Friday, August 10, 2007

Masculinity: Still Unexamined

*Long Post Alert*
*Also, another disclaimer: I ended up writing this in a pseudo-essay format, though definitely with not as much care to style, and referencing as I would normally use. Really, I've just been writing off the top of my head, and I also want to say that my own opinions are in constant flux though this is completely what I'm thinking as of this very moment. End all disclaimers*

I came across a TIME article last week through Feministing. I was excited to read about it because I thought it would address concerns that I had been debating and writing on in one of my summer school classes; that is issues surrounding the anxiety about boys' social performance.

In The Myth About Boys, author David Von Drehle examines some of the literature surrounding this burst of concern about boyhood. I was interested primarily because my readings of masculinity in school were written by Michael Kimmel and his main, though very important essays were written in 1999. I wanted to see what was to be said about the myths about boys almost a decade later.

It is actually quite well-written. Von Drehle addresses some important points, and takes the analysis in ways that diverge from the way I see the situation. But I still think he missed some important points about masculinity. He debunked a lesser myth about the boys. This article, while I think makes strong points, has lead me to reflect a great deal about what I'm reading and what I've already read.

Von Drehle opens this piece with a reflection of the worry surrounding his son's birth: "our little guy had entered a soul-crushing world of anti-boy influences" was what various media had projected to him. I thought this was an important statement to make; I was hoping for an analysis of what constitutes "anti-boy" and what that means culturally, and how that often frames a feminist backlash. That's what Michael Kimmel did. I must admit that was unfair of me in the first place to expect only one such direction this article could take.

But I was disappointed that someone as highly regarded, and as thoroughly educated about masculinity as Michael Kimmel is was not referenced. Neither was anyone even remotely akin to Jackson Katz. These academics have developed well known and important bodies of work concerning men. The myths that Von Drehle was uncovering were not those of how we construct masculinity in our particular society like Kimmel and Katz do, but simply the idea that boys are not doing so well right now is bunk. Instead, he draws on Christina Hoff Sommers, and Michael Gurian, both authors I find suspect in their work. Kimmel, in particular, has made pointed criticisms about Gurian's work, which supports traditional masculine roles, roles that Katz has shown in his film "Tough Guise" to be problematic. As with Sommers, I find often that her criticisms of feminism are ill-informed and her concern as Von Drehle reports it reflects this. I was hoping that this article would be a deconstruction of masculinity, rather then just a reassurance that, with the help of a dedicated few, the boys are doing just fine.

Right here below is one of my problems with this article. This is in reference to the media scare about boys:
It's enough to make people long for the good old days. Sure enough, one of the hot books of the summer is a zestfully nostalgic celebration of boyhood past. The Dangerous Book for Boys, by brothers Hal and Conn Iggulden, flits from fossils to tree houses, from secret codes to go-carts, from the Battle of Gettysburg to the last voyage of Robert Falcon Scott. A sensation last year in Britain, the book has been at or near the top of the New York Times best-seller list since late spring.

The Dangerous Book, bound in an Edwardian red cover with marbled endpapers, has many of the timeless qualities of an ideal young man: curiosity, bravery and respectfulness; just enough rogue to leaven the stoic; an appetite for any challenge, from hunting small game to mastering the rules of grammar. It celebrates trial and error, vindicates the noble failure. Rudyard Kipling would have loved it.[...]
And here's where the success of The Dangerous Book gets interesting, because it suggests that as parents spend more time with their sons, we may be reconnecting with the fact that the differences between boys and girls need not be threatening and that not all the lore of the past about how to raise boys was wrong.

Here is the blind spot. While being very good throughout the article about not bearing a backlash against feminist gains, the problem that Von Drehle misses is that these books are also prescribing and reinforcing current hegemonic gender roles. Why are things like "curiousity, bravery and respectfulness", treehouses, go-carts and battles qualities of boyhood and boyhood only? What if a young male doesn't feel himself to fit in these categories that these books hand out? What about girls who do? What about everyone in between? Do these books address sexuality and how that is often used as a marker for manhood? Do they embrace identities of gay men or trans men and how they fit or don't fit in this world? How do these books like the above and particularly Gurian's work address the fact that masculinity is not the same throughout time and space, and is constructed differently in various cultures? We can't decide to turn a blind eye to that either because we live on a continent that has been constructed through a history of colonialism and immigration. In advocating these books and societies that trump themselves up as being spaces for boys, how can one miss the very rigid and simplistic definition of masculinity? The problem with boys is the disparity caused by these prescriptions for a happy, healthy and often heterosexual boyhood (though ironically in homosocial atmospheres...*grin*).

Von Drehle does a good job about addressing some of the concerns that are brought up in the article, even if they are not the same concerns as mine. He is right when he says that boyhood is an important topic to delve into:
Observers of the boy crisis contend that families, schools and popular culture are failing our boys, leaving them restless bundles of anxiety--misfits in the classroom and video-game junkies at home. They suffer from an epidemic of "anomie," as Harvard psychologist William Pollack told me, adrift in a world of change without the help they need to find their way. Even in the youngest grades, test-oriented teachers focus energy on conventional exercises in reading, writing and other seatwork, areas in which girls tend to excel. At the same time, schools are cutting science labs, physical education and recess, where the experiential learning styles of boys come into play. No wonder, the theory goes, our boys get jittery, grow disruptive and eventually tune out. "A boy will get a reputation as hell on wheels that follows him from one teacher to the next, and soon they're coming down on him even before he screws up. So he learns to hate school," says Mike Miller, an elementary school teacher in North Carolina. Miller's principal has ordered every faculty member to read a book this summer titled Hear Our Cry: Boys in Crisis.

Kimmel too, in his essay "What About The Boys" talks about the above-mentioned theories. Von Drehle is careful about not framing his own criticisms as "girls against boys" or using women's accomplishments as the reason for men's supposed fall out. But that above paragraph was rife with binary gender-isms that Von Drehle doesn't really address, even though he does find different ways to analyse them.

He goes through statistics and finds that boys are in fact not unreasonably behind girls in achievement. He also questions why it is problematic for boys to be in special education classes if it means they will recieve more attention from teachers. On this front, Von Drehle does his job of deflating the myth about boys. They are not necessarily in a horrible state of despair, at least in the ways that the media had him worried over. I find that he is also quite articulate in the subjective nature of sociological research. He's right, we can find any statistic and drum up enough intrepretive research to validate a viewpoint. I'm not denying that.

What my concern with this article is the lack of analysis on traditonal hegemonic masculinity itself, which is clearly problematic (see Kimmel, Katz, Michael Messner, The Other and Beyond Real Men blog for extra reading). In Jessie Klein's essay "Cultural Capitol and High School Bullies: How Social Inequality Impacts School Violence", she examines the factors that seem to surround the overwhelmingly male perpetrators of school shootings. Many involve an ability to accrue what she terms 'cultural capitol', that is the accumulation of social status. Many of these status markers reflect the construction of hegemonic masculinity that Kimmel identifies in his essay "Masculinity as Homophobia." They include ideals of athletic ability and expression, macho bravado as well as a devaluation of anything deemed 'feminine'. Hence the way words like "pussy" and "cunt" sting so much more than being called a "dick" or an "asshole". "Fag" too is seen as an ultimate insult, one that is also imbued with a sort of that apparently awful femininity. And this, we all know is very dangerous for people who don't approximate. It is something Von Drehle misses. It's important as well, because I do not see how the books that he talks about really challenges these issues. Very few of these books address how we as a culture need to change our social hierarchies. What will Von Drehle think of his son if he doesn't want to play sports or go on rogue adventures that will define his boyhood?

In some of the solutions Von Drehle proposes he advocates for qualified academic training for male-dominated feilds such as firefighting, and policing, as the female-dominated fields of teaching and library services require. But he does not question why these fields themselves represent such extreme gender binaries and the problems that come when men and women try to cross these lines. He completely skips over the fact that these professions are so gender-biased. And there are plenty of problems: sexual harrasment and debasement, glass ceilings, and other repressions. Making men get a degree in criminology so they can be cops is not going to address these serious concerns. As well, issues of extreme violence, such as school shootings need to be reckoned with. Von Drehle talks briefly about the fact most of these school shooters are male (and are often white, so a discussion about varying levels of the disparities between percieved privileges can also be deployed here) but doesn't go very far. I think this is possibly where a real site of worry and concern over boys needs to be addressed, albeit such outrageous violence is at the far end of boys' bad behaviour. Threatened masculinity seemed to be a constant thread when I look at the motivations behind these kinds of shootings: the Montreal Massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique is a prime example. The killer felt emasculated by the presense of women in a program he himself could not get into. Many of the other shooters reported being bullied by those on top of the school hierarchies like the jocks, who embody traditional masculinity. Many of them were called 'fags', thus making strict heterosexuality (and also its threat)a part of how manhood is understood. They also often targeted women who rejected them. I think these are really important things to look at whenever we talk about boy-myths. Its not just as superficial as this article makes it seem.

He references a school principal, Gregory Hodge as someone who is actively engaged in getting African American boys, who are according to statistics the poorest performing group of students. While at first read it seems too that Hodge is using the typical male domain of sports to entice boys into better social performances, as he continues in his efforts he is finding that he needs to be broader about how to encourage success in men. Part of that is offering to boys already restricted by class and race things that are available to those in more privileged positions. I think this is an analysis that should have been furthered in this article. Broadening men's spheres, and thereby broadening how we define masculinity/ies, needs to happen, as well as the issues of how masculinity intersects with race and class.

All these reforms shared a common impulse to return to the basics of boyhood--quests, competitions, tribal brotherhoods and self-discovery. There was a recognition that the keys to building a successful boy have remained remarkably consistent, whether a tribal chieftain is preparing a young warrior or a knight is training a squire or a craftsman is guiding an apprentice--or Gregory Hodge is teaching his students. Boys need mentors and structure but also some freedom to experiment. They need a group to belong to and an opponent to confront. As Gurian put it in The Wonder of Boys, they must "compete and perform well to feel worthy."

The problem with these kinds of statements is that they forget that this is human need, not just one we need to grant to boys. It also places an unchanged, timeless quality on manhood. But a quick read through anything historic offers us a contrary picture. Manhood has changed as society has changed. The Industrial Era man is not the same as the Victorian Era man who is not the same as the Medieval man, not to mention the differences in masculinity across various cultures. The notion that these books are offering a 'return' for boys should make them suspect. I know that I am suspicious.

This is Von Drehle's conclusion. And at least he has one; I feel that even as I am sorting my thoughts out writing this, that my own notions are in constant flux.

Worrying about our boys--reading and writing books about them, wringing our hands over dire trends and especially taking more time to parent them--is paying off. The next step is to let them really blossom, and for that we have to trust them, give them room. The time for fearing our sons, or fearing for their futures, is behind us. The challenge now is to believe in them.

He's right. But nothing in this article really reflected a fluidity in gender norms. The campsite he references seems to engage in mainly manly man activities like metal work and fort-building. Sure it offers watercolour painting, but does it also offer home economics? Sewing classes? Ballet? Do the boys play house? And throughout the discussions he engages in with various principals and camp workers, it is always "boys need this room". Don't we all need this room, regardless of our gender? Why is "cultivating" boys so necessarily different from "cultivating" girls? And why has this 'positive-styled' gender reinforcement not been made problematic? I think the real problem with boys is the ways in which our society does not allow them to manoevre, something this article does not truly address.

Sigh...I can only hope that I did.

Some references I made:

Kimmel, Michael. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” Theorizing Masculinities. Ed. Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman. Sage Publications, 1994. 119-141.

Kimmel, Michael. “’What About the Boys?’ What the Current Debate Tells Us—And Don’t Tell Us—About Boys in School.” The Gendered Society Reader. Ed. Michael Kimmel. New York: Oxford University, 2004. 243-262.

Klein, Jessie. “Cultural Capital and High School Bullies: How Social Inequality Impacts School Violence.” Men and Masculinities Vol. 9:1 (2006): 53-75.

Messner, Michael. “Boyhood, Organized Sports, and The Construction of Masculinities.” Men’s Lives. Ed. Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner. New York: Prentice Hall, 1989. 161-176.

Katz, Jackson.Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity. Dir. Sut Jhalley. Media Education Foundation, 1999.

All images used with permission of the artist
Paul Elia. Check out his stuff!


Medea said...

Perhaps the problem that he perceives with schooling for boys is that teaching is a female-dominated field, women likely respond better to girls having had more knowledge of what it is to be one...

But, whether or not that is true... his mention of how "even in the youngest grades, test-oriented teachers focus energy on conventional exercises in reading, writing and other seatwork, areas in which girls tend to excel..." bothered me... Even if girls tend to get better grades than boys in that style of schooling, I don't think it benefits girls anymore than boys to have a lack of "experimental learning styles". The ability of girls to sit quietly is something I think stems from the way we raise them, just as the opposite goes for boys.

(I should actually go out and do some reading on this...)

Electric Furr said...

plus, I don't think its actually true on a broad level that female teachers give more attention to girls. If this was really the case, then we should ask ourselves why we streamline women into such professions in the first place. And I agree with you about the benefit of experimental learning styles for both boys and girls. Why do we act like its only boys that are restless? Don't these prescriptions for boys' and girls' behaviours smack of social conditioning? Sheesh.