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Encore: 'Mama's boy' is a flex, not an insult, for a new generation of men

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This morning, we're taking a new look at an old insult.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT SANTINI")

ROBERT DUVALL: (As Bull Meechum) Hey, hey, hey, mama's boy, mama's boy. I bet you're going to cry. Come on.

MARTINEZ: The term mama's boy has been an emasculating put-down for a long time, like we heard in that scene from the 1979 movie "The Great Santini." But a new generation of men are now embracing those words with pride, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Today's mama's boys are the handsome and confident stars of reality shows such as "The Circle."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

JOEY SASSO: I'm a bartender, and I'm the proudest mama's boy you're ever going to meet.

ULABY: They are glamorous tech entrepreneurs.

SAHIL BLOOM: I am a proud mama's boy.

ULABY: That's Sahil Bloom, himself about to be the new dad of an infant son.

BLOOM: And I expect him to be a mama's boy in the same way.

ULABY: Mama's boys in 2022 are professional football players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME BAKER: Where is my mama, bro? Bro, where is my mama, though?

ULABY: Jerome Baker is a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. He told NPR he's been a proud mama's boy forever.

BAKER: When I was younger, people did try to make fun of me, like, oh, you're a mama's boy. But me - I was different. I was proud to be that. I think a lot of people wasn't proud to just be a mama's boy.

ULABY: And why would you be proud? Mama's boys were pathologized in popular culture. Just think of Norman Bates in the movie "Psycho." It goes all the way back to "Beowulf's" Grendel. And compare mama's boys to daddy's girls, who might have their downsides, but they weren't killing people, says Harriet Lerner. She's a best-selling psychologist and the mother of two boys who were kids in the 1980s.

HARRIET LERNER: I would see these T-shirts that were on all these cute little girls, and they said daddy's girl.

ULABY: Back then, Lerner could not find T-shirts that said mama's boy. Now they're easy to buy. In fact, Google Trends shows a recent spike in searches for the words mama's boy shirt. And Google is not the only place with data proving that mama's boy is being radically redefined.

MICHAEL KAYE: Men who are writing in voluntarily on their OkCupid profiles that they are a mama's boy are actually seeing a 7% higher probability rate of exchanging phone numbers with another user.

ULABY: Michael Kaye works for the dating app OkCupid. Seven percent may not seem like much, he says...

KAYE: But when you think about there being millions and millions of people on dating apps like OkCupid, it's actually a pretty high success rate.

HELEN FISHER: It's a very clever strategy.

ULABY: So says Helen Fisher. She works for another big dating app - Match.com. Fisher did not crunch any numbers specifically for the term mama's boy, but she did check the data about men who reference their moms in their Match.com profiles.

FISHER: There's only 1.4% of men who actually use the terms my mother, my mom or my mama. But those 1.4% men had a 26% increase in the likelihood to resign from the site because they had met somebody.

ULABY: That sounds right to Garrett Watts. He's a popular YouTube star. When Watts meets guys online who call themselves mama's boys in their profiles, he thinks one thing about them.

GARRETT WATTS: Honest.

ULABY: After all, Watts says, most men technically are mama's boys. So if you decide to call him one...

WATTS: You're just calling me a human. When I hear mama's boy, all I hear is, like, base-level, emotionally responsible human. And let the stigma go. Let it go.

ULABY: That would be something to celebrate. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY MAMA")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) Hey, Mama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.