After 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz was accused of gunning down 17 people at a Florida high school last week, comedian Michael Ian Black started a thread on Twitter that sparked a vitriolic debate about the role of gender in gun violence. It began with the tweet, "Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken."
Black's tweet has been liked nearly 65,000 times. In an interview with NPR on Sunday, he elaborated.
"I think it means that there is something going on with American men that is giving them the permission and space to commit violence," he said. "And one of the main things we focus on correctly is guns and mental health, but I think deeper than that is a problem, a crisis in masculinity."
Many people on Twitter praised Black for his take.
The problem Black identifies is one feminists have been talking about for decades. It's called toxic masculinity, the stereotypical sense of masculinity that embodies behaviors, such as denying help or emotions, which psychologists and sociologists say are harmful to men and to society. It's the things in our culture — from toys given to movies watched to messages parents consciously and unconsciously send — that tells boys and men "being a real man" means repressing feelings and consistently demonstrating strength and dominance.
"We often talk about gender in terms of women ... getting the short end of the stick. ... Well, masculinity isn't easy either," Jennifer Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona who studies gun politics and gender, told USA TODAY after the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October. "That's not your ticket to the good life. It isn't easy to be a man in the United States. Demands put on men — whether it's to be the protector, to be the provider, to respond to situations in certain ways, to prove yourself as a man — end up being not just outwardly destructive but also inwardly destructive."
A 2017 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found many norms around gender, what's expected of boys and girls, become entrenched in adolescence and have negative impacts that carry into adulthood.
Among consequences the study noted when boys conform to gender stereotypes:
Engaging in physical violence to a much greater extent than girls
Dying more frequently from unintentional injuries
Being more prone to substance abuse and suicide
Having a shorter life expectancy than women
Data shows gun violence is disproportionately a male problem. Of the 97 mass shootings in which three or more victims died since 1982, only three were committed by women (one of those being the San Bernardino attack in which a man also participated), according to a database from the liberal-leaning news outlet Mother Jones. Men also accounted for 86% of gun deaths in the United States, according to an analysis by the non-partisan non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.
Experts say culture plays a big role in why men are so drawn to guns and why they're so much more likely to die by them.
After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the National Science Foundation asked researchers to look at what is known and unknown about youth violence. Published in 2016, the report found masculinity is a factor that cannot be ignored.
"Young men may be particularly sensitive to cultural influences on masculinity in adolescence when they are physically maturing, particularly in the context of popular media that glorify violence and domination of others," researchers wrote. "The least physically developed young boys may lose out in pecking orders that value height, big muscles, athletic prowess, and mature looks. Guns could become a great equalizer in this tournament of recognition."
In a Q&A published this January in the journal Signs, masculinity expert Michael Kimmel said the term "toxic masculinity" is now so loaded he chooses to frame the problem for men somewhat differently.
"There's going to be a time in your life, if there hasn't already, when you are going to be asked to betray your own values, your own ethics, your own idea of what it means to be a good man, in order to prove to others that you’re a real man," said Kimmel, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University.
In his interview with NPR, Black was asked what he thinks healthy masculinity looks like.
"I don't know. I mean, I really don't," he said. "I know that I only started feeling comfortable in my own skin as an adult man in my 40s when I stopped trying so hard to — and this is going to sound counterintuitive — but be a guy."