A young Black boy comes into the house crying. When his parents ask what’s wrong, he explains: His classmates forgot his birthday. He cries harder, beginning to hyperventilate. The mother comforts the boy, tells him to breathe. It’s the picture of loving parenthood. The father, though, stands back with a look of disgust, shaking his head. On the screen, a mock scouting report appears distilling the 10-year-old’s disposition: He is the “sweet, sensitive, moist towelette of the family.”
This is a scene from Netflix’s #BlackAF, the latest comedy from Blackish creator Kenya Barris. Though the show portrays an entire family, it’s largely presented from Barris’ own POV — after all, he created, wrote, and even stars as himself, surrounded by an ensemble meant to be satirical versions of his own family.
And in the case of his son, Pops, that POV reveals a cultural issue that’s as American as White privilege: labeling boys “sensitive” because they don’t fit a hypermasculine standard. Barris toys with the label, wrings fun out of his own discomfort with his son, eventually muttering “the kid’s a mess.” But a comedy set piece doesn’t change the fact that parents like me are left to deal with the fallout of the label — and as entertaining as it might be on screen, in real life, it just hits different.
As a young boy, my son Charlie always preferred quiet indoor activities to the outdoors. While his three older sisters would tear up and down the street in bike races and games of tag with neighborhood kids, Charlie sat with me, reading or helping to cook. Sure, maybe I coddled him a little bit — until he was five, I wouldn’t let him loose with the girls unless I was out there, too — but even after he was allowed to play with his sisters and the other kids, Charlie often preferred not to.
Members of my husband’s side of the family believed Charlie was overpowered by the feminine energy in the house. These are rural, Southern White people — the outdoorsy type for whom hunting and manual labor is a way of life. As such, they tried to indoctrinate Charlie with their accepted form of masculinity. Two years ago, when Charlie was 14, he spent much of the summer bonding with his father’s male family members, all of whom felt a way about our Black boy’s distaste for the activities in the wilderness that they’d planned. After one fishing trip, my father-in-law reported that Charlie “whined the whole time and was scared of everything.”
Charlie colored in the details. “There were mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats everywhere,” he told me afterward, showing off bug bites and scars from the outing. “Then grandad said something about ticks. Ticks! And we were by a muddy pond with cows loose. I fell into the pond water. It stunk.”
The patriarchs on my half of the family tree — urban Black folks primarily based in Chicago and nearby Gary, Indiana — have their own ideas about raising boys. These beliefs weren’t much more progressive than those of my in-laws, just using different verbs; instead of defining masculinity by what you could capture, fix, or kill, my dad seems to associate it with courting the opposite sex.
His go-to question is asking Charlie if he has a girlfriend — a query that makes my 16-year-old lower his eyes and fidget with his glasses before mumbling a quiet no and leaving the room moments later. Last year, when a snowstorm came through while my husband was out of town, my dad and uncles came over to check on us. They talked Charlie into taking a car ride. When they returned an hour later, Charlie revealed their true intentions. “They wanted to teach me to hit on girls,” he said. “[They] had me walk up to a girl who was shoveling. I acted like I was asking her out, but really, I just asked if she needed [help].”
Today, Charlie towers over me at 6 feet, 2 inches, sharing my love of creating stories and cheffing up breakfast dishes… For now, he’s found other boys like him with whom he can hang.
Masculinity exists on a spectrum. Of course, there are healthy ideas about manhood on one side, but the far opposite end can become problematic. Quick. Somewhere in the middle, there’s hypermasculinity, an exaggeration of societal images of masculinity. Think the guy at the gym grunting and slamming weights; he’s annoying, yes, but his antics usually stop short of overt harm. Toxic masculinity, however, is damaging both to the men who endorse its repressive definition of manhood and those surrounding them. In fact, those are the people who bear the brunt of the pain, the people upon whom these beliefs are most often imposed. It’s often lurking in expectations and admonishments like “boys don’t cry” or “walk it off” when a boy exhibits pain. The injury of these statements is there, even if it seems benign.
In an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain, host and social science journalist Shankar Vedantam described hypermasculinity as “the model of the tough guy who doesn’t need others, who can move through the world without being bruised by it.” This is the model we use to measure toughness in boys. Those who don’t measure up are the Pops of society.
Jacksonville, Florida-based clinical social worker Stephanie Jones, who specializes in therapy for adolescent girls, points out that this standard can cause emotional issues that follow boys through adulthood. But parents can help protect their boys by creating a protective space at home that encourages boys to share freely, without judgment or fear.
“As a mother of a young Black man, it was always important for me to help him communicate his feelings,” Jones says. “As a young boy, he would cry unannounced and without explanation. His father would reject his tears, but I wanted him to confront those feelings even at an early age. I continued to say to him, ‘use your words, honey,’ to encourage him to practice identifying a name for the feelings stirring around on the inside. Years later, that ‘sensitive’ boy is a well-spoken, emotionally intelligent, communicative young man.”
That ability to communicate is particularly important as kids begin to encounter a variety of ideas about gender roles at school. “There are externally imposed identities and the identity that [kids] create for themselves,” says Dr. Christina Grange, a clinical psychologist and professor at Clayton State University in Georgia. “We can teach [boys] to advocate for themselves as they get older and go through those different developmental stages.”
Maturing boys need to know that they can create their own goals, dreams, and identities, independent from what friends, family, or society may try to dictate. It’s how I’ve tried to raise Charlie, who never spent much alone time with either of his grandfathers when he was younger. My husband and I knew all too well that they’d see our son as weak or in need of toughening up — and what they saw as toughening up would involve killing what individuality our boy has.
With kids home from school amid the coronavirus pandemic — and away from friends, school activities, and other things that demand their time and energy — there’s an opportunity for parents to step back and observe their son’s true passion. “Covid-19 has forced us to let go, in a way,” says Grange. “I find that some kids who have been depressed are happier. They’re focusing on what they want to focus on at heart, because nobody’s telling them to focus on anything.”
I did exactly this, allowing Charlie to binge rom-coms with me, trade collectible comics with his dad, and write some super-secret script that he wants to shoot this summer. Today, Charlie towers over me at 6 feet, 2 inches, sharing my love of creating stories and cheffing up breakfast dishes (his omelets have surpassed mine). He’s had a few adorable little love interests but is more concerned with where to apply for college in the fall. For now, he’s found other boys like him with whom he can hang. All of them are breaking toxic chains just by existing — and they don’t even know it.
When I first saw the words “moist towelette” describing the crying, hyperventilating figure of little Pops on #BlackAF, I was upset; the satire picked at a sore spot for me. But the more conversations we’re willing to have about Pops, and the way the Barris family treats him, the better shot we have of preserving what’s so special about our own sensitive boys.