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A New Book Examines Culture, Media and "Boy Trouble"

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Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful when our 3-year-old boy receives clothes. It’s the faux camouflage and macho images that give me pause. For a 3-year-old? I think, holding up yet another tee emblazoned with a zooming police car or army helicopter.

Yet, compared with what’s to come, these are the golden days of gender conditioning, according to the three co-authors of Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. From toddlerhood through adolescence, write Sharon Lamb, Lyn Mikel Brown and Mark Tappan, boys are bombarded with subtle messages in every medium — clothes, books, games, TV, movies, music — encouraging them to value a version of masculinity that can be summed up in the authors’ oft-repeated phrase: “over the top.”

Being a boy is about excessive speed, strength, wealth — and fart jokes, the authors learned through their extensive survey of “the ‘stuff’ in boys’ worlds.” It’s about gaining dominance by being a “player” or a “slacker,” not through hard work or for the purpose of helping others. It’s about seeing girls and women as fawning props, not friends or equals. Above all, it’s about signaling one’s distance from femininity so as not to be called “gay” or “a fag” — still the ultimate put-down among boys, even in an era of increasing rights for gays (including, in some states, marriage).

Vermont isn’t that different from the national picture, says Lamb, who lives in Shelburne and is chairing the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at UMass Boston’s Graduate College of Education while on leave from St. Michael’s College. “‘Fag’ is all over Vermont,” Lamb declares. (She raised her two now-grown sons here.) There may not be as many Green Mountain subscribers to WWE Kids magazine as there are in the South, she says, but “Kids here go to Toys R Us and see the same WWE action figures; they go to McDonald’s and get the same Happy Meal toys.”

Why worry about boys, who are already privileged in our society? While girls’ power is most often depicted in the media as the power to shop — as Lamb and Brown found in their earlier collaboration, Packaging Girlhood — popular culture provides no end of boy-centered stories and images of real power. But because those narratives so often depict boys’ dominance over girls and women, the issues are “two sides of the same coin,” Lamb says.

The media paid Packaging Girlhood a lot more attention than it has, so far, to its successor, she adds wryly, because one aspect of girlhood studied in that book — the sexualization of younger girls — allowed media outlets to show pictures of scantily clad little girls.

There’s another reason for concern. As educators — Lamb and the Maine-based couple Brown and Tappan met while the three were earning their doctorates in education at Harvard — the authors are troubled by boys’ perceived association between femininity and doing well at school. “I don’t think a boy could feel comfortable saying, ‘I love school’ to another boy today,” Lamb says. She cites the prevalence of the “slacker” image, even in books marketed to boys such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as the most surprising find in her research.

The authors’ suggested remedy is that parents keep up with the “stuff” in their son’s world, and then talk to him about it on a regular basis. “I have one friend who told her kids, ‘Find the lie in every TV ad,’” Lamb says. (The book offers many more specific exercises and exchanges.) If parents don’t talk with their boys about the absurdity of these repeated media messages, the authors contend, the latter are likely to “reinforce behaviors that are damaging to them and others: dominance, exploitation, violence and slacking.”

Lamb advises against banning pop culture at home — or even just a particularly offensive reality TV show. Doing so means missing out on important conversations that validate your son’s complexity while showing him the limitations of media messages. And a prohibition ignores the fun and pleasure of popular culture. “I appreciate the parents who don’t have a TV or don’t let their kids eat McDonald’s,” she says, “but McDonald’s really does taste good!”

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