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Ed. Magazine

Boy, Oh Boy!


A new book by three alumni details how media perpetuates the myth of hyper-masculinity.

boyhood cutout photo

It is rare for me to gain an assignment as a result of maternal profiling, but this was one such occasion.

As the mother of two boys, would I be willing to write about a new book produced by three Harvard Graduate School of Education alumni -- Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D.'89, Sharon Lamb, Ed.M.'80, Ed.D.'88, and Mark Tappan, Ed.D.'87 -- called Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes?

Without hesitation, I signed on, with the hope of emerging from the process with a new, media-savvy skill set that would help me navigate my 9- and 11-year-old sons through boyhood intact. Still, as my list of questions for the authors grew, so too did my own queries surrounding whether my husband and I had instilled enough of the right messages in our children to counteract the growing tsunami of all the others around them. Would they remain kind to their friends and committed to their schoolwork, as we hoped, or move toward a more stereotypically masculine model that has been craftily -- and expensively -- manufactured and marketed to young men?

In pursuit of the truth, and armed with the book's key points, I posed the first of many questions to my nine-year-old regarding whether he thought it was OK for boys to be considered "smart" in school.

"It's OK for now," he said, "but once boys get to high school, it's not OK anymore."

Before counting all of the ways in which I may have gotten lost on the parenting pipeline, my eyes were now fully opened to the fact that my own son was not immune to the multitude of external messages swirling around him. Whether they had been delivered by books, TV shows, or simply peer contact, I didn't know, but it was clear to me that Brown, Lamb, and Tappan did, based, in great part, on what they culled from their survey of more than 600 boys from around the country on how they perceive their path to manhood as well as what may influence them along the way. As the authors note in their book, and despite the best intentions of parents and teachers, the influences of media and marketing are "far more pervasive and insidious" than most of us would ever expect.

"They are bombarded by a million different things," says Lamb, a psychotherapist and professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, as well as the mother of two sons. "I'd rather say there isn't one thing you are going to show your son that is really bad, but the inescapability of this is that the messages are all around them. There is a cumulative effect versus one seriously bad, problematic thing."

Unfortunately for boys everywhere, that cumulative effect may be leaving its mark. While some experts, educators, and writers dispute the existence of an alleged "boy crisis," calling it a myth at best, other experts and indicators tell a different tale, one that includes compelling statistics pointing to a downward, multiyear trend in young male achievement. Today, girls perform better in school, graduate at higher rates, and earn more college degrees. Boys, on the other hand, have a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with learning disorders and placed in special education classrooms. They like school less and drop out more.

Without question, the root causes of all the aforementioned issues have a multitude of factors and theories behind them, as educators and experts point to issues of race, socioeconomic background, and male brain structure. But what about the role media plays?

"In general, our culture has taken a laissez-faire attitude about boys, thinking that what they are watching and seeing isn't going to hurt them," says Tappan, a professor at Colby College in Maine and director of its education program, "but there's a wider concern. Most people let their boys play video games, watch World Wrestling on TV, and don't give it a second thought. Our feeling is they should give it a second thought."

The Making of Boyhood
Interestingly, the birth of Packaging Boyhood was a direct result of an earlier publication by Brown and Lamb called Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes, which was released in 2006.

As the two authors promoted their award-winning book about girls at separate speaking engagements around the country, both found themselves facing the same question time and time again: "What about the boys?"

"I'd get frustrated and think, 'Why am I supposed to be an expert on boys?'" says Lamb, who, like Brown, had worked as a graduate student with former Ed School professor and noted gender studies author Carol Gilligan. "In some ways it was the other side of the coin" and in some ways, it wasn't.

Brown, a professor of education at Colby College and parent (together with Tappan) to a 14-year-old daughter, says she has mixed reactions about the expectation.

"But I understood because it was the natural question and it made a lot of sense," she says. "Even when we were writing the first book, it seemed that the media had so commercialized gender. When you watch TV and see the ads, there are rarely any products that cross gender lines. It's all pink for girls, and all speed and control and power for boys. Even in doing the research for girls we were struck by the fact that there was a different set of messages for boys."

Given their long history of focusing on girls, however, Brown says their initial reaction was, "Can you just let us focus on girls? So much had already been done on boys, so this reaction was very familiar and we were almost irritated by it, but, having done the girl book, it piqued our interest enough that we wanted to go back to it."

So they did, this time with a third party in tow, fellow Ed School alum Mark Tappan, a developmental psychologist who has also been Brown's husband since graduate school. Tappan's expertise in boys' development and education, as well as media cultural analysis, was a perfect fit, as was his work with the Maine Boys Network, an outreach organization committed to the positive emotional and academic growth of young men.

boyhood boy video game

As Tappan explains, Brown and Lamb invited him to join the project to "tackle this issue of how media and marketers shape the messages they send, and how these messages inform the broader culture conversation about boys, their academic achievement, and the other issues in their lives." Data was drawn from an online survey developed by the authors and virally distributed -- via teachers, former students, colleagues, and parents -- to a nonscientific sample of boys attending schools throughout the United States.

"We tried to get as many boys as we could, or parents of younger boys," says Tappan. "We asked them about the clothes they like to wear, the music they like to hear, the books they read, the TV shows they watch. That was a way for us to identify the things we needed to look at more closely."

Tappan also had some students from one of his Colby classes conduct media analysis, sending them to toy stores for observational research to help provide what he calls "starting points."

"We knew we wouldn't be able to cover everything," says Tappan. "We missed a lot of music and we didn't cover the whole range, but we tried to cover whole genres. In any category, there are thi
ngs we didn't look at closely, but we looked at the most popular video games or the most popular books."

Among the books closely reviewed are some found in my family's home library, including the bestselling Harry Potter series -- widely considered excellent for the role models and positive messages -- as well as the wildly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid collection, which features Greg, the young "slacker" protagonist who is bullied by his older brother, Roderick, among others. According to my nine-year-old, Greg "stinks at school and sports and only has one friend." Not exactly a figure to emulate in his mind, yet the stories clearly resonate with others. To date, the series of four books by author Jeff Kinney has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, and his website receives more than 100,000 hits per day. In March, the movie version of the series was released nationwide.

Tappan says they aren't telling people not to read books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but to be cognizant of how images are being marketed to boys and can send the message that boys aren't interested in school. Slackers, for example, are extremely popular in movies and television shows right now and while lovable, their "I don't care about anything" attitudes often apply to their education as well.

"It's another example of how the slacker image has become more and more pervasive," he says. "In our book, we looked at how pervasive the media is in general, and that is a concern. In all of these examples, our approach as parents is that you can't forbid your kid to encounter these things, but you can use them as a basis for conversations. Many parents aren't having these conversations with their boys about media." And here's why they should. As Packaging Boyhood states in its introduction, the media's portrayal of young men is a story in which those with the most power often have the wrong kind of power.

"They are the bullies, narcissistic athletes, 'dogs,' or 'players' -- the ones who call the shots and get the scantily clad, booty-jiggling, music video girls," reads the introduction. "It's a story that teaches boys that they need to avoid humiliation at all costs, seek revenge if wronged, dress to impress and intimidate, be tech savvy, show wealth, and take risks, all while pretending they don't care about any of it. This is the media's version of boy power."

As the authors discovered, boys are not marginalized or "left out" by the media in the same way girls are. Both are told that power is important, but for boys, this means being strong and powerful; for girls, it means having the power to shop or look sexy. All one has to do is walk down a cereal aisle, or peruse movie theater offerings, to see who really is king at the box office or on the cereal box. Yet boys are still being put in a defined box, pegged as rough-and-tumble risktakers who embrace a slacker, I-don't-care lifestyle.

boyhood photo superhero

"Boys are complex, interesting, and hard to pin down," write the authors. "But the way popular culture defines what it means to be a boy has become narrower and narrower."

Tappan, Lamb, and Brown also say that boys and girls, while different, are not as vastly dissimilar as media would suggest. All girls, for example, are not boy-crazy, shopaholic divas, nor are all boys aggression-loving, powerhungry players.

But how early do these stereotypical messages begin to seep in and what can counteract them? For parents who follow the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics of no TV prior to the age of two, where do these messages begin? And, for those of us who purchased dolls and kitchen sets for our sons along with Legos and Tonka toys, where did we go wrong?

"Studies show that boys and girls, as infants, are handled and treated differently by gender, and that speaks to the way we all . . . interact with kids," says Brown. "I think the media impacts children almost immediately because of the way we interact with them, but when children start to really identify around gender and class and race is around three years old. Little girls who have a lot of media influences begin to naturally assume they should like pink and princesses, and the same is true for boys, who believe that they should like dark colors and trucks. Boys are also told that real boys don't cry and big boys don't act this way.

"In terms of play, there's a little more gender bending for girls allowed; girls can do sports, play with trucks, and be tomboys," continues Brown. "While this is outside of my experience, my inclination is that fantasy is a really important part of kids coming to know who they are, and being able to cross gender boundaries is a healthy exploration. A boy is not going to become a girl because he dresses in girl's clothing, for example, but in this culture, because there is so much anxiety around masculinity, there is pressure for fathers not only to be masculine themselves but to raise 'real' boys."

Nor is a boy going to become a bad guy, say the authors, because he reads some of the books, watches some of the shows, or listens to types of music that portray males as less than exemplary role models.

"One of our messages in the end is there are still really important conversations parents and teachers can have with boys about the narrow stereotypes that are not benign but could have an effect on their propensity for violence or their performance in school or how they treat girls," says Tappan. "At Colby, there is an ongoing concern about the drinking culture, and by and large the most serious offenders are men. It's easy to take a 'boys will be boys' attitude, but I think there could be more conversations with boys growing up about those kinds of messages."

Continuing the Conversation
Lamb, the mother of two sons, aged 17 and 23, says she was fortunate to have live research subjects at home, even if they were not always willing participants -- a problem I also encountered when my previously quoted nine-year-old saw his name, since removed, in this article.

"I'd go see the macho movies and they wouldn't want to watch them with me," says Lamb, who subjected herself to violent, action-based films as part of her study. "I'd go out to movies alone most of the time."

What her boys did do, however, was clue her in to some disturbing websites, raising the issue that TV alone is not the enemy in perpetuating gender stereotypes toward children and young adults.

"If your children are watching TV, co-viewing with them as much as you can and talking to them about what they are watching is optimal," says Lamb. "I think we also have to get parents in the mindset that TV is not the villain. Once a child is over five or six they are bombarded with media, from other kids, the Internet, and movies. Adolescents are watching TV less and less, and they are on the computer more. Over time, we won't have the same access to what they see, so we need to teach them to be critical viewers."

And we, as parents, need to be critical viewers as well, able to offer our children commentary and constructive feedback as to what they see, hear, and read in a world that offers a limited view on the true making of a man, as the authors of Packaging Boyhood clearly show.

We also need to listen, regardless of how uncomfortable the content of the conversation may be.

"I think the most important thing always, if we are talking to boys or girls, is getting our own stuff together as adults," says Brown. "We asked them on the survey, 'How would you like adults to talk to you about this?' The response was 'tell them calmly' and 'stop overreacting.' We have to get our own stuff together and
deal with our own strong feelings so we can have a genuine conversation. . . . You can't have a conversation if you are not willing to listen."

-- Mary Tamer is a Boston-based freelance writer. Her most recent stories in Ed. looked at spaced education and the new presidents program.

Go to to learn more about the book, resources, and media literacy sites. You can also read a Q & A with the authors.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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