To be alive is to have your circumstances and, to varying degrees, your fate determined by men. But what does it mean to be a man?
This, of course, is a question that has consumed literature, art, theater, fashion — all of society, in fact — for all of human history. But the definition of manhood, and, more broadly, maleness, is one that affects not just a single gender, but all genders. As long as we live in a patriarchal world (and we do), we are living with the consequences of how men feel allowed to express themselves: their power, of course, but also their fear and helplessness and sorrow. The revelations (by no means new, but newly discussed) of the past year are a devastating reminder that far too often women pay the price for men’s insecurities.
This moment may also explain why “The Outsiders,” S. E. Hinton’s 1967 young adult novel about a group of working-class white male friends in Tulsa, Okla., feels so startlingly relevant. Fourteen-year-old Ponyboy is raised by his two older brothers (their parents are dead) and their group of friends in a town sharply divided along class lines. Ponyboy and his crew are “greasers,” so called for their copious hair grease, and to the rest of the world, they gamely fulfill all the clichés of their socioeconomic strata: They are tough, given to fighting and preening, always on the lookout for a suitable weapon. But they’re also deeply loving, both toward one another and toward the girls they date. In public, they present one version of maleness; back in their shotgun houses, in their own company, they present another. Part of the genius of the book is Hinton’s understanding that the performative aspect of these boys’ lives is both a necessity and a form of drudgery, that it affords them protection — but does so at a great cost. There are no parents in Hinton’s Tulsa, and few benevolent authority figures — there are only other boys, your age or a few years older, and it is they who stand in as not just fathers but as mothers as well, they who rebuke you when you’ve done something wrong, they who sit by your bed and cry with you when you’re in the hospital. Behind the book’s enduring appeal is the alternative vision of American maleness it offers: one in which lust is tempered with tenderness, bravado with vulnerability. Hinton’s males are what straight adolescent girls hope boys might secretly be — confident, but beneath that confidence, yearning only to be loved. And no wonder: Hinton, who still lives in Tulsa, was 16 when she wrote the book that would set the trajectory of the modern teenage romance, whether depicted in literature or on-screen, the one in which boys are just as fragile as girls, their defenselessness a symptom not of gender but of youth.