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  • Boyology in the Twentieth Century
  • Kenneth Kidd (bio)

No earthly object is so attractive as a well-built, growing boy.

—H.W. Gibson

"Is your son physical, aggressive, difficult to manage at home and at school?" asks John Merrow in a 1998 edition of his NPR program The Merrow Report, available on audiocassette as Will Boys Be Boys? If so, join the club. Merrow's guest, the therapist and author Michael Gurian, explains: "Males tend to be testosterone driven. You and I when we were fifteen years old got seven surges of testosterone per day," and "testosterone is not a nurturing hormone; testosterone is a hormone that wants sex." Those seven surges, in tandem with "hard wiring" in the brain, clearly distinguish boys from girls, claims Gurian in the interview, and we need a "massive reeducation," even a "boy's movement," to redirect our attention to the specific features and challenges of boyhood.

Such a movement, in fact, seems to be underway. The feature article of the May 11, 1998, issue of Newsweek, titled "Boys Will Be Boys," chronicles the recent interest in boyhood, evidenced by new academic research and parent support groups and by a rash of boy-rearing and self-help manuals, notably Gurian's The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men (1996) and William Pollack's Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (1998). Apparently based in Boston, this boys' movement imitates the mythopoetic men's movement and asserts itself against the recent attention to girls. The rhetoric of crisis is at once sexist and indebted to feminism. Boys are allegedly just as at risk as girls, the argument runs, but we've ignored the warning signs. We've misunderstood biology, and in our haste to redress sexism we've ignored the physiology and culture of boys.

Some of the evidence is quite alarming; boys are statistically more likely to drop out of high school and college, to commit petty and violent acts of crime, to attempt suicide, and to be diagnosed with attention [End Page 44] deficit disorder and learning disabilities. There is cause for concern, and works such as The Wonder of Boys and Real Boys usefully interrogate attitudes that naturalize such problems as the inevitable stuff of boyhood. Even so, these works redefine gender as biological sex and presume biology as destiny. They ignore axes of definition and displacement such as race and class, arguing that social imprinting is mere "soft wiring," negligible in comparison to the hard wiring of biology. The consensus seems to be that attention to class and race, as well as the wrong kind of attention to sex difference, is precisely what has caused the current crisis. At the same time, these texts posit something called "boy culture" that seems part hard wiring, part soft wiring, at once inviolate and the site of intervention.

What Newsweek calls "a hot new field of inquiry: the study of boys" (Kantrowitz and Kalb 55) seems instead a revisitation of early twentieth-century "boyology." The Wonder of Boys and Real Boys look a great deal like the boy-rearing handbooks published in the first two decades of this century. Like their predecessors, who were closely associated with character-building agencies such as the Boy Scouts of America and the YMCA, Gurian and Pollack address a popular audience and claim expertise in the field, but they rewrite the tenets of boy work in the privatizing and custodial language of middle-class therapeutic culture. Although character has a residual life in these new books, the modern boy worker is usually a clinical psychologist. The master narrative, however, is the same: boys are misunderstood and in crisis, and they are different from (more important than) girls.

Gurian is thus particularly critical of feminism, which in tandem with progressive social movements has distorted "the simple information our ancestors have always known—that boys and girls have been wired differently for millions of years and need special, gender-specific attention" (Wonder, xiv). He doesn't see his account as troubling for girls. "We ended up with two daughters," he chuckles in the Merrow Report, and "what...


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pp. 44-72
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