As Niobe Way remarks, it is amazing that people who were once girls and boys themselves should have swallowed this account so uncritically. In fact, the part of it that deals with girls has been extensively criticised, with both fictional works (such as Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye) and social scientific studies (such as Marjorie Goodwin's The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status and Exclusion) exploring the less supportive and more oppressive aspects of female friendship. Male friendships, meanwhile, have been less studied, and boys continue to be represented as lacking both the desire and the interpersonal skills to make emotional connections with others. Deep Secrets, drawing on interviews conducted over a period of several years with an ethnically mixed group of 135 urban high school students, offers a challenge to this one-dimensional view.

It is abundantly clear from Way's interview data that adolescent boys care intensely about their friends, and that their most important friendships are in no way superficial. At the age of 14 or 15, boys describe their feelings for the friends they are closest to in terms that sound "more like something out of Love Story than Lord of the Flies". For these boys as for girls, a "close" or "best" friend is someone you share secrets with, someone you can rely on to understand and support you, someone you do not have to conceal your vulnerability from. For boys as for girls, there is nothing more painful than the withdrawal of that intimacy or the betrayal of that trust.

But in later adolescence, boys' accounts begin to change; increasingly they perceive intimate male friendships as incompatible with the norms of adult heterosexual masculinity. Omar, a high school senior who two years earlier declared that he "loved" his best friend and told him everything, describes his current interactions thus: "We're like real manly around each other...we talk about sports...girls that we saw in the street, you know...there's no room for like mushy talk." Randy, a year younger, explains that "talking about feelings is gay, so we don't talk about feelings". By the time they are 17, most boys regard heterosexual relationships as the only safe space for emotional self-disclosure; but their reflections on this are often tinged with regret for what they feel they have lost.

Over the past 10 years, in the US in particular, there has been a wave of concern about the so-called "boy crisis", and much pontification on its causes and its cures. According to pundits such as Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax, the distress that is manifested in rising rates of educational failure, criminal activity and mental ill-health has its roots in a gender-egalitarian culture that is hostile to maleness. The remedy they prescribe is a return to traditional forms of genderdifferentiation: teaching boys in all-male classrooms, giving them more contact with male role models and encouraging them to engage in manly pursuits.

Way, by contrast, believes that what her own findings point to is a "crisis of connection", which these proposals can only exacerbate. The real problem, she suggests, is the cultural tendency to identify universal human traits such as empathy and the desire for intimacy as "feminine". Not only does this give the traits so labelled a generally low cultural status, it also ensures that their expression among males will be interpreted as gender-deviant, raising the suspicions that many of her interviewees seek to counter with their constant refrain of "no homo". (This, the website helpfully explains, is "a slang phrase used after one inadvertently says something that sounds gay".)

Way thinks that boys are damaged, and feel damaged, by the loss of connection that results from "manning up". On the evidence she presents, it would be difficult to disagree. Nor do I dispute her point that the model of manhood with which boys are presented is the product of a deeply sexist and homophobic culture. But some of the conclusions she draws from this strike me as more problematic.

I am puzzled, for instance, by the connection Way seems to make between a society's acceptance of intimate relationships between men and the overall progressiveness of its gender and sexual politics. Deploring the "hyper-masculine" character of contemporary US culture, she notes that many other societies allot an important role to close male friendships, and do not confuse friends' displays of intimacy with actual or repressed homosexuality.

Yet the societies she presumably has in mind - like those of the Middle East and Latin America - are hardly beacons of enlightenment; they are different from the US, but not less patriarchal, misogynistic or homophobic. The truth is that deep emotional connections between men can coexist, and often do, with very rigid gender divisions and very unequal gender relations. Sometimes, how much men invest in relationships with other men can be a measure of how little they value women.

Way's lack of clarity on this point reflects a general problem with the strand of feminist gender critique to which Deep Secrets belongs. The analysis focuses on the harm that our current constructions of masculinity do to men and, on that basis, it is argued or implied that the feminist project of dismantling patriarchy and reconstructing gender is as much in men's interests as in women's. It is an idea many liberals find appealing, since it suggests that we are all on the same side: in the struggle for gender justice there will be no losers, but only winners.

I wish I could believe that, but in fact I think it is naive. Undoubtedly, as Way comments, "manhood comes with serious costs" and she does an excellent job of showing how high a price her adolescent subjects pay for it. But what she fails to consider is that it also comes with benefits: the power and privilege that men derive from their position of dominance over women. If we accept her point that there is resistance to the cultural codes of masculinity among younger teenage boys, then we must surely also allow that when they ultimately embrace those codes (as Way finds that most do, with whatever degree of ambivalence), this is not just a passive surrender to the inevitable, but must also at some level reflect their recognition that manhood has its rewards.

In saying this, however, I do not mean to belittle the feelings of grief and loss that are affectingly documented in Deep Secrets. The stories that Way and her research team have persuaded boys to tell are a welcome corrective to the stereotyping of males as essentially unfeeling and/or incapable of communicating their feelings, which has been such a striking (and offensive) feature of recent discourse on gender differences. Way deserves our gratitude for bringing to the surface what seems lately to have become the deepest secret of all: that the needs, desires and feelings of boys and girls, or men and women, are at bottom far more similar than different.

The Author

When Parisian-born Niobe Way arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, she wanted to act but "chickened out" and decided to study psychology - "and I'm so glad I made that choice".

She took a bachelor's degree in social welfare and psychology at Berkeley in 1984 and ten years later completed a doctorate in human development and psychology at Harvard University.

For a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University, she spent six months in New York running a research project interviewing 120 adolescent mothers in Harlem. That resulted in Growing up Fast: Transitions to Early Adulthood of Inner-City Adolescent Mothers (written with Bonnie J. Leadbeater), winner of 2002's Best Book Award for Social Policy from the Society for Research on Adolescence.

Since 1995, Way has been professor of applied psychology at New York University, where she also directs its developmental psychology programme.

In 2005, she visited China for research and was so entranced that she moved two years later to teach in NYU's Shanghai programme. She says she enjoyed the life and the challenge of learning Mandarin (her two children, who went to local schools, were happy to correct her pronunciation). Now in Greenwich Village, Way says that in her free time she likes to hang out with family and friends and, "like all good New Yorkers, do yoga and Pilates".

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection

By Niobe Way

Harvard University Press 336pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780674046641

Published 31 March 2011

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