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Monday, May 21, 2007

The dangerous marketing for boys

OK, there are a lot of Really Big Problems out there these days. War, global warming, inequality, malfeasance, misery. Big problems. Bad things. This post is not about any of these things. This post is about that damn book that's going around. You know the one. The one that MotherTalk is helping to push, because apparently being a hip 21 century blogging mama should involve not only blaming the patriarchy but also using our virtual mini-megaphones to cheer it along. That book that apparently asserts that paper airplanes, tree houses, and knot-tying don't just belong exclusively to boys, but are in fact part of the male-privilege birthright that we pansy-faced emasculating feminine-centered mothers are incapable of properly transmitting to our penis-equipped offspring. Says the Wall Street Journal in an article about the book's sales success:
The unapologetic message is that boys need a certain amount of danger and risk in their lives, and that there are certain lessons that need to be passed down from father to son, man to man. The implication is that in contemporary society basic rules of maleness aren't being handed off as they used to be.
Yes, the only way a real boy can learn how to make a real paper airplane is by learning it from a real man -- one who has learned these skills via the purchase of a $24.95 book sacred rituals of transmission from father to son reaching back across innumerable generations. Mothers, don't you know, can only teach their sons girly skills, like making origami teacups and laying out place settings for twelve. Origami teacups will not impart Basic Rules of Maleness. They will not help to shape The Men of Tomorrow, who should be, of course, very, very different from the women of tomorrow. Says HarperCollins chief executive Jan Friedman, "Boys are very different." And how are they different? Well, author Conn Iggulden will tell you: "You only have to push a boy on a swing to see how much [he] enjoys the thrill of danger."

Friends, can we not bow our heads together and solemnly agree that this is teh stupid? Loving the swings=enjoying danger=true boyhood? Um. I suppose that means that my afraid-of-heights (and otherwise risk-averse) eldest child and my swing-loving youngest are already showing signs of serious transgenderism. (And never anyone mind that at my grammar school 30 years ago, it was well agreed by all concerned that the swings were for girls, while boys were off doing manly man activities involving worm torture and kickball.) I would have thought that this sort of stereotyping would have become so retro as to invoke pointing and laughing from anyone who thinks of herself as being remotely invested in gender equity. But here we are, cheering along. What the hell are we thinking?

I am not here to argue that boys and girls are absolutely equivalent or that they should be treated as such even if they're not. But I think a quick survey of any statistically significant sample of girls or former girls (like, for example, us) would turn up the non-revolutionary discovery that girls, too, think paper airplanes and tree houses are (in the technical term) der shizzle. Who didn't want a damn tree house, growing up? Who doesn't think knot-tying is an awesome skill? Is there a reason to suspect that my son will be more interested in the Battles of Lexington and Concord than my daughter? (For the record, I read him this yesterday, and he turned a pale shade of green when one of the main characters was shot, while Baby Blue seemed quite interested. Both of them, however, far preferred Henry and Mudge and the Tall Tree House.) My niece is more obsessed with codes and ciphers than my son, and I spent many hours of my own childhood trying to make a slingshot. Are we seriously nodding our heads in agreement with the proposition that the Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments are items of interest only to boys??? Would I really want to bring a book into the house that implies to my daughter that she will somehow de-feminize herself if she learns to identify common US trees? Or, for that matter, that implies that my son is somehow less of a man if he doesn't feel enthusiastic about risk and danger? Are these the kind of stereotypes that create identities we'd be happy to see our children inhabit?

Consider this. There has been plenty of talk about how boys are in crisis these days, how they are falling behind in test scores, college admissions, and other markers of achievement. For the most part the statistics behind such claims are mixed, if not outright sketchy, especially as they pertain to the adorable middle-class white boys who are inevitably profiled in such articles. But there is clear evidence to suggest that boys are more heavily affected by racial, ethnic, and class-based achievement gaps. And why is that? Is it because they are deprived of the danger and risk that are somehow necessary to create the existential state of successful manhood? Um, maybe. But this recent article from the Boston Globe about high school coaches burying former players, which includes the depressing statistic that 20 of Boston's 22 murder victims so far this year were males under the age of 30, suggests to me that perhaps -- just perhaps -- whatever it is that stands between boys and success these days is not a lack of exposure to and appreciation of danger. It suggests that, just perhaps, the boys who are actually in crisis get more than enough cultural messages demanding that they seek out danger. They don't need a dangerous book for boys. They need a you-don't-have-to-take-stupid-risks-to-prove-your-manhood book for boys. Anyone out there writing one of those?

No. Of course not. Low-income boys are not exactly lining up at their (lack of) friendly neighborhood big box bookstores to find their salvations through $24.95 paeans to tree houses, though such paeans could just as easily be marketed in any number of ways, none of which would invoke either danger or maleness as their most salient (or salable) quality. In fact, you could write a book containing most of the same information, and market it as "safe and healthy" alternative to video games, TV, overscheduling, underscheduling, whatever. Would the book garner so much press attention if it didn't have the same hooks? Probably not.

Ultimately, this is not a screed about the contents of the book. From all reports, the book itself is gorgeously written and produced, packed with fascinating nuggets of skills and information. No, this is a bit of outrage about the marketing and business decisions that we swallow and even applaud, though we know -- or we ought to know -- full well that they reinforce sexist stereotyping that straitjackets children no matter what their gender. We owe it to our daughters AND our sons to call out sexist packaging bullshit for what it is. Because, well, Jody says it best. Words matter. Words tell our kids who they're supposed to be, how they're supposed to think of themselves. Are we going to sit back and applaud while marketers give our kids the words that allow for the making of the quickest buck?

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