Is this Mark Zuckerberg's best defence?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has just completed two days of hearings in front of the US Congress. The hearings were billed as a grilling that would take the social media behemoth’s creator to task for the massive Cambridge Analytica data breach that, if reports are true, helped the Russians manipulate the US election.
The hearings, however, have largely failed to live up to expectations, with many expressing their frustration at the Senators’ failure to sustain a deep, probing line of questioning, essentially letting Zuckerberg “off the hook”.
But I wondered if Mark Zuckerberg was the latest in a long line of grown men with significant responsibility to invoke the “man-boy” defence. We all know the popular expression, "boys will be boys". The man-boy defence essentially extends the life-span of this particular "get out of jail free" card well into adulthood, casting grown men as Peter-Pan figures, incapable of growing up, or relinquishing the shackles of the gendered behaviour norms that defined, and excused, the indiscretions of their youth.
The internet was awash in a sea of jokes about Zuckerberg, all wide-eyed innocence and big ears with his back-to-school haircut, wearing his “big boy suit”. Many laughed about the fact that Zuckerberg sat on a booster seat during the hearings, (it was a standard cushion, but that did not stop the memes).
A breathless CNN story asked if this was Mark Zuckerberg’s “Growing Up Moment?”.
Zuckerberg may well be sitting somewhere right now, going over the post-hearing analysis and smarting at the jokes about his suit, ears, haircut and that cushion. Or he and his team may be patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Call me a cynic, but I suspect that it's more of the latter.
The story surrounding Zuckerberg’s leadership of Facebook has always had an element of the boy king, with Sheryl Sandberg brought in as the Chief Operating Officer to effectively serve as nanny of the child in charge of the social media kingdom. Now when the chips are down and a lot is at stake, it is appears convenient to further mine this image to exculpate Zuckerberg (and Facebook) from the latest scandal – and effectively ask Senators and the broader public to try Zuckerberg as a minor – a married 33-year old Dad minor.
There’s a long history of grown men invoking the man-boy defence. Last year, after revelations that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin connected lawyer during the campaign surfaced, the Trump team responded by characterising the 39-year-old father of five as an “honest kid”.
Jennifer Weiner, in an op-ed for The New York Times, made the point that if the public could be persuaded to view Trump Jr as "a wide-eyed innocent whose only sin in agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected lawyer and others was, perhaps, an endearing over enthusiasm”, then Team Trump could get ahead of the story."
According to Weiner, this practice - of turning adult men into silly boys in order to escape consequences - originated in 1969 after Ted Kennedy, the then 37-year-old heir to the family political dynasty, drove his car off a bridge, leaving a young female passenger to drown.
"The family’s crisis team was summoned and came up with a strategy," wrote Weiner, "theorising that if the married father in his late 30’s could be reframed for the public as a handsome, high spirited, mischievous boy, not a criminal, all would be forgiven."
Did it work? Kennedy served a two-month suspended sentence and went on to have a long career in politics.
Weiner observed that, “President Trump and his camp are invoking potent precedent about how we’ve been taught to see whiteness and maleness and when — if ever — we expect boys to become men.”
The Trump team, not surprisingly, has form here. After she was deployed to do damage control following the leak of the infamous “grab them by the pussy” video, Melania Trump characterised the exchange between her husband and Billy Bush – Trump was 59 at the time -as, “kind of like two teenage boys”. She went on to say that, “Sometimes I have two boys at home, I have my son and my husband.” Like Sandberg, Melania casts herself as yet another female minder expected to nanny a grown man.
This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump's own characterisation of the Central Park Five, a group of boys (four of them black, one Hispanic) in their mid-teens who were wrongfully convicted of the assault, rape and attempted murder of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. During the tiral, and despite the lack of DNA evidence, Trump famously called for the death penalty - in full page newspaper advertisements.
Many on social media have called time on the man-boy defence of Zuckerberg and the fact that it is the domain of the privileged white man, not available to women and certainly not available to minorities.
It was US-based educator and violence prevention expert Jackson Katz who said that this “boys will be boys" line of thinking “carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behaviour from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow incapable of acting appropriately…”
Time will tell.
Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She tweets @KZiwica