Tuesday, September 30, 2014
On Boys to Men (Not a Music Post)
Tonight I got to hear a wonderful talk by Rosalind Wiseman, author of many books including, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfrends, and the New Rules of Boy World. You might know her as the author of the book that inspired the movie Mean Girls. She's been doing a lot of work on boy culture of late and the talk has inspired me to finally commit to a post I've been writing in my head forever. I'll hit on what I believe to be the boy crisis, #gamergate, deconstruction, and histories of masculinity. Hang on, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Fairly early in the talk Wiseman pulled off a move that we, in the cultural studies biz, call deconstruction. (Deconstruction is not a synonym for analyzed and anyone using it that way will be roundly mocked in these parts. You have been warned.) Rather deconstruction is a particular analytical technique wherein the critic shows that the assumed dominant category is, in fact, the absence of the assumed subordinate category. In this case, Wiseman was talking about the ways we structure the discourse around parenting boys and girls. Working from my notes I understand Wiseman to argue that when we say "Girls are hard, boys are easy" we are actually loading tons of meaning into the category of girls. That is, we understand girls to be conflict-ridden, emotional, and subjects with deep authentic feelings that we might antagonize. And we understand boys to be "notgirls". Wiseman points out that this means that "Adults don't allow boys to have the emotional lives they deserve." This is absolutely true. And it's a nifty bit of deconstruction. We don't define girls as notboys, we define boys as notgirls. Wiseman's talk was largely about how to get boys (and girls) to be conscious of, articulate, and act on their feelings so that they can create more positive social worlds. That's all well and good. Her talk was amazing in this regard and she had many helpful ideas that I could totally see working with my students and my own kids, especially for my middle child.*
But I'm not going to write about that. She wrote about that and you should by her book. Go do it now at the link above, I'll wait.
What I am going to write about is this idea of boys being notgirls and the larger implications of it. Since the rise of separate spheres ideology (and at times and places before that all the way back to the Greeks or earlier) we in the United States have typically coded activities as being for boys and girls and set aside those for boys and whatever was left was for girls. Thus, with the rise of the Market Economy when all this was working itself out, boys and men claimed the world outside the home: the professions, politics, and the marketplace all of which were ok because these things could and would corrupt one and men were already corrupt. Women were left with the home and morals and primary education. Women were notmen. (NB: this required a shift in thinking about women's morality. Women were now thought of as innocents to be corrupted by men, which totally inverted traditional Christian thinking in which women were primarily Eves corrupting innocent boys and men.)
Now at some point fairly recently, within my lifetime perhaps, boys stopped identifying themselves by positive traits and starting identifying themselves as notgirls. Anything girls did, boys defined as feminine and not worth doing. As a 6th grader, I loved disco music but quickly learned to disavow it publicly lest I be called "faggot" or "girly." I asked for a copy of Bruce Springsteen's The River and tried to man up, but it went unlistened to for many years. As girls claimed more and more cultural space, boys shrank their worlds. Virtues that used to be considered masculine - like working hard in school - are now associated with girls. I teach many boys that are "secret studiers" because they don't want other boys to know that they are trying. There is a whole culture of "Chill" that disavows both feelings and effort. Meanwhile, boys now apply to and attend college and graduate schools at lower rates than girls. I know many little girls that are ambitious enough to want to be President (as I did when I was in 1st grade). No boys I know make that claim. They all want to be rappers or athletes, or perhaps, professional gamers, if they know such a thing exists. These are basically three professions where there are not enough girls to matter (at least not widely visible girls in these sub-cultures).
If you are wondering why the fake scandal of #gamergate is getting traction or why gamer critic Feminist Frequency is getting death threats it's because men who define themselves as notgirls are threatened by the mere presence of girls in their self-defined domains.
So, for those of us who care about boys (and by that I mean all of us, people) we have a tough road ahead. We need to define a positive masculinity for boys to aspire to. We need to announce loudly and proudly the values that we believe are necessary for boys to grow into men. And we need to stop defining boys by what they are not, and affirm them for what they are: human beings.
*The middle child is the one whose life is like a reverse of the dinner scene in Annie Hall. He's eating dinner with four other people who won't shut up and consider dinner conversation a competitive art and he doesn't want to say anything.