Big Congressmen, Little Boys

I grew up in Staten Island, and there is a lot I miss about my hometown. I miss seeing my brother every day, who drives the Staten Island train. I miss other family and friends who still live on the Island. I miss the pizza, which is really the best in New York, no matter which shop you enter. In a strange way, I even miss once being able to make the claim that my town is home to the largest landfill in the world — visible from space!

But one thing that I don’t miss about Staten Island is the culture of hyper masculinity that prevails. No, I don’t miss that at all.

Many people were surprised to hear Congressman Michael Grimm’s threat to throw a reporter over a balcony in our nation’s Capitol, and to break him in half “like a little boy.” I wasn’t surprised. Growing up on Staten Island, I know this is the way guys talked from grade school to high school, and even into adulthood. Frankly, it was this environment — more toxic than the landfill — that made it so easy to leave and raise two boys in Pennsylvania instead. 

I left almost 20 years ago, as I developed a career in sexuality education, writing books and training teachers, nurses, social workers, and other professionals. One of my tasks has been to help youth-serving specialists think carefully about the messages they give their students about gender, and how the words they use can be empowering or destructive. This is also one of my roles as a father, and so when my kids saw the video of the congressman threatening the reporter, they were appropriately horrified. So, I am doing something right. 

The threats of physical harm delivered by the congressman were the focal point of media coverage. But what caught my attention was his choice of the phrase “little boy.” It made me immediately wonder what the congressman thinks about little boys that he would use them as the point of reference for his threats. The message, clearly, is that manhood is a source of pride achieved through size and physical strength. Power is demonstrated through one male’s ability to beat up another male, who conversely is a weak “little boy.” (At least until he can develop the size and strength to beat up someone else.) 

The congressman’s understanding of masculinity is similar to the gender norms I experienced on the playground at PS 53, where the phrase “You’re dead after school” was a common way for little boys to assert their power and masculinity. There were plenty of times when I was dead after school. There was even one time when I declared someone else dead after school. I surprised the heck out of myself when I successfully beat him up, and briefly felt the accompanying rush of power and triumph. That was until I heard my victim say through his tears, “Are you satisfied?” Suddenly, I realized I was not satisfied. I felt awful. It was not me, and it was not the way I was brought up. 

Unfortunately, the congressman’s threats of homicide indicate that he has not grown out of it. Like the elementary school boys I remember, Congressman Grimm tried to assert his power as a “big man” by trying to reduce a professional reporter to a “little boy.” 

You might accuse me of overanalyzing the congressman’s stunted development. An old friend from Monsignor Farrell High School defended the congressman, saying his response was reasonable because he was ambushed. My friend, who knows that I sometimes give interviews myself, asked me how I might feel if I were put on the spot with an unexpected question. This has, in fact, happened to me from time to time. It is unpleasant and I can empathize with the congressman’s feelings of frustration. 

But I can also say that it has never, ever occurred to me to threaten a reporter. And I have never viewed such transgressions as related to gender in any way. 

Dr. Andrew Smiler is the author of “Challenging Casanova,” a book that critically examines and rebuffs common stereotypes about young men. Smiler offers some hope, indicating that the old gender stereotypes just don’t hold up for most young men today. 

Let’s hope Smiler’s right, and that we’re all — including my beloved Staten Islanders — outgrowing the need to use violent rhetoric to defend ourselves and solve our differences. 

Submitted on February 15, 2014 to Letters to the Editor, Staten Island Advance, by our very own Bill Taverner, CFLE Executive Director, and former Staten Island Resident.

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