Jenn Hoos Rothberg -

Mar 23, 2023

The Messages We’re Sending to Boys

A few weeks ago, my husband Jon and I attended a screening of “Close,” the Oscar-nominated film directed by Lukas Dhont based on the research of Dr. Niobe Way, New York University professor of Applied Psychology and founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (PACH).

I met Niobe in 2012 at the Roots of Empathy Research Symposium, where she presented on the social and emotional needs of boys and men. She stood at the podium and started by reading testimonies of young boys, primarily boys of color, from the hundreds of interviews she conducted as part of her groundbreaking book, Deep Secrets.

According to Niobe’s research, friendships between boys during their early childhood years were more like “something out of Love Story than Lord of the Flies.” Yet in late adolescence, boys pick up implicit and explicit messages from our culture telling them to hide vulnerability, care, and affection for and from other boys to maintain their masculinity. These pervasive stereotypes often shift their beliefs, choices, and behaviors, making boys go against their wants and needs.

Of all the talks I heard that day, it was listening to the hopes, dreams, wishes, and fears of these young adolescent boys that made me realize my biases about gender and masculinity. Lucky for me, Niobe and I struck up a conversation after the conference while waiting in line for Immigration and Customs at the airport, where she helped me begin to unpack my own beliefs and desires. I realized then that Niobe’s diagnosis of “the crisis of connection” would stay with me for a long time – first in our work at Einhorn Collaborative and later when my son was born.

Lukas Dhont, a 31-year-old award-winning Belgian filmmaker, similarly encountered Niobe’s work by reading Deep Secrets. Through his craft, Dohnt beautifully translated Niobe’s social science scholarship into a fictionalized friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi.

When Jon and I received an invitation for the screening of “Close,” we didn’t know what to expect, but we were eager to see Niobe’s research about boyhood told on the big screen. (And we were excited to have a reason for date night.)

As parents of a now nearly 10-year-old boy, we watched the film with affection and trepidation. The first half left us in awe at the beautiful and intimate depictions of Léo and Rémi’s companionship, and the second half jolted us back to reality when their friendship fractured.

On our way home, Jon and I reflected on the ease and joy early in the film when the boys hung out together, portrayed with the kind of love and support we all long for in our relationships. And then, as the boys entered middle school, we reflected on the ways seemingly invisible yet ubiquitous social cues tragically disrupted their deep friendship.

The assumption of sexuality when none existed made it difficult for Léo and Rémi to showcase their affection for one another and maintain their connection. The messages they received from peers and adults were loud and clear: their friendship was taboo for boys, and they must hide their authentic selves from others, and ultimately, each other.

“We live in this society that tells young men that there are things we validate more than tenderness and vulnerability,” Dhont said in an interview with USA Today. “We teach young men to stop caring for authentic connections and (be) more distant with emotions. It’s an incredibly brutal thing.”

This is where “Close” holds up a mirror to society. According to AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, American men are experiencing a “friendship recession,” wherein one in five say they have no close relationships, and only 21% say they received emotional support from a friend within the past week. For women, these rates are half as bad. The loneliness epidemic is certainly real across our society, but it is much more pronounced among men.

It’s one thing to know the depth of the problem through statistics; it’s another to feel the painful consequences of our crisis of connection through masterful cinematography. Art has a unique ability to lead us to profound insights and even behavior change. It can turn numbers into human stories and remind us of our yearning for love and empathy for loss. It can transport us to an unfamiliar land and allow us to view the world from a different perspective. It can also help us see our reflection more clearly, and in turn, feel less lonely about who we are and more connected to people who share our experiences.

Over the past few weeks, Jon and I have returned time and again to our conversations after watching “Close.” As parents often do, we talk about our hopes and dreams for our son and the kind of world we would like him to grow up in. We are much more intentional in our support of his friendships with other boys and the ways he authentically shows love in these relationships. And we are enrolling other adults in his life to protect his instinct to care for others and his very human yearning for connection.

It’s time we reframe the meaning of “boys will be boys” and honor their deep emotional needs for relationships of all types. Because at the end of the day, relationships are the foundation of a meaningful life.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. Learn more about our work and more about Jenn. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn’s blog posts.