A War Against Boys?
By Michael Kimmel
Doug Anglin isn't likely to flash across the radar screen at an Ivy League admissions office. A seventeen-year-old senior at Milton High School, a suburb outside Boston, Anglin has a B-minus average and plays soccer and baseball. But he's done something that millions of other teenagers haven't: he's sued his school district for sex discrimination.
Anglin's lawsuit, brought with the aid of his father, a Boston lawyer, claims that schools routinely discriminate against males. "From the elementary level, they establish a philosophy that if you sit down, follow orders, and listen to what they say, you'll do well and get good grades," he told a journalist. "Men naturally rebel against this." He may have a point: overworked teachers might well look more kindly on classroom docility and decorum. But his proposed remedies--such as raising boys' grades retroactively--are laughable.
And though it's tempting to parse the statements of a mediocre high school senior--what's so "natural" about rebelling against blindly following orders, a military tactician might ask--Anglin's apparent admissions angle is but the latest skirmish of a much bigger battle in the culture wars. The current salvos concern boys. The "trouble with boys" has become a staple on talk-radio, the cover story in Newsweek, and the subject of dozens of columns in newspapers and magazines. And when the First Lady offers a helping hand to boys, you know something political is in the works. "Rescuing" boys actually translates into bashing feminism.
There is no doubt that boys are not faring well in school. From elementary schools to high schools they have lower grades, lower class rank, and fewer honors than girls. They're 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, one-third more likely to drop out of high school, and about six times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
College statistics are similar--if the boys get there at all. Women now constitute the majority of students on college campuses, having passed men in 1982, so that in eight years women will earn 58 percent of bachelor's degrees in U.S. colleges. One expert, Tom Mortensen, warns that if current trends continue, "the graduation line in 2068 will be all females." Mortensen may be a competent higher education policy analyst but he's a lousy statistician. His dire prediction is analogous to predicting forty years ago that, if the enrollment of black students at Ol' Miss was one in 1964, and, say, two hundred in 1968 and one thousand in 1976, then "if present trends continue" there would be no white students on campus by 1982. Doomsayers lament that women now outnumber men in the social and behavioral sciences by about three to one, and that they've invaded such traditionally male bastions as engineering (where they now make up 20 percent) and biology and business (virtually par).
These three issues--declining numbers, declining achievement, and increasingly problematic behavior--form the empirical basis of the current debate. But its political origins are significantly older and ominously more familiar. Peeking underneath the empirical façade helps explain much of the current lineup.
If boys are doing worse, whose fault is it? To many of the current critics, it's women's fault, either as feminists, as mothers, or as both. Feminists, we read, have been so successful that the earlier "chilly classroom climate" has now become overheated to the detriment of boys. Feminist-inspired programs have enabled a whole generation of girls to enter the sciences, medicine, law, and the professions; to continue their education; to imagine careers outside the home. But in so doing, these same feminists have pathologized boyhood. Elementary schools are, we read, "anti-boy"--emphasizing reading and restricting the movements of young boys. They "feminize" boys, forcing active, healthy, and naturally exuberant boys to conform to a regime of obedience, "pathologizing what is simply normal for boys," as one psychologist puts it. Schools are an "inhospitable" environment for boys, writes Christina Hoff Sommers, where their natural propensities for rough-and-tumble play, competition, aggression, and rambunctious violence are cast as social problems in the making. Michael Gurian argues in The Wonder of Boys, that, with testosterone surging through their little limbs, we demand that they sit still, raise their hands, and take naps. We're giving them the message, he says, that "boyhood is defective." By the time they get to college, they've been steeped in anti-male propaganda. "Why would any self-respecting boy want to attend one of America's increasingly feminized universities?" asks George Gilder in National Review. The American university is now a "fluffy pink playpen of feminist studies and agitprop 'herstory,' taught amid a green goo of eco-motherism . . . "
Such claims sound tinnily familiar. At the turn of the last century, cultural critics were concerned that the rise of white-collar businesses meant increasing indolence for men, whose sons were being feminized by mothers and female teachers. Then, as now, the solutions were to find arenas in which boys could simply be boys, and where men could be men as well. So fraternal lodges offered men a homo-social sanctuary, and dude ranches and sports provided a place where these sedentary men could experience what Theodore Roosevelt called the strenuous life. Boys could troop off with the Boy Scouts, designed as a fin-de-siècle "boys' liberation movement." Modern society was turning hardy, robust boys, as Boy Scouts' founder Ernest Thompson Seton put it, into "a lot of flat chested cigarette smokers with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality." Today, women teachers are once again to blame for boys' feminization. "It's the teacher's job to create a classroom environment that accommodates both male and female energy, not just mainly female energy," explains Gurian.
WHAT'S WRONG with this picture? Well, for one thing, it creates a false opposition between girls and boys, assuming that educational reforms undertaken to enable girls to perform better hinder boys' educational development. But these reforms--new classroom arrangements, teacher training, increased attentiveness to individual learning styles--actually enable larger numbers of boys to get a better education. Though the current boy advocates claim that schools used to be more "boy friendly" before all these "feminist" reforms, they obviously didn't go to school in those halcyon days, the 1950s, say, when the classroom was far more regimented, corporal punishment common, and teachers far more authoritarian; they even gave grades for "deportment." Rambunctious boys were simply not tolerated; they dropped out.
Gender stereotyping hurts both boys and girls. If there is a zero-sum game, it's not because of some putative feminization of the classroom. The net effect of the No Child Left Behind Act has been zero-sum competition, as school districts scramble to stretch inadequate funding, leaving them little choice but to cut noncurricular programs so as to ensure that curricular mandates are followed. This disadvantages "rambunctious" boys, because many of these programs are after-school athletics, gym, and recess. And cutting "unnecessary" school counselors and other remedial programs also disadvantages boys, who compose the majority of children in behavioral and remedial educational programs. The problem of inadequate school funding lies not at feminists' door, but in the halls of Congress. This is further compounded by changes in the insurance industry, which often pressure therapists to put children on medication for ADHD rather than pay for expensive therapy.
Another problem is that the frequently cited numbers are misleading. More people--that is, males and females--are going to college than ever before. In 1960, 54 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls went directly to college; today the numbers are 64 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls. It is true that the rate of increase among girls is higher than the rate of increase among boys, but the numbers are increasing for both.
The gender imbalance does not obtain at the nation's most elite colleges and universities, where percentages for men and women are, and have remained, similar. Of the top colleges and universities in the nation, only Stanford sports a fifty-fifty gender balance. Harvard and Amherst enroll 56 percent men, Princeton and Chicago 54 percent men, Duke and Berkeley 52 percent, and Yale 51 percent. In science and engineering, the gender imbalance still tilts decidedly toward men: Cal Tech is 65 percent male and 35 percent female; MIT is 62 percent male, 38 percent female.
And the imbalance is not uniform across class and race. It remains the case that far more working-class women--of all races--go to college than do working-class men. Part of this is a seemingly rational individual decision: a college-educated woman still earns about the same as a high-school educated man, $35,000 to $31,000. By race, the disparities are more starkly drawn. Among middle-class, white, high school graduates going to college this year, half are male and half are female. But only 37 percent of black college students and 45 percent of Hispanic students are male. The numerical imbalance turns out to be more a problem of race and class than gender. It is what Cynthia Fuchs Epstein calls a "deceptive distinction"--a difference that appears to be about gender, but is actually about something else.
Why don't the critics acknowledge these race and class differences? To many who now propose to "rescue" boys, such differences are incidental because, in their eyes, all boys are the same aggressive, competitive, rambunctious little devils. They operate from a facile, and inaccurate, essentialist dichotomy between males and females. Boys must be allowed to be boys--so that they grow up to be men.
This facile biologism leads the critics to propose some distasteful remedies to allow these testosterone-juiced boys to express themselves. Gurian, for example, celebrates all masculine rites of passage, "like military boot camp, fraternity hazings, graduation day, and bar mitzvah" as "essential parts of every boy's life." He also suggests reviving corporal punishment, both at home and at school--but only when administered privately with cool indifference and never in the heat of adult anger. He calls it "spanking responsibly," though I suspect school boards and child welfare agencies might have another term for it.
But what boys need turns out to be pretty much what girls need. In their best-selling Raising Cain, Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon describe boys' needs: to be loved, get sex, and not be hurt. Parents are counseled to allow boys their emotions; accept a high level of activity; speak their language; and treat them with respect. They are to teach the many ways a boy can be a man, use discipline to guide and build, and model manhood as emotionally attached. Aside from the obvious tautologies, what they advocate is exactly what feminists have been advocating for girls for some time.
Boys' Lives and Fatherlessness
However, those feminist women, many of whom are also involved mothers, are seen not as boys' natural allies in claiming a better education but as their enemies. Fears of "momism"--that peculiar cultural malady that periodically rears its head--have returned. Remember those World War II best sellers, like Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers, David Levy's Maternal Overprotection, and Edward Strecker's Their Mothers' Sons that laid men's problems at the foot of overdominant mothers, who drained their boys of ambition and hardy manliness and led them straight to the summit of Brokeback Mountain?
Well, they're back. Now the problem with mothers is that they read The Feminine Mystique and ran out to pursue careers, which caused a mass exodus of fathers from the lives of their sons. Feminist women not only promoted girls at the expense of boys, but they kicked dad out of the house and left boys wallowing in an anomic genderless soup.
The cause of the boy crisis, we hear, is fatherlessness. Boys lack adequate role models because their fathers are either at work all the time or are divorced with limited custody and visitation privileges. Discussions of boys' problems almost invariably circle back to fathers or, rather the lack of them. But fatherlessness is not Dad's fault. It's Mom's. The debate about boys instantly morphs into a discussion of unwed mothers, single-parent families, babies having babies, and punitive and vindictive ex-wives (and their equally punitive and vindictive lawyers) who prevent men from being more present in their lives of their children. Women left the home in search of work and fulfillment, abandoning their natural role of taming men and rearing children. Feminism declares war against nature. The battle for boys is only the latest front.
This antifeminist political argument is best, and most simply, made by Harvey Mansfield, author of the recent Manliness, in a November 3, 1997, op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal. "The protective element of manliness is endangered when women have equal access to jobs outside the home," he writes. "Women who do not consider themselves feminist often seem unaware of what they are doing to manliness when they work to support themselves. They think only that people should be hired and promoted on merit, regardless of sex." When Lionel Tiger argues that "the principal victims of moving toward a merit-based society have been male," one feels a certain resigned sadness. Imagine that: it's feminists who actually believe in meritocracy.
FATHERS WOULD be present in their sons' lives (in this debate, fathers don't seem to have daughters)--if only women would let them. "Fortunately," writes pro-fatherhood activist Steve Biddulph, "fathers are fighting their way back into family life." Fighting against whom exactly? Feminist women have been pleading with men to come home and share housework and child care--let alone to help raise their sons--for what, 150 years?
As role models, fathers could provide a model of decisiveness, discipline, and emotional control--which would be useful for their naturally aggressive, testosterone-juiced sons at school. But how do these same biologically driven, rambunctious boys magically grow up to be strong, silent, decisive, and controlled fathers?
It's easy--if women do what they are biologically programmed to do: stay home and raise boys (but not for too long) and constrain the natural predatory, aggressive, and lustful impulses of their men. In leaving the home and going to work, women abandoned their naturally prescribed role of sexual constraint. Presto: a debate about fatherhood and boyhood becomes a debate about feminism.
The boy crisis would be magically solved if fathers were not exiled from family life. The spate of works about fatherhood that appeared several years ago is now being recycled in the debate about boys. Fathers, by virtue of being men, bring something irreplaceable to the family, something "inherently masculine" notes Wade Horn, assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (It is Horn who is promoting the backward idea that marriage-based programs will alleviate poverty when all available evidence suggests the opposite relationship, that alleviating poverty would actually lead to an increase in marriages.) That "inherently masculine" influence is a triumph of form over content. David Blankenhorn's catalog of specious correlations, Fatherless America, that saw fathers' absence as the source of virtually every social problem in America, doesn't call for a new fatherhood, based on emotional receptivity and responsiveness, compassion and patience, care and nurture. Instead he rails against such a father in this sarcastic passage:
He is nurturing. He expresses his emotions. He is a healer, a companion, a colleague. He is a deeply involved parent. He changes diapers, gets up at 2:00 a.m. to feed the baby, goes beyond "helping out" . . . to share equally in the work, joys, and responsibilities of domestic life.
How utterly "selfish" of him. This "reflects the puerile desire for human omnipotentiality in the form of genderless parenthood, a direct repudiation of fatherhood as a gendered social role for men." What he means is that the real father is neither nurturing nor expressive; he is neither a partner nor a friend to his wife, and he sleeps through most of the young baby's infantile helplessness, oblivious to the needs of his wife and child. This guy is a father simply because he has a Y chromosome. Men are fathers, but they are not required to do any real parenting. The father "protects his family, provides for its material needs, devotes himself to the education of his children, and represents his family's interests in the larger world"--all valuable behaviors, to be sure. But he need not ever set foot in his child's room.
The notion that men should be exempt from mundane housework and child care, which should be left to their wives, is deeply insulting to women. Feminism taught us that. But it's also deeply insulting to men, because it assumes that the nurturing of life itself cannot be our province; given how clumsy and aggressive we are, it had better be done at a distance.
Masculinity: The Missing Piece
What, then, is missing from the debate about boys? In a word, the boys themselves--or rather, what the boys feel, think, and believe--especially what they believe will make them men. None of the antifeminist pundits who seek to rescue boys from the emasculating clutches of feminism ever talks about what masculinity means to boys. The beliefs, attitudes, and traits that form the foundation of gender identity and ideology are nowhere to be found--except as some mythic endocrine derivative. "Males" are the topic, not "masculinity." Countless surveys suggest that young boys today subscribe to a traditional definition of masculinity, stressing the suppression of emotion, stoic resolve, aggression, power, success, and other stereotypic features. Indeed, the point of such successful books as William Pollack's Real Boys and Thompson and Kindlon's Raising Cain is to expand the emotional and psychological repertoire of boys, enabling them to express a wider emotional and creative range.
How does a focus on the ideology of masculinity explain what is happening to boys in school? Consider the parallel for girls. Carol Gilligan's work on adolescent girls describes how these assertive, confident, and proud young girls "lose their voices" when they hit adolescence. At that same moment, Pollack notes, boys become more confident, even beyond their abilities. You might even say that boys find their voices, but it is the inauthentic voice of bravado, posturing, foolish risk-taking, and gratuitous violence. He calls it "the boy code." The boy code teaches them that they are supposed to be in power, and so they begin to act as if they are. They "ruffle in a manly pose," as William Butler Yeats once put it, "for all their timid heart."
In adolescence, both boys and girls get their first real dose of gender inequality: girls suppress ambition, boys inflate it. Recent research on the gender gap in school achievement bears this out. Girls are more likely to undervalue their abilities, especially in the more traditionally "masculine" educational arenas such as math and science. Only the most able and most secure girls take courses in those fields. Thus, their numbers tend to be few, and their mean test scores high. Boys, however, possessed of this false voice of bravado (and facing strong family pressure) are likely to overvalue their abilities, to remain in programs though they are less capable of succeeding.
This difference, and not some putative discrimination against boys, is the reason that girls' mean test scores in math and science are now, on average, approaching that of boys. Too many boys remain in difficult math and science courses longer than they should; they pull the boys' mean scores down. By contrast, the smaller number of girls, whose abilities and self-esteem are sufficient to enable them to "trespass" into a male domain, skew female data upward.
A parallel process is at work in the humanities and social sciences. Girls' mean test scores in English and foreign languages, for example, outpace those of boys. But this is not the result of "reverse discrimination"; it is because the boys bump up against the norms of masculinity. Boys regard English as a "feminine" subject. Pioneering research by Wayne Martino in Australia and Britain found that boys avoid English because of what it might say about their (inauthentic) masculine pose. "Reading is lame, sitting down and looking at words is pathetic," commented one boy. "Most guys who like English are faggots." The traditional liberal arts curriculum, as it was before feminism, is seen as feminizing. As Catharine Stimpson recently put it, "Real men don't speak French."
Boys tend to hate English and foreign languages for the same reasons that girls love them. In English, they observe, there are no hard-and-fast rules, one expresses one's opinion about the topic and everyone's opinion is equally valued. "The answer can be a variety of things, you're never really wrong," observed one boy. "It's not like maths and science where there is one set answer to everything." Another boy noted:
I find English hard. It's because there are no set rules for reading texts. . . English isn't like maths where you have rules on how to do things and where there are right and wrong answers. In English you have to write down how you feel and that's what I don't like.
Compare this to the comments of girls in the same study:
I feel motivated to study English because . . . you have freedom in English--unlike subjects such as maths and science--and your view isn't necessarily wrong. There is no definite right or wrong answer, and you have the freedom to say what you feel is right without it being rejected as a wrong answer.
It is not the school experience that "feminizes" boys, but rather the ideology of traditional masculinity that keeps boys from wanting to succeed. "The work you do here is girls' work," one boy commented to a researcher. "It's not real work."
"Real work" involves a confrontation--not with feminist women, whose sensible educational reforms have opened countless doors to women while closing off none to men--but with an anachronistic definition of masculinity that stresses many of its vices (anti-intellectualism, entitlement, arrogance, and aggression) but few of its virtues. When the self-appointed rescuers demand that we accept boys' "hardwiring," could they possibly have such a monochromatic and relentlessly negative view of male biology? Maybe they do. But simply shrugging our collective shoulders in resignation and saying "boys will be boys" sets the bar much too low. Boys can do better than that. They can be men.
Perhaps the real "male bashers" are those who promise to rescue boys from the clutches of feminists. Are males not also "hardwired" toward compassion, nurturing, and love? If not, would we allow males to be parents? It is never a biological question of whether we are "hardwired" for some behavior; it is, rather, a political question of which "hardwiring" we choose to respect and which we choose to challenge.
The antifeminist pundits have an unyielding view of men as irredeemably awful. We men, they tell us, are savage, lustful, violent, sexually omnivorous, rapacious, predatory animals, who will rape, murder, pillage, and leave towels on the bathroom floor--unless women fulfill their biological duty and constrain us. "Every society must be wary of the unattached male, for he is universally the cause of numerous ills," writes David Popenoe. Young males, says Charles Murray, are "essentially barbarians for whom marriage . . . is an indispensable civilizing force."
By contrast, feminists believe that men are better than that, that boys can be raised to be competent and compassionate, ambitious and attentive, and that men are fully capable of love, care, and nurturance. It's feminists who are really "pro-boy" and "pro-father"--who want young boys and their fathers to expand the definition of masculinity and to become fully human.
Michael Kimmel is Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He has written widely about ideals of manhood and masculinity in American culture. His books include Manhood in America: A Cultural History (1996) and The Gendered Society (2003).