Sunday, January 10, 2010

Problematizing the Obvious

There are certain things in life so glaringly obvious in their very essence that further debate is surely superfluous: psoriasis truly is heartbreak; diamonds are forever.

That list should surely include boys. Plug simple, remarkably self-similar, and really no more inscrutable than a wedge. Using terms that I am most comfortable with, boys are to paper airplanes as girls are to the Space Shuttle.

Apparently, I need re-educating. Based upon the scholarly blizzard, boys are a puzzle, after all.
My son just turned 3. He loves [insert your own list of typical boy stuff; no point making you read what you already take for granted].

That doesn't make him unusual; in fact, in many ways, he couldn't be more typical. Which may be why a relative recently said, "Well, he's definitely all boy." It's a statement that sounds reasonable enough until you think about it. What does "all boy" mean? Masculine? Straight? Something else? Are there partial boys? And is this relative aware of my son's fondness for Hello Kitty and tea sets?

Just a guess here, but if that relative was aware of a predilection for feline cartoon characters and arranging dishes on a table, that relative would instead have observed a studied silence.

The impetus for this waxing scholarly interest is boys' relative lack of academic success. More girls graduate both high school and college, the theory being that the school environment has become so feminized that it is actively hostile to boys who insist on remaining boys.

Predictably, there is another flurry about the genderization of boys; and just as socially structured binary heterocentric patrimony follows societally bound internalization of oppressive role constructs, it is all the fault of culture:
Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes offers an analysis of what boys soak in from TV shows, video games, toys, and other facets of boy-directed pop culture. … According to the book, boys are being taught they have to be tough and cool, athletic and stoic. This starts early with toddler T-shirts emblazoned with "Future All-Star" or "Little Champion." Even once-benign toys like Legos and Nerf have assumed a more hostile profile with Lego Exo-Force Assault Tigers and the Nerf N-Strike Raider Rapid Fire CS-35 Dart Blaster. "That kind of surprised us," says one of the book's three authors, Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. "What happened to Nerf? What happened to Lego?"
Actually, what is surprising is that someone who could be surprised by the advent of the Dart Blaster has not long since been confined to a closely supervised therapeutic setting.

Some scholars have concluded boys are "more complicated, and less single minded than adults give them credit". Apparently since none of those adults have ever been boys, or have experienced boys, scholarly insight is essential.

From someone whose "… background is in clinical psychoanalysis, feminism, and queer studies".
That has opened the door for scholars like Niobe Way. A professor of applied psychology at New York University, Way recently finished a book … on how boys communicate. She's been interviewing teenage boys about their friendships, and what she's found is remarkable. While it's common wisdom that teenage boys either can't express or don't possess strong feelings about their friends, Way has discovered that boys in their early teens can be downright sentimental when discussing their friendships. When asked what they liked about their best friends, boys frequently said: "They won't laugh at me when I talk about serious things." What has emerged from her research is a portrait of emotionally intelligent boys who care about more than sports and cars. Such an observation might not sound revolutionary, but what boys told her and her fellow researchers during lengthy, probing interviews runs counter to the often one-dimensional portrayal of boys in popular culture. "They were resisting norms of masculinity," she says.

Note the past tense. At some point in high school, that expressiveness vanishes, replaced with a more defensive, closed-off posture, perhaps as boys give in to messages about what it means to be a man. Still, her research undermines the stereotype that boys are somehow incapable of discussing their feelings. "And yet," she says, "this notion of this emotionally illiterate, sex-obsessed, sports-playing boy just keeps getting spit out again and again."
Damn reality.

What surpasses remarkable, though, is that anyone, no matter how intellectually benighted, could give the tiniest credence to the self-compiled results of self-developed questions self-delivered by a woman to boys. She is right, though, that boys are interested in more than sports and cars: computers.

I hate to yank the social construct out from under the imposition of yet another worthless addition to the panoply of money and time wasting university programs, but really I don't, so I will. There are forests and pixels to be saved here, so it is time to cut to the chase: Boys are pack animals, and need an alpha male role model. They generate energy in amounts that girls can't even imagine. Unlike girls, boys spontaneously self organize into competitive team activities that often involve real or imagined violence. Boys like things that go fast, blow up, and shoot, preferably all at once. Boys are more emotionally articulate than dogs, but not much. Boys want to be tough, cool and athletic because boys ostracize boys who are weak, uncool and inept. Boys are sex obsessed, unless they are obsessing about sports, cars, and computers. Boys are not taught any of these things, they are boys. Boys who like Hello Kitty and tea sets are unlikely to provide grandchildren.

I'll leave the penultimate line to Professor Way, upon whom New York University is spending way too much money, no matter the amount:
"If you don't understand the experience of boyhood," she says, "you'll never understand the achievement gaps."
Pot, meet kettle.

17 Comments:

Blogger Susan's Husband said...

One of the more interesting aspects of this to me was marriage. We attended a number of ceremonies during the span of a few years. The boys attended and promptly forgot the experience. The girl became fascinated by the concept and frequently discusses it, going so far as to have picked out a husband (at 5).

I will pick a nit that boys do talk about serious stuff. Surely you remember a conversation like this:

Boy1: You know, sometimes it's hard to understand girls.

Boy2: Yeah.

Boy3: Definitely.

[silence for a minute of contemplation]

Boy2: Hey, let's go throw rocks at the ducks on the pond!

Boy1: Yeah!

Boy3: Definitely!

P.S. One reason that girls find boys' conversations minimalistic is that boys, having a relatively simplified internal state, can make much more accurate guesses about other boys which simplifies the required exchange.

January 11, 2010 6:10 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, great post.

Apparently the authors of the various studies quoted in the article all understand that boys are different from girls, but what they don't get is that difference is (to quote SH) a feature, not a bug and it's crucial that energy, daring, imagination and fearlessness, i.e., what makes a real boy, isn't dampened by drugs and/or societal disdain -- not only for the boys' well being, but for the well being of our civilization.

When my youngest son was about three or four, he got bored when we were visiting friends who had only daughters, so while his sister and the other girls were playing quietly with Barbie dolls, he grabbed a doll, turned down the arms, held like a machine gun and ran around "shooting" everything in sight. Our hosts were aghast!!!

Boys as a rule don't sit and play quietly and that is a good thing.

January 11, 2010 7:31 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Heh. That reminds me of Boy Two who used to play with the girls in day care. They would play house and talk while Boy Two silently built all their infrastructure, such as the house, power lines, sewer lines, etc. Even I was a bit surprised that the whole "move the furniture" stereotype sets up so early.

January 11, 2010 8:51 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

European males seem much more like Niobe would like them to be.

I wonder why?

January 11, 2010 9:13 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I have seen the statement that girls do better in schools before, but I cannot square it with the statement that girls don't do math.

I have my own idea about what's going on with that, but I'll save them, except to note that while the proportion of women in the paycheck workforce has gone up, the proportion of men has gone down, so that they are now neck and neck, instead of men outnumbering women 2:1.

'Boys who like Hello Kitty and tea sets are unlikely to provide grandchildren.'

My son was like that up to about age 5 or 6. He's doing very well in the grandchildren department though.

January 11, 2010 9:27 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Bret, no you don't ;-}

January 11, 2010 9:40 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

AOG:

I will pick a nit that boys do talk about serious stuff. Surely you remember a conversation like this:

I stand corrected; my head hangs in shame.

Harry:

I have seen the statement that girls do better in schools before, but I cannot square it with the statement that girls don't do math.

My daughter used to get the vapors when it came to math flashcards. Now, she has one of the highest grades in her trig class. But she has no feel for it, for her it is just grinding through the homework and spitting it back out on a test; all rote. I think this is true for most girls. They simply do not think as mathematically (or mechanically) as do boys.

erp:

Apparently the authors of the various studies quoted in the article all understand that boys are different from girls ...

Yes, but all too many of them are blaming culture, which requires astonishing contortions to avoid reality. Surprised at a Nerf Dart Blaster?

++++

Years ago, when the woman child was 6 and the man child 5, my wife bought me and air compressor and tools. Shortly after, I needed to pull the wheels off one of the cars to do a brake fluid change.

This meant using the impact wrench.

I showed them how it was done: BRRRAAAAAAAP. One lug nut off. The MC was in full body quiver he as so eager to try it.

BRRRAAAAAAAP, and his lug nut comes off.

Now, being a dad of the, at the time, very very late 20th century, I was most certainly going to offer the WC a shot, even more most certainly with mom standing right there.

Her response? "No, daddy. That's boy's work."

January 11, 2010 1:48 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, you have one smart daughter.

I'm not sure what you mean about the authors blaming the culture for boys exuberant behavior.

Their culture wants to change boys' nature to make them more like girls and unfortunately with the help of drugs like Ritalin, they're succeeding to some large extent.

January 11, 2010 3:54 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Yes, but all too many of them are blaming culture..."

It's a combination of nature and nurture, just nobody knows what the ratio is between nature and nurture.

January 11, 2010 3:58 PM  
Blogger Bob Hawkins said...

Back around 1970, my high school science teacher, George Light, was telling me about getting his Master's in Education. He said he proposed doing a thesis on how schools were more suited to girls and disadvantaged boys, and had done some preliminary work. His advisor said -- most of you have already guessed -- "This is good work and an important idea. We'll never get it past the committee. Choose another topic."

January 11, 2010 5:08 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

erp:

I'm not sure what you mean about the authors blaming the culture for boys exuberant behavior.

Their culture wants to change boys' nature to make them more like girls and unfortunately with the help of drugs like Ritalin, they're succeeding to some large extent.


Depends on what the meaning of culture is. Intellectual culture, not mass culture, is the one offended by intrinsic boyness.

Bret:

[Intrinsic boyness is] a combination of nature and nurture, just nobody knows what the ratio is between nature and nurture.

Ironically, the intellectuals almost exclusively believe in evolution, yet just as exclusively prone to discounting its consequences. Given the differing life demands on males and females, how could they not be irrevocably different? All other mammals certainly are.

Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate slaps nurture enthusiasts pretty hard.

Bob:

Why I am I not breathless with astonishment?

January 12, 2010 2:34 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, your link goes to the comment box at GGW?

January 12, 2010 2:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Where better place for a link to go?

I actually meant to get the post, not the thread, which shows the disconnect between intellectuals and everyone else.

January 12, 2010 3:56 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Ironically, the intellectuals almost exclusively believe in evolution, yet just as exclusively prone to discounting its consequences."

Not exactly. They believe that evolution has produced brains that have little instinct left and lot's of adaptability. Certainly it has some adaptability.

I haven't read The Blank Slate for a while, but my recollection is that Pinker does a good job at disproving a completely blank slate. I don't remember him arguing for no adaptability.

Again, in Europe, somehow men and women are much more similar in behavior so there's something to it.

January 12, 2010 4:26 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 12, 2010 5:53 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I suppose if we banned "problematizing the obvious" then whole swathes of academia would disappear overnight, leaving thousands unemployed.

January 14, 2010 4:28 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

Obviously, I think they are unemployed now.

January 15, 2010 2:10 PM  

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