Monday, September 30, 2013

Reviewing the Final Episode of Breaking Bad

[WARNING: Spoiler alert - if you have not seen the finale do not read this post.]

NOTE: This post also appears at my other blog, Integral Options Cafe.

As the music played and the camera panned away from Walt's body, I felt a kind of relief, as though I had been holding my breath for five seasons waiting for the conclusion that was inevitable at the beginning of the show.

And still I am haunted (as much as one can be by a television show) by the vagueness of Jesse's fate. He was, for many reasons, my favorite character on the show. Perhaps I identified with his troubled family background and retreat into drug use (all too familiar in my youth), or I saw in him the path not taken when I decided to get my act together, quit the drugs, and go back to school.

More than that, Jesse was the heart of the show in many ways. He FELT the things the happened, the killings, the manipulations, the torture. Walt was able to compartmentalize it all, rationalize it all, but not Jesse - he was tormented by the things that happened, the things he nonetheless participated in. If Walt was the brain, Jesse was the heart.

I want a whole new series, set two years after this finale, with Jesse as the central character, possibly raising Brock as a single father now that Andrea was killed. I won't get that wish. But I like to think that is the path Jesse took following his primal scream of freedom, loss, suffering, frustration, relief, and maybe even happiness that he survived.

I liked the finale. How about you?

Here are several of the multitude of morning-after evaluations of the most talked about series finale in years.

Two from Salon:

Was the “Breaking Bad” ending too neat?

The show's finale was well-received, but some critics wonder if it was true to the characters and the show 
By Prachi Gupta

Was the  

AMC’s epic crime drama “Breaking Bad” has come to its bloody end, and so far, reception from television critics has been overwhelmingly positive — good news for show creator Vince Gilligan, who had predicted that it would be “polarizing.” On “Talking Bad,” which aired immediately following the finale, Gilligan said that unlike “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad’s” finale episode, “Felina,” needed to tie up lose ends. “This show was intended all along to be very finite. It’s a story that starts at A and ends at Z, as it were. It’s a very closed-ended thing.” 

* * *

In the end, Walt won

Whether he was a hero or a villain, Walter White got nearly everything he ever wanted
By Neil Drumming

“When I pop the trunk, hit the deck.” — The Beatnuts, “Reign of the Tec”

Last night, we witnessed the end of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” I’d been dreading that moment for a week and not just because I am a faithful disciple of the program and hate to see it disappear from my Sunday ritual. I was dreading the finale because I knew that as soon as the credits rolled I would have to craft some sort of coherent and cohesive reaction to something that had taken me years to consume and would likely take days if not weeks to digest.

 * * * * *

Two from Rolling Stone:

Lessons of the 'Breaking Bad' Series Finale

Five takeaways from the last episode of a modern saga

By Scott Neumyer
September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad premiered its first episode on AMC in January 2008. Five years, five seasons and 62 episodes later, one of the greatest television dramas of all time came to an end last night as Vince Gilligan's landmark series took its final, bloody bow. In a TV landscape that has, in recent years, found it difficult to satisfyingly wrap up beloved shows in a way that hits the right emotional notes while also tying up loose ends, Breaking Bad's final episode may prove to be one of the most fulfilling and well-made farewells ever. And while we're sure to keep "Felina" on our DVRs for repeated close inspection of the episode over the next few weeks, here are a few quick takeaways.

* * *

'Breaking Bad' Finale Recap: Heisenberg Certainty Principle

Like Walter White's meth, the finale's formula was flawless – but is that a good thing?

September 30, 2013 
Jesse Pinkman built the perfect box. He sawed it off, sanded it down, hammered it together, smoothed it out, and carried it away with all the pride of a first-time father. This is the fantasy-memory he retreated to when reality became too broken for him to face at last – the one time in his life when he felt he accomplished exactly what he set out to do, the one time he made everything fit.

For better or for worse, that box is Breaking Bad.

* * * * *

From Vulture:
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 16 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
"Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!" Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

"Hello, Carol."

That is, if I'm not mistaken, the first line in the final eight-episode stretch of Breaking Bad, uttered at the end of the prologue in "Blood Money." We heard the name of that previously unmet neighbor, Carol, again in "Felina." The episode's title is an anagram for "finale" as well as a reference to The Girl in Marty Robbins's classic "El Paso," whose lyrics are echoed in this chapter's Western-ballad-like tale of an outlaw dying an outlaw's death. In a phone conversation between Skyler and Marie about Walt's return to Albuquerque, series creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed this series ender, repeated her name and even had Skyler situate her geographically. "Hello, Carol": or hello, Carol. As in A Christmas Carol.

* * * * *

From NPR:

Bryan Cranston wrapped up his run Sunday night as Walter White in Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan signaled in interviews leading up to Sunday night's series finale that those who craved some redemption for Walter White were the ones most likely to leave happy.

"We feel it's a satisfying ending," Gilligan told Entertainment Weekly. "Walt ends things more or less on his own terms."

For Gilligan, those things were self-evidently connected: the satisfaction of the ending and the degree to which the terms of that ending are set by Walt. And that's probably true for broad segments of the show's legions of fans who continued to root for Walt at some elemental level, or least to root for him to become root-able again.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Walter White and White Male Priviledge

Walter White has been the (anti-)hero of Breaking Bad for much of its five seasons. But his son, Walter, Jr. (who changes his name to Flynn early on in the show, then changes it back to Walter, Jr. when his father and mother split up [taking his dad's side and even wanting to live with him], then finally changing it back to Flynn in the final season) is the real hero of the show according to Anna Mae Duane at Salon.

Flynn is by birth a flawed human being (he has cerebral palsy), and he has learned in his brief life that nothing is perfect - a lesson Walt surely needs to learn and never did.

If Walter White, the great manipulator both of chemicals and of people, could have learned from the son he likely deemed a burden, he would have learned that living with brokenness is the only hope any of us have of beating back chaos and the dark.

Yes. In Walt we see a traditional model of masculinity - the only real values are strength, power, courage, and family, not necessarily in that order. In Flynn, we see a more complete human being, a young man who has strong feelings about the chaos he lives with and who stands up for what he believes is true.

Why Flynn is the real hero of “Breaking Bad”

Unlike Walt, Flynn understands that neither his life nor his body will ever be "perfect"

By Anna Mae Duane
Sunday, Sep 29, 2013

Why Flynn is the real hero of
RJ Mitte as Walter White, Jr. in "Breaking Bad" (Credit: AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)

As Walter White squares off against Todd and his crew of white supremacists in the final season of “Breaking Bad,” much has been made of Walt’s hubris as a symptom of white male privilege — his sense that he is owed a certain degree of power and adulation, and his anger that he has somehow been denied his due. Thus Walt’s showdown with neo-Nazis — who are really invested in the idea of superior bodies — offers a certain sort of poetic closure. I’ll take your white male privilege and raise you a reich.

There’s an even deeper sense of entitlement that shapes Walt’s world — and likely the world of the viewers. It’s the deeply entrenched, and deeply American sense that we are entitled to bodies that function perfectly. Walter may well have been seething with resentment for most of his life, but it’s not until his cancer diagnosis that he makes his long descent into crime. Because it fades into the background for so much of the series, it’s easy to forget that it is illness, with its attendant specters of disability and death, that flips the switch that breaks Walter White bad.

Cancer, we tell ourselves with irrepressible American optimism, is what you make of it. As Skyler’s nightstand full of self-help books attest, cancer comes with its own to-do list, its own requirement that you take control of your endangered asset and regain a healthy body. Medical practitioners rightly applaud this sort of take-charge attitude. Self-efficacy, as it’s called, is a prime indicator of a how well a patient will do. If patients can imagine useful steps, envision themselves taking them and then follow through, the odds of recovery are substantially higher. In the face of the uncontrollable chaos that cancer threatens, a plan and a cool head can, doctors often tell us, prevail.

Walt is far from the model patient. He is, however, a model of self-efficacy. He has a plan. Hoo boy, does he ever. The cancer, like all the other forces in “Breaking Bad,” is brought to heel by Walt’s formidable will and intellect. Just a matter of showing that cancer who’s boss, it seems. And while Walter’s haughty dismissal of the killer disease might be a satisfying narrative (particularly for Walt), disability studies scholars have pointed out the flaws in the mind-over-matter model that Walter’s story seems to tell.

While being empowered is certainly important, insisting that we can apply a can-do attitude to all the body’s vagaries and ailments implies that living with less than perfection is just not an option. The implication is that if something is broken, it absolutely must be fixed. If you can’t fix it, then you just must not be trying hard enough. Walt’s decisions stem from a fundamental desire to be the one doing the breaking, rather than the one who has to live with the uncertainty of being perceived as broken. Until his family pressures him to get medical help, he seems to prefer death to the dependency that he associates with chronic illness and disability.

Walter’s disdain for the weakness he associates with illness seems to insulate him as everyone around him deals with bodies that don’t do what they are told. Skyler’s surprise pregnancy, Flynn’s cerebral palsy, Hank’s life-altering injury, and Jane’s misbehaving gag reflex all render them vulnerable to the man whose control over his environment is so complete that stage 3 non-operable lung cancer is no match for his badassery.

In the face of such superhuman control, Flynn’s disability in particular has likely always felt to Walt like one of the unfair strikes against the perfection he seems to think he’s due. Indeed one of Walt’s first transformative moments — often considered the birth of his alter ego Heisenberg — comes as he strikes out in rage against bullies who had been mocking Flynn’s need for assistance in a clothes store.

It is an undeniably satisfying moment when the nebbishy Walter White takes down the biggest of the bullies. With his newfound power, he can master his son’s disability, or at the very least the painful social responses to it. “What’s the matter, chief,” he asks the bully as he grinds his heel into his leg, “having trouble walking?” The scene brings with it a sense of vigilante empathy. By impairing the bully’s leg, Walter gives him a taste of his son’s disability: He might as well be asking, “Do you want to feel what’s it’s like, punk?”

But Walter White’s flat-out run into the arms of Heisenberg is powerful testimony to just how badly he doesn’t want to feel what it’s like. His successful “battle” against cancer, his canny entrepreneurship, his ruthless empire-building, all reinforce the idea that a real man, a real American, makes it all himself, his body just one more tool in the arsenal he controls. Like the meth addicts his empire creates and destroys, he cannot tolerate the discomfort of living in an often-painful reality. Like an addict chasing that high that won’t crash, he convinces himself that after just one more scheme, one more death, he will have fixed everything perfectly.

I can’t help feeling that Walter White’s story — or at least the one he likes to tell himself — owes as much to the transcendentalists as to Tarantino. While Walter’s cabin in the woods evokes Thoreau’s Walden, and his initials disastrously evoke those of Walt Whitman, Heisenberg’s philosophy is perhaps best summed up by yet another of the transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson. His famous essay “Self Reliance” explicitly divides the realms of self-made men from both children and the disabled:
And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
For Walter White, manhood means not just being a redeemer and benefactor (after all, he’s doing it for his family, right?) but a conqueror of the chaos and darkness that comes with being embodied, with being human. Walter’s sense of entitlement, which undeniably finds its purchase in having a white male body, also resides in the belief that only an able body is worth having. He, unlike those trapped within the realm of “minors and invalids,” will accept only a body that doesn’t require thinking about at all.

So it is particularly fitting that Heisenberg is taken down by a crew of invalids and minors. Hank, still recovering from profound injury, undoes the meth kingpin by finding a book by the “other W.W.,” Walter Whitman. Within Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” — the title itself a reference to the reality that we’re all going to wind up pushing up daisies someday — is the famous poem “Song of Myself,” a title that would likely appeal to a character who has had narco corridos sung in his honor, and who demands that even business associates sing his praises, or at least say his name. But anyone who knows Walt Whitman, and in particular his “Song of Myself,” knows that Heisenberg couldn’t find a less complementary counterpoint. As a white man in the 19th century, Whitman revels in finding connection with those whose bodies render them subjects of disdain, of powerlessness, and exclusion:
Through me many long dumb voices;
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves;
Voices of prostitutes, of deform’d persons;
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs;
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars--and of wombs, and of the father stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon;
Of the trivial flat, foolish, despised
Fog, in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

Walt, rolling his barrel full of dumb, useless cash through the desert, would have done well to listen to the other “W.W.” He is undone by the relics of man who wrote that the only “song of myself” that’s worth telling, the only one that has a hope of lasting, is the one that is about something other than yourself.

If Walt Whitman’s giddy embrace of the body’s imperfections set the scene for Heisenberg’s discovery, it is Walt Jr. who brings his career to a definitive end. In Emerson’s terms, both a minor and an invalid, Flynn is the only character who never gets sucked into Heisenberg’s justifications, never becomes complicit in Heisenberg’s assurance that he can work it all out, never decides to keep the secret to himself to come out looking better in the end. In one of the show’s most wrenching moments, Flynn ends the mad chase begun with Hank’s discovery of Walt Whitman’s poems by doing what Walter White was never able to do — he calls for help.

Flynn’s choice to ask for help is what dismantles Heisenberg’s plan to beat both death and the law. And it’s Flynn, whose disability has taught him that neither his life nor his body will ever be perfect, who squashes his father’s last-ditch scheme to send some money home. “Why aren’t you dead already?” he screams at his sick and desperate would-be benefactor. Flynn’s brutal question asks out loud what he suspects strangers, bullies and likely his father have silently asked themselves about him. In a world that demands perfection, it’s better to be a criminal than to be a supplicant, and for Heisenberg, it’s better to be dead than disabled. If Walter White, the great manipulator both of chemicals and of people, could have learned from the son he likely deemed a burden, he would have learned that living with brokenness is the only hope any of us have of beating back chaos and the dark.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Aaron Anderson - Five Signs a Man Needs to See a Counselor

From the Good Men Project, Aaron Anderson offers five signs that we might need to seek out therapy. I agree for the most part - and none of the reasons given here are indicative of serious psychological symptoms (like suicidality, audio hallucinations, panic attacks, or dissociation).

When I began therapy, it was because I was unhappy with my life, my relationships, and my future. Therapy helped me know who I am, understand how I had come to that point in my life, and how to change the things I was not happy with in my life.

Counseling can save your life, but it can also help you find the life you have always wanted to live.

Five Signs a Man Needs to See a Counselor

September 22, 2013
by Aaron Anderson

Men aren’t supposed to go to counseling, they’re supposed to be tougher than that, right?

For a lot of men, the thought of going to a counselor for therapy is silly. It’s just not part of the man code to go and see a counselor. Seeing a counselor means talking about feelings and your childhood and there’s always the potential of the counselor telling you that your problems are occurring because you’re still in love with your mother. It’s no wonder then, why a lot of men don’t seek out counseling. And then there’s always the question of ‘do I need therapy anyway’? Everyone goes through rough spots. But how do you know when you need therapy? Let’s take a look.

Five signs a man needs to see a counselor.

1) The ‘rough patch’ stays rough for a while. Everybody goes through rough patches now and again. Whether it’s a rough time at work, a rough time in your marriage or a rough patch in life. But if these rough patches stay rough for a while you probably ought to see a counselor. You could wait it out, but what’s the point? Seeing a counselor sooner than later ensures that you get back on track sooner and start enjoying life sooner, too.

2) Your wife/mother/significant other suggests counseling. As a counselor who specializes in marriage counseling, I dread phone calls from men. I dread them because they usually go something like this: Me: Hello? Him: Hi, I need to set up an appointment for my wife and I to come to counseling. She’s been threatening to divorce me for three years and she finally left this morning. Do you have any appointments later today? Me: I have an appointment for later this week if that will help. Him: Okay. Great. Let me call my wife and see if she’ll come.

They normally don’t call back. The ones who do call back are just being courteous to tell me that their wife has gone to the courthouse for the divorce papers and won’t be needing my services after all. Men, do yourselves a favor and go to counseling the FIRST time your wife/mother/significant other suggests it.

3) You want more out of life. In his book Real Boys by William Pollack, PhD, Dr. Pollack talks about the ‘boy code’ that we hear as young men. As young men we often hear to sit down, shut up, and don’t complain. We’re also told to suck it up, don’t cry and move on. So as grown men we often feel like we can’t want more out of life because we just have to suck it up and accept our life as it is. But counseling is a great way to get exactly what you want out of life and get the tools you need to get there. You may have to talk about your feelings but you shed those unwanted burdens that are keeping you down. And you get exactly what you want out of your life in the mean time, too.

4) You’re easily irritated. Men display mental health difficulties differently than women do. Women internalize their difficulties by feeling sad, quiet and guilty. Men are much more external in their displays of mental difficulty. This means they get irritated at others more, become more aggressive and even become physical at times. If this isn’t how you normally react to stress and you’re reacting this way more and more it’s time to see a counselor. If you do normally react this way to stress, you still need to see a counselor.

5) You just want to be left alone for extended periods of time. Everybody goes through spells where they just want to be left alone for a few hours, night a day or a weekend. But if you find yourself day after day just wanting to be left alone by your wife, kids and colleagues at work it’s time to see a counselor. Being left alone is a temporary solution. Sometimes being left alone temporarily is all you need to get your mind back in the game and get a fresh perspective on how to fix things. But if you find yourself wanting to be left alone day after day after day, that’s a big red flag that something more serious is going on.

Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma about seeing a counselor. And for some reason, many men wait until the last minute or just don’t go at all. But a real man does whatever a man has to do in order to be a man; including going to counseling.

About Aaron Anderson
Aaron Anderson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. He also writes for several publications online and in print all on the topic of marriages, families and men. In his spare time (whatever that is) he is secretly preparing to be the next great chef. You can find him on Twitter @MarriageDr and on Facebook giving great info without the psychobabble.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Men Are People and Women are Women

This collection of links from Bookforum's Omnivore blog is from the first week of the month, but there are some useful and interesting links here with which to waste some time.

Men are people and women are women

Sep 3 2013

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fr. Richard Rohr - Simplicity as a Path to Social Justice

Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition. He is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard's teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy--practices of contemplation and lived kenosis (self-emptying), expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.
The passage below is from his daily meditations email, which one can sign up for at his site. He is wonderful teacher of the Christian dharma.

Simplicity As Central
Meditation 8 of 51

We are all complicit in and benefitting from what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system.” That’s not condemning anybody; it’s condemning everybody because we are all complicit in and enjoying the fruits of domination and injustice. (Where were your shirts and underwear made? What wars allow us to have cheap food and gas?) Usually the only way to be really non-complicit in the system is to choose to live a very simple life. That’s the only way out of the system!

Thus most of the great wisdom teachers like Gandhi, Saints Francis and Clare, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Jesus and Buddha—lived voluntarily simple lives. That’s almost the only way to stop bending the knee before the system. This is a truly transfigured life in cultures which today are almost always based on climbing, consumption, and competition (1 John 2:15-17).

Once we idealize social climbing, domination of others, status symbols, power, prestige, and possessions, we are part of a never-ending game that is almost impossible to escape. It has its own inner logic that is self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self-congratulating, as well as elitist and exclusionary. It will never create a just or happy world, yet most Christians never call it into question. Jesus came to free us from this lie, which will never make us happy anyway, because it’s never enough, and we never completely win.

Adapted from Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil
(CD, DVD, MP3)

The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available
in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . .

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mark McManus's 10 Reasons We Should Eat More Broccoli


Mark McManus (of MuscleHack) gives 10 excellent reasons to make broccoli a more consistent part of out diets. Because I am dedicated to your health, especially the male readers, I am going to give you 2 additional reasons to eat more broccoli.

11. Cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower all contain diindolylmethane (or DIM), a plant indole that helps the body metabolize estrogens (eliminate them, especially estrodial and 16-hydroxy estrogens) more efficiently. Consumption of cruciferous vegetables has been associated with risk reduction for several estrogen-related cancers, including prostate cancer.

12. Broccoli contains other chemicals, glucosinolates, including glucoraphanin, that are known anti-cancer nutrients. Researchers have also found that those who consumed glucoraphanin-rich vegetable showed signs of an improved metabolism

And now on to the article.

10 Top Reasons You Need Broccoli In Your Diet

by Mark McManus on September 18, 2013 updated September 18, 2013

Want to get healthy or even lose weight? Broccoli needs to be included in your diet.

Here’s 10 reasons why broccoli is good for you!

(1) Broccoli is the king of low carb vegetables – 1.1 grams of net carbohydrate per 100g! (after fiber subtracted) Sometimes I fill my plate up with broccoli and drench it in melted butter or cheese.

(2) A chemical in vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage can boost DNA repair in cells and may stop them becoming cancerous

(3) Eating steamed broccoli reduces the risk of a heart attack by boosting the body’s ability to fight off cell damage, researchers have found.

(4) Did you know broccoli contains more vitamin C than an orange? (ounce for ounce) Vitamin C is great for your hair, skin, teeth, fighting infections and keeping red blood cells healthy.

(5) Did you know broccoli contains as much calcium as a glass of milk? (ounce for ounce) Calcium helps to keep you heart beating regularly and promotes sleep.

(6) Broccoli is also a good source of folate. Folate is necessary for the production and maintenance of new cells.

(7) Broccoli is also a good source of iron. Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin and, therefore, iron is required for normal blood formation and oxygen transport around the body.

(8) Broccoli is also a great source of fiber.

(9) Broccoli is also a good source of potassium. Potassium plays an important role in the physical fluid system of humans and it assists nerve functions.

(10) Broccoli is also a good source of vitamin K. Vitamin K is known to be needed to coagulate blood and to maintain proper bone density. It also plays a key role in proper development of the fetus.

If you’re gonna eat low-carb, broccoli should be a regular feature in your diet. Whether you’re focused on gaining muscle or losing fat, broccoli will greatly assist you in your goal.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Aggression in Boys May Start Before Birth (McGill University)

This new(ish) study from McGill University looked at the epigenetic genesis of some behavioral issues in boys and discovered that the cause can often be traced back to the pregnancy.

Their study revealed that men who displayed chronic aggressive behavior between the ages of 6 and 15 had lower blood levels of four biomarkers of inflammation (cytokines) than in men who displayed "normal" levels of aggressive behavior in their youth (from the original paper).
Compared to the control group, males on a chronic physical aggression trajectory from childhood to adolescence had consistently lower plasma levels of five cytokines: lower pro-inflammatory interleukins IL-1α (T(28.7) = 3.48, P = 0.002) and IL-6 (T(26.9) = 3.76, P = 0.001), lower anti-inflammatory interleukin IL-4 (T(27.1) = 4.91, P = 0.00004) and IL-10 (T(29.8) = 2.84, P = 0.008) and lower chemokine IL-8 (T(26) = 3.69, P = 0.001).
This allowed researchers to distinguish between men with physically aggressive histories from men without such histories simply on the basis of four cytokines (IL-1α, IL-4, IL-6, and IL-8).

In a follow-up study with the same men with aggressive pasts, "the DNA encoding the cytokines showed methylation patterns different from those of the comparison group."

Methylation is an epigenetic modification of DNA in relation to imprinting by parents or caregivers. Methylation also plays a role in regulating gene expression (turning a gene on or off). 

According to the researchers, the prenatal and early postnatal environment may trigger these epigenetic shifts that cause reduced levels of the four specific cytokines associated with youthful aggression.

The authors speculate in the discussion on the connection between specific cytokines and various brain chemicals, specifically serotonin and cortisol (from the original paper):
First, high cortisol levels were found to be associated with high levels of aggression in adolescent males from the same sample [41]. Cortisol levels are known to regulate immune and inflammatory responses [42]. Second, Vasopressin, a mediator of the HPA axis activity released in the brain enhances arousal and aggression [43]. Brain vasopressin is also involved in stress-induced suppression of immune functions in rats [44], [45]. Third, serotonin, a key player in aggressive behavior, is induced by cytokines, such as IL-6 and IL-1β, in brain and in blood [46][48]. Serotonin is also known to be involved in regulating IL-4, IL-8, IL-6, TNF-α and IL-1 expression and secretion through the CREB signaling pathway [49], [50]. Together, these studies suggest a link between known mediators previously shown to be involved in aggression and cytokines.
More importantly, the researchers suggest:
There is good evidence that the parents of children on a high trajectory of physical aggression had similar behavior problems and created early childhood family environments which did not support learning to regulate physically aggressive reactions [4], [10][14].

As is often the case, aggression is a family issue and is usually intergenerational. The fundamental question, as always, is causality: "Does chronic aggression during childhood result in lowered cytokine activity or does lowered cytokine activity result in more aggression?"

This is an excellent study and worth the time to read. Below is a summary of the research from Futurity, followed by the abstract of the original study.

Aggression in boys may start before birth

Posted by Cynthia Lee-McGill on September 23, 2013

"If our results show that behavioral problems originate from as far back as pregnancy, it means that we can reduce violence through preventive intervention from as early as pregnancy," says Richard Tremblay. (Credit: Peter Dutton/Flickr)

McGill University -- Original Study (PLoS ONE)

Chronic aggressive behavior exhibited by some boys from disadvantaged families may be due to epigenetic changes during pregnancy and early childhood.

A new study shows that men who displayed chronic aggressive behavior during childhood and adolescence have lower blood levels of four biomarkers of inflammation than in men who exhibited average levels of aggressive behavior in their youth, from 6 to 15 years of age.

“This means that using four specific biomarkers of inflammation, called cytokines, we were able to distinguish men with chronic physical aggression histories from those without,” says Richard Tremblay, professor emeritus at the University of Montreal.

In a second study, in the same men with aggressive pasts, the DNA encoding the cytokines showed methylation patterns different from those of the comparison group.

“Methylation is an epigenetic modification—hence reversible—of DNA, in relation to parental imprinting. It plays a role in regulating gene expression,”says Moshe Szyf, a professor at McGill University.

“The pre- and postnatal environment could cause these differences in biomarkers associated with chronic aggression,” Szyf says.

Various studies conducted with animals show that hostile environments during pregnancy and early childhood have an impact on gene methylation and gene programming leading to problems with brain development, particularly in regard to the control of aggressive behavior.

Begins with mom?

Previous work suggests that men with aggressive pasts have one thing in common: the characteristics of their mothers.

“They are usually young mothers at the birth of their first child, with low education, often suffering from mental health problems, and with substance use problems,” Tremblay says.

The significant difficulties these mothers experienced during pregnancy and the early childhood of their child may have an impact on the expression of genes related to brain development, the immune system, and many other biological systems critical for the development of their child.

For the two studies, published in PLOS ONE, researchers collected blood from 32 participants who took part in either of two longitudinal studies that began nearly 30 years ago. The first study followed young Quebecers from disadvantaged backgrounds, while the second involved a representative sample of children who were in kindergarten in Quebec in 1986-87.

It is important to note that in disadvantaged families, the rate of boys with chronic aggressive behavior represents about 4 percent of the population. This greatly restricts the selection of potential participants.

Disorganized lifestyles

“Once they are adults, they are difficult to find because they have disorganized lifestyles,” Tremblay says. “We are studying the impact of the socioeconomic environment on the third generation, now that these children are grown up and have children.”

While no study has yet been published on the subject, he anticipates “significant intergenerational ties, since we observed an association between parental criminality of the first generation and the behavior of their children.”

Nevertheless, Tremblay, who has conducted his work for decades with a prevention perspective, is optimistic.

“If our results show that behavioral problems originate from as far back as pregnancy, it means that we can reduce violence through preventive intervention from as early as pregnancy. We have already shown that support given to families of aggressive boys in kindergarten prevents school dropout and crime in adulthood.”
* * * * *

Here is the abstract of the original article from PLoS ONE, available as an open access publication and downloadable as a PDF.

Childhood Chronic Physical Aggression Associates with Adult Cytokine Levels in Plasma

Nadine Provençal, Matthew J. Suderman, Frank Vitaro, Moshe Szyf, Richard E. Tremblay 



An increasing number of animal and human studies are indicating that inflammation is associated with behavioral disorders including aggression. This study investigates the association between chronic physical aggression during childhood and plasma cytokine levels in early adulthood.

Methodology/Principal Findings

Two longitudinal studies were used to select males on a chronic physical aggression trajectory from childhood to adolescence (n = 7) and a control group from the same background (n = 25). Physical aggression was assessed yearly by teachers from childhood to adolescence and plasma levels of 10 inflammatory cytokines were assessed at age 26 and 28 years. Compared to the control group, males on a chronic physical aggression trajectory from childhood to adolescence had consistently lower plasma levels of five cytokines: lower pro-inflammatory interleukins IL-1α (T(28.7) = 3.48, P = 0.002) and IL-6 (T(26.9) = 3.76, P = 0.001), lower anti-inflammatory interleukin IL-4 (T(27.1) = 4.91, P = 0.00004) and IL-10 (T(29.8) = 2.84, P = 0.008) and lower chemokine IL-8 (T(26) = 3.69, P = 0.001). The plasma levels of four cytokines accurately predicted aggressive and control group membership for all subjects.


Physical aggression of boys during childhood is a strong predictor of reduced plasma levels of cytokines in early adulthood. The causal and physiological relations underlying this association should be further investigated since animal data suggest that some cytokines such as IL-6 and IL-1β play a causal role in aggression.

Full Citation: 
Provençal N, Suderman MJ, Vitaro F, Szyf M, Tremblay RE. (2013, Jul 26), Childhood Chronic Physical Aggression Associates with Adult Cytokine Levels in Plasma. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069481

Monday, September 23, 2013

Men Are More Scared of Going BALD than Becoming Impotent

This is a study of British men, but I suspect this is also true of most American men. Personally, I would not might at all going bald if it meant I never became impotent. Interestingly, more men are also concerned about going gray than about losing their teeth. Really? You can dye your hair, but once your teeth are gone, they're gone.

It's so interesting how men (people in general) are more concerned about their physical appearance than their physical function. That's more than a little strange to me.

Men are more scared of going BALD than becoming impotent
  • 94% of men fear going bald while 89% worry about impotence

  • 61% worry about losing their teeth and 64% are concerned about getting fat

  • A third are also scared of going deaf while 45% are afraid of needing very thick glasses

By Emma Innes

PUBLISHED: 20 September 2013

There are many undesirable side effects of aging and now new research has revealed which ones strike the most fear into youthful hearts.

A survey has found that men in the UK fear going bald more than they dread impotence.

Two thousand men were quizzed about their biggest fears about aging and ending up with a ‘cue ball’ head came out top.

Some 89 per cent of men fear becoming impotent as they get older. Men also worry about putting on weight, needing thick glasses, going deaf and losing their teeth

Being bald beat being impotent, having bad breath, middle-aged spread and needing thick glasses as the thing that men fear most.

Overall, 94 per cent of men questioned said they worry about going bald - compared to 89 per cent who said being impotent was their greatest concern.

‘Going bald is a frightening prospect for most men,’ said HIS Hair Clinics’ Ian Watson.

‘It’s an open invitation for baldie jokes and snide remarks for everyone from family to strangers in the pub, and it’s just too personal to be funny.

‘I lost my hair in my 20s. I’ve had countless people rub my head like a lucky Buddha, and been called everything from baldilocks to Fester.

‘It wears thin pretty quickly, and soon became downright upsetting.’
  • 94% worry about going bald
  • 89% are scared of becoming impotent
  • 75% are worried about going grey
  • 64% are scared of getting fat
  • 61% fear losing their teeth
  • 45% dread needing ‘jam jar’ glasses
  • 31% are scared of going deaf
  • 24% are frightened of getting bad breath
The survey asked men in the UK what aspects of ageing they feared most.

Sixty per cent feared losing their teeth, a third were also scared of going deaf, 24 per cent feared bad breath and 64 per cent worried about getting fat.

The thought of getting grey hair scared three quarters of men while 45 per cent were scared of needing ‘jam jar’ glasses.

While hair loss for women is rightly seen as a tragic and upsetting situation, men are often expected to ‘get on with it’, said psychotherapist, Toni Mackenzie.

She said: ‘Hair loss can be genuinely distressing for men. It can’t be easily disguised and people do seem to think it’s fair game for jokes, unlike things like putting on weight or going grey.

‘Men who lose their hair are expected to adopt a laissez-faire attitude and take insults with good humour. The pressure this causes can have a huge effect on men’s self-confidence, which has knock-on effects on their physical and mental wellbeing.’

Mr Watson added: ‘Other than wearing a hat - which you can’t do all the time - there’s not a lot that can be done to hide a completely bald head, unless you spend the cash on a treatment like scalp micro-pigmentation.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Men Who Cheat - Does Biology Override Psychology?

A recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that men may actually cheat in relationships more than women, but they attribute it to a more powerful biological sex impulse and not to an inability to keep their zipper zipped.

Part of this paper (Study 1) featured 218 Mechanical Turk (an Amazon service that pays per task) users (70 men, 148 women) who were 32.3 years old on average (SD= 11.6, range=18-70). According to this study, men were slightly more likely than women to act on self-described inappropriate attractions.

BUT, part of this paper (Study 2) was conducted with college-aged subjects (326 men, 274 women) with a median age of 18.6 (SD-0.84) - the time in a man's life when testosterone is high and common sense is low, not to mention the peer pressure to hook-up and the greater percentage of females willing to settle for a hook-up. It was this portion of the study that determined men have greater sexual impulses and not a lack of willpower.

Despite the paper under discussion being based on two different studies, it seems that any attempt to expand these results to incorporate men in general is short-sighted and reductionist. If they conducted the same studies with men and women in the 28-32 cohort, as well as a 38-42, 48-52, and 58-62 cohort, for example, they could then begin to see an "average" disposition for men across their sexually active years.

Personally, I might attribute cheating college guys less to the power of their sex drive and more to the prevalent idea that college is where you sow your wild oats, don't get involved in long-term relationships, and party as much as possible.

Anyway . . . summary below from Science 2.0 and then the abstract to the article. The whole article is freely available online - here.

Do Men Cheat More Than Women? If So, It May Be Biological, Says Psychologist

By News Staff | September 22nd 2013
A recently published paper strongly suggests men succumb to sexual temptations more than women — for example, cheating on a partner or stealing a girl from another guy — because they experience strong sexual impulses, not because they have weak self-control. At least when it comes to those of college age.

Previous papers have said that men are more likely than women to pursue romantic partners that are "off limits" but there has been no real theoretical explanation for this sex difference.

One possible explanation for this effect is that men experience stronger sexual impulses than women do. A second possibility is that women have better self-control than men. The current paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin supports the former explanation and provide new insight into humans' evolutionary origins.

"Overall, these studies suggest that men are more likely to give in to sexual temptations because they tend to have stronger sexual impulse strength than women do," says lead author Natasha Tidwell, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. "But when people exercise self-control in a given situation, this sex difference in behavior is greatly reduced. It makes sense that self-control, which has relatively recent evolutionary origins compared to sexual impulses, would work similarly — and as effectively — for both men and women."

Results were determined by two separate experiments: the first, to determine how the sexes reacted to real-life sexual temptations in their past and, the second, to pick apart sexual impulses and self-control using a rapid-fire reaction time task.

In order to test their first hypothesis, researchers recruited 218 (70 male, 148 female) study participants, who were first asked to recall and describe an attraction to an unavailable or incompatible member of the opposite sex. They then answered survey questions designed to measure strength of sexual impulse, attempts to intentionally control the sexual impulse, and resultant behaviors.

"When men reflected on their past sexual behavior, they reported experiencing relatively stronger impulses and acting on those impulses more than women did," says Tidwell. However, men and women did not differ in the extent to which they exerted self-control. "When men and women said they actually did exert self-control in sexual situations, impulse strength didn't predict how much either sex would actually engage in 'off-limits' sex."

"Men have plenty of self-control — just as much as women," says senior author Paul W. Eastwick. "However, if men fail to use self-control, their sexual impulses can be quite strong. This is often the situation when cheating occurs."

In order to measure the strength of sexual impulse relative to the strength of impulse control, the researchers recruited 600 undergraduate students (326 men, 274 women) to participate in a "Partner Selection Game."

Participants were very briefly shown images of opposite-sex individuals; the images were tagged either "good for you" or "bad for you." Participants were asked to accept or reject potential partners based on the computer-generated "good for you" or "bad for you" prompt. While they were shown photographs of both desirable and undesirable individuals, participants were instructed to make acceptance and rejection choices based on the computer-generated tags.

In some trials, participants were asked to accept desirable and reject undesirable individuals; in other trials, participants were asked to go against their inclinations by rejecting desirable individuals and accepting undesirable individuals.

Men experienced a much stronger impulse to "accept" the desirable rather than the undesirable partners, and this impulse partially explained why men performed worse on the task than women did. However, this same procedure estimates people's ability to exert control over their responses, and men did not demonstrate a poorer ability to control their responses relative to women.
Full Citation: 
Tidwell ND, and Eastwick PW. (2013, Aug 22). Sex Differences in Succumbing to Sexual Temptations A Function of Impulse or Control? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin;
XX(X), 1–14. doi: 10.1177/0146167213499614


Men succumb to sexual temptations (e.g., infidelity, mate poaching) more than women. Explanations for this effect vary; some researchers propose that men and women differ in sexual impulse strength, whereas others posit a difference in sexual self-control. These studies are the first to test such underlying mechanisms. In Study 1, participants reported on their impulses and intentional control exertion when they encountered a real-life tempting but forbidden potential partner. Study 2 required participants to perform a reaction-time task in which they accepted/rejected potential partners, and we used process dissociation to separate the effects of impulse and control. In both studies, men succumbed to the sexual temptations more than women, and this sex difference emerged because men experienced stronger impulses, not because they exerted less intentional control. Implications for the integration of evolutionary and self-regulatory perspectives on sex differences are discussed.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Masculine Identity in Breaking Bad

When Breaking Bad began its story, Walter White was a meek, under-achieving everyman who teaches high school chemistry to uninterested kids and who is diagnosed with lung cancer. We sympathize and we like him. Even when discovers a way to leave some money for his family (he assumes the cancer will kill him sooner or later) by cooking methamphetamine, we still like him because we sense a man pushed to the brink who is desperate to be a good husband and a good father, and that means, in part, taking care of his family financially.

As a fan of the show, I was horrified (for lack of better word) when Walt stood by and did nothing while Jesse’s girlfriend Jane died (end of the second season). Jesse is Walt's partner in cooking the meth, and until Walt decides to go big with his pure blue meth, Jesse handled the street side of things, setting up a ring of dealers to peddle their chemistry project.

Hank and Walt

Jesse is a former student of Walt's and for most of the now five seasons he still calls him Mr. White, and this simple act serves to support and reinforce the power differential between the two men. In large part, Walt (and later Mike) are surrogate fathers for Jesse. We learn a while into the show that Jesse comes from a well-off family where he has been the scapegoat or the exile - the one who holds most of the pain and raw emotions and often acts out as a form of rebellion against being exiled.

And Jesse is literally exiled from his family, who appear to have put him in rehab a couple of times, but have largely asked him not to come around. Which is why he looks to "Mr. White" as a kind of father figure, and also why he is the one of the two men who is capable of feelings and feels horrified by some the things they have done (especially the killing).

Gus, Jesse, Walt, Mike

I could go on and on - and one day I might. The relationships between the men on the show is interesting and worth exploration. The main dyads are Walt and Jesse, Walt and Junior (his son, Walter, Jr.), Walt and Hank (Walt's hyper-masculine, DEA agent brother-in-law), Jesse and Hank (enemies, who find common ground as the show draws to a close), and Jesse and Mike, (an enforcer for Gus, who was a major player in the drug trade, and who Walt eventually kills in his first power-grab - he also kills Mike, which is devastating to Jesse). Even the relationship between Gus and Walt is interesting for what it says about men and power.

For those who are interested in this topic, the below article was first published at Huffington Post and then at the Good Men Project. Also check out this article from NPR on Death and Walter White.

‘Breaking Bad’ and the Foolishness of Masculinity

September 20, 2013 by Pete Strauss

The male characters of AMC’s hit series deconstructed. Is male pride a destructive influence?

Breaking Bad is but a few episodes from completion and it’s hard to say anything about it that has not been said, but I bravely intend to do so anyhow. In recent weeks, there has been much discussion of the lack of strong female characters (which I personally think does the show a bit of a disservice), but not enough has been made of the show’s persistent and fierce criticism of masculinity that has permeated the show throughout the five-season run.

Walter White’s descent (or ascent depending on how you view it) from a justifiable anti-hero to a loathsome villain has been gradual. Vince Gilligan described the character’s transformation as “protagonist to antagonist,” and when we first meet Walter as the protagonist, he has lived a life forever repressed and stripped of the limited power available to him. His family affairs up until this point have been predominantly controlled by Skyler, he teaches chemistry to a largely indifferent group of teenagers and his brother-in-law Hank represents a cliched hyper-masculinity that serves to diminish Walt’s already lowly status further.

So when he finds an area in which he can assert dominance and power, his ego grows exponentially. The decreased empathy that we feel for Walt runs in tandem with his acts being less about selflessness or basic self-preservation and infinitely more to do with retaining power in an industry in which callousness and violence are prerequisites. Walt becomes obsessed with his manhood, even going as far as to purchase a car wash in order to spite the owner for a perceived slight that occurred sometime beforehand. The zenith of Walt’s egomania is perhaps typified with the memorable “say my name” scene. This scene exemplifies the transformation from the timidity and nervousness of Walter White into the arrogance and ruthlessness of Heisenberg; the conversion from protagonist to antagonist is complete.

Hank’s character starts life as a stereotype of masculinity, a jock. He subscribes to a largely outmoded but still prevalent criteria of what it means to be a man. At family gatherings, he frequently takes the time to emasculate Walt and assert a dominance within the family that had previously gone unchallenged in Walt’s pre-Heisenberg days. However, as the show develops, the characters develop as well, and before long, Hank becomes much more than a caricature, but rather a rounded, three-dimensional character. Perhaps more than any other character in the show, Hank is obsessed with the projection of masculinity; from his home-brewed Schraderbrau to his job at the DEA, he seeks to emanate a brashness and confidence. However, rooted in his masculinity are deep-seated insecurities and anxiety attacks that impede his judgement.

Hank’s sense of himself is almost completely based around basic tenants of what he views to be essential to being a male. His own masculinity is perhaps at its most destructive when refusing money for treatment that would enable him to walk again, which echoes Walt’s own refusal of monetary help for his cancer treatment from his former business partner. Masculinity in these instances is associated with a detrimental desire to be self-sufficient. Indeed, had Walt swallowed his pride at this early stage, then he would have saved everyone a lot of bother.

Jesse is by far the most tragic character in Breaking Bad. The initial projection of youthful overconfidence and independence gives way to a lost boy desperately in need of the father-figure that has been sorely absent in his turbulent life. At different stages of the plot, he comes to see Walt and Mike as paternal figures, but it’s his persistent reference to Walt as Mr. White that gives an indication of the perverse and manipulative relationship between the two. It is no coincidence that the character that seems most troubled with the morality of his actions is also the character that has long eschewed the facade of masculinity. Jesse is also one of the few male characters that seems willing to discuss his feelings and not act with the apparent indifference or stoicism of which Hank and Walt are both guilty.

As the series hurtles to a close, it is becoming very apparent that its creators seek to portray male pride as a destructive influence. The large yet fragile egos of all of the male characters at some point or another leads to miscalculations or seemingly needlessly vindictive acts. Time and again, the damaged pride and vanity of the male characters cause them to act without logic and—at their most destructive—extreme violence. Between Walt’s angry desire to be a “pursuer rather than pursued” and Hank’s desperate need to create the illusion of self-sufficiency, it becomes clear that masculinity is twinned with the wholly negative traits of the male characters within the show.

Originally published at The Huffington Post

Area Man Unsure If He’s Male-Bonding Or Being Bullied

As is usual, The Onion is on top of things, which one would expect from America's Finest News Source. Male bonding is a mystery for the local man (Appleton, WI) in this article, but it seems a little, well, kind of, you know . . . like bullying.

Here's his story.

Area Man Unsure If He’s Male-Bonding Or Being Bullied

ISSUE 49•38 • Sept 19, 2013

Area Man Unsure If He’s Male-Bonding Or Being Bullied

APPLETON, WI—Perplexed local man Russell Chambliss has no idea if the coworkers seated with him at Malone’s Irish Tavern are attempting to forge a male bond with him or cruelly harassing him, the 26-year-old shipping clerk told reporters Wednesday evening. “When Bill called me ‘limp dick’ and punched my shoulder, I wasn’t sure if he was insulting me or just being friendly, but everyone else was smiling and laughing, so I smiled back,” said Chambliss, adding that he has also been called “fucker” several times, which feels like bullying even though the whole group seems to be referring to one another as “fucker.” “I wish I could figure out whether I’m being included or excluded. When Jeff burped loudly in my ear while I was playing pinball, I was torn between storming off angrily and buying the next round. And when they asked how my ‘piece of ass’ was doing, I couldn’t tell if they were trying to compliment my wife or were just being degrading.” At press time, the group was reportedly exiting the bar as one of Chambliss’ coworkers said, “See you next time, pussy,” leaving him to wonder whether they actually wanted to hang out with him again or were just being sarcastic.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is Norway Turning Little Boys into Little Girls?

Norway has some of the most gender equal laws, cultural norms, and educational structures in the world. In another Scandinavian country, Sweden, one political party wants to legislate that men urinate sitting down.

Now, a new study of young boys (6-12) shows that these boys are more open with their feelings, and at the youngest levels (6-8), the boys engaged in "positive touching," such as holding hands at recess and scratching each others backs.

Still, the older boys (9-12) had to be wary of being called "gay" or otherwise "effeminate," so it's unclear if they youngest boys will adopt these beliefs and behaviors as they age, or if they represent a new model of masculinity.

This part of the study is great to see.
Physical strength, excelling at football and wearing fashionable clothes could win popularity points. But the most important factor for securing a high position in the boys’ hierarchy was being a nice guy – someone who is kind, funny, extroverted and relaxed with a “good personality”.

On the other hand, these same boys have become extremely body conscious. They have also taken on the traditionally female concern with body image (fitness) and appearance. A boy’s position in the "hierarchy" determines how much flexibility he has to be fashionable or try new looks.

“The fear of being called ‘gay’ works like kryptonite on the boys’ attempt to construct their masculinity,” explains Overå.

Boys have to care about their appearance (for example, using hair wax seems to be a requisite part of daily grooming), or risk being considered lazy or nerdish. But those boys who who care too much about their appearance risk being called feminine or gay.

However, according to the authors, two of the coolest boys wore eyeliner. But a less popular boy could not do this and get away with it. Social status seems to provide more latitude in how boys express their masculinity.

Another more concerning issue, at least to me, is that despite all of these changes, it is not "cool" for boys to care about their studies and their education. They have to minimize the time they spend studying in order to, apparently, (1) make it look effortless, and (2) hide the fact that they study hard and grades matter. This seems to apply to their appearance as well:
“The boys did a great deal of unseen work, both with regard to their appearance and to their schoolwork. Many of them worked a lot at home, but claimed before a test, for example, that they had only studied for five minutes. They had to hide how much it meant to them to do well and look good, and how much effort they put into it.”
In general, it seems the trend toward greater gender equality in Norway and other Scandinavian countries is a good thing. However, it is concerning that it appears to also be instilling in these boys some of the issues with appearance and popularity that girls have long struggled with - issues that we know leads to eating disorders (or use of steroids in teen boys) and other mental health challenges.

Gender equality creates new school boys

19 September 2013
KILDEN - Information Centre for Gender Research in Norway

Boys in primary school talk about their feelings and hold hands. And they are very, very concerned about their bodies and appearance.

According to new Norwegian research, decades of gender equality measures have helped to change children’s upbringing and their understanding of gender.

“It’s not that boys used to be naughty and now they are nice,” says Stian Overå.

“But compared with previous classroom research, I’ve found a change in how boys relate to emotions. Being personal and talking about feelings was not problematic or feminine in their eyes. It was almost an ideal. And it was more important to be kind than to be strong.”

Overå, a social anthropologist, recently defended his doctoral thesis on gender in primary schools. For an entire year he followed two groups of pupils aged 6–12 in a modern primary school in a suburb of Oslo. The area does not have a distinct working-class or middle-class profile. About 15 percent of the pupils had a native language other than Norwegian.

Gender equality measures work

Much of what Overå found was known from previous research. His study documents gender-stereotyped behaviour, such as girls who prefer to play in pairs and be best friends and boys who play in larger groups and have visible hierarchies with clear leaders.

But the boys observed by Overå behaved differently than the boys described in previous studies. So differently that it makes sense to talk about a change in the way boys behave

“Gender equality measures work,” Overå states.

“Gender roles in the Nordic countries are changing. Several new Nordic studies have had similar findings. Gender used to be rooted in tradition. Today it is more fluid.”

Scratch each other’s backs

According to Overå, the boys aged 6–8 had the most relaxed attitude towards feelings and touching. These boys had “positive touching” as a daily school activity in which the pupils learned to touch each other. The objective was to create a sense of belonging to a group where everyone can touch and stroke each other regardless of whether they know each other and regardless of gender.

“The pupils liked it a lot. It was not strained in any way,” says Overå.

“The youngest boys could scratch each other’s backs and hold hands during recess.”

When Overå presented the phenomenon of “positive touching” for a group of researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, they were flabbergasted.

“It’s not coincidental that these measures are developed in Norway or the other Nordic countries,” says the researcher.

“I think the changes I’ve observed are connected with Nordic ideals of gender equality and measures that are introduced as early as pre-school.”

Considerate boys

The older boys, aged 9-12, did not have such a relaxed attitude towards bodily contact. They had to be on guard for being called “gay”.

In spite of this, both the younger and older boys were considerate towards each other.

Other studies have found that boys’ interactions are characterized by rough attitudes, aggressiveness and rule-breaking. In contrast, the groups of boys observed by Overå were friendly, inclusive and good-natured. And they talked about their feelings.

“Boys are not aggressive or emotionally incompetent. That is not my experience. In many situations the boys talked openly and thoughtfully about girls they had crushes on, difficulties at home, and anxiety and expectations about the future,” says Overå.

“When one boy opened up, the others tried to support him and shared similar stories about fear or vulnerability.”

Strong and kind

There was a lot of play fighting and other physical tests of strength as well, but this was mainly done at the beginning of the school year, before hierarchies were established.

“The boys organize themselves in a hierarchy with a clear pecking order and role differentiation with regard to leadership. Some would interpret this as a sign of aggression. I perceived it more as a game and a friendly form of contact,” says Overå.

Physical strength, excelling at football and wearing fashionable clothes could win popularity points. But the most important factor for securing a high position in the boys’ hierarchy was being a nice guy – someone who is kind, funny, extroverted and relaxed with a “good personality”.

The importance of hair wax

However, a boy’s position in the hierarchy determines how much latitude each boy has, such as how physically intimate or fashionable he can be.

“The fear of being called ‘gay’ works like kryptonite on the boys’ attempt to construct their masculinity,” explains Overå.

Boys who cared too little about their appearance risked being called childish, boring or a nerd. The ones who cared too much risked being called feminine or gay. Two of the coolest boys wore eyeliner.

“Their masculinity and heterosexuality was not threatened by it,” says Overå.

A less popular boy, however, should not try to do the same. The general rule was that boys do not wear make-up. Their hair, on the other hand, should be styled.

“Boys have fewer cards to play than girls when it comes to aesthetics, so their hair becomes a sacred domain,” says Overå.

In a group interview, the boys talked about a day at school when a cool teacher had let them eat cake during home economics class. “I remember that! It was the day when I didn’t use hair wax!” exclaimed one of the boys. The researcher was taken aback, and the boy explained: He got so much grief from the other boys that he understood he had better not go to school again without wax in his hair.

“It’s not new in itself that boys are concerned about their bodies and appearance. What is new is the extent of their concern. They talk about it a lot. And there is a great deal of unseen work involved,” explains Overå.

Metrosexual role models

A strong, well-defined, athletic body was the ideal for the older boys, who talked incessantly about each other’s bodies in the locker room. One boy had read that football star Cristiano Ronaldo does 3,000 sit-ups every day, so he had started to do sit-ups every evening. He thought his ab-muscles were becoming more visible already and gladly lifted his shirt to demonstrate for the other boys.

“For young people today it’s legitimate to try out new masculine expressions inspired by metrosexual idols like Ronaldo and David Beckham, who have their own lines of hair products and boxer shorts. This is different compared to 20 years ago when the role models were more traditionally masculine,” says Overå.

Effortlessly successful

The boys need to be concerned about their bodies and appearance, but this concern must not show. In the same way, they should do well at school, without giving it prestige or putting work into it.

“It was an ideal to succeed in an effortless kind of way,” says Overå.

“The boys did a great deal of unseen work, both with regard to their appearance and to their schoolwork. Many of them worked a lot at home, but claimed before a test, for example, that they had only studied for five minutes. They had to hide how much it meant to them to do well and look good, and how much effort they put into it.”

The problem with boys

The focus of Overås’ thesis is gender as such, but he has chosen to focus mainly on boys for two reasons: Descriptions of boys’ lives and perspectives are underrepresented in the literature from school research, and today’s society is especially worried about the situation for boys in school and society at large.

The debate about boys as losers in a gender-equal society and the feminized school arose in the 1990s. In the 2000s, stories about boys who did poorly in school dominated the debate.

But the differences in school have more to do with socioeconomic class, particularly when it comes to school performance, according to Overå. The fact that girls perform slightly better than boys in school has been known since measurements began in the 1950s. Concerns about boys arose only after girls started to maintain their advantage at higher educational levels.

Socioeconomic class more significant

“It’s a mistake to let the overall discussion focus on gender when large-scale qualitative and quantitative studies show that socioeconomic class is far more significant than gender with regard to grades in school,” says the researcher.

Overås’ data confirm previous studies that find that girls handle the demands of school better than boys. A few more girls than boys were moved to higher levels in those subjects in which the school offered this.

“But when I controlled for class, it was clearly more significant whether a pupil came from the working class or middle class than if the pupil was a girl or boy,” says Overå.

“It’s problematic to talk about differences in the schools only regarding gender. Just as there are boys who do very well, there are girls who struggle. Using gender as an explanation for this is discriminatory for both sexes.”