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The Lion and the Unicorn 27.3 (2003) 433-436
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John Stephens, ed. Ways of Being Male: Representing Masculinities in Children's Literature and Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.
This collection of thirteen essays, to paraphrase Perry Nodelman's inaugural contribution "Making Boys Appear," works hard to make masculinity "appear" in the cultural and critical scene of children's literature and film. Or rather, the focus is on masculinities; the book examines hegemonic alongside and against counterhegemonic ideologies of manhood. The essays revolve around a central question: what does normative masculinity look like, and what signs of resistance can we see--or do we hope to see--in cultural production for the young? Here's a representative version of the book's agenda, taken from the collaborative essay of editor John Stephens and Beverly Pennell: "It is important in literature for children that the gendering processes be made visible if they are to be redressed and subjectivities represented which are not unthinkingly gendered in traditional ways" (182).
Although there are nods to other scholars of masculinity, the presiding critical spirit is R. W. Connell, Professor of Education at the University of Sydney and author of Masculinities (1995) and The Men and the Boys (2001). Connell introduced the term "hegemonic masculinity" into critical discourse, even if, as Stephens acknowledges in the preface to Ways of Being Male, that term has become nearly synonymous with misogyny and homophobia. Historians of masculinity seem to feel compelled to offer hope for the future in the form of kinder, gentler masculinities, and to their credit, the contributors to this volume warn against that utopian impulse and remind us that the hegemonic and counterhegemonic are not so easily distinguished.
Contributors address a wide range of genres, from picture books to "junior fiction" to Disney films to young adult literature. This range is one of the book's strengths. Nodelman's opening essay is an interesting meditation on his own "regendering" pedagogical practices, which he explains with examples (e.g. what happens in class if we transform [End Page 433] Sendak's wild thing Max into Maxine?). Kerry Mallan argues for the continuity of children's picture books with visual culture more broadly; Mallan is also the only contributor to acknowledge the psychoanalytic literature on masculinity (more on that later). Victoria Flanagan tackles a more controversial subject, female-to-male crossdressing, which, she contends, helps illuminate the social workings of gender as well as genre. Mallan's conclusion is simple--female-to-male crossdressers are often valorized, even to the point that masculinity is acknowledged as a construct, as in Disney's Mulan--but her examples are fascinating. Mulan and other recent Disney films are the subject of Robyn McCallum's piece; McCallum usefully identifies the strategies by which some of these films avoid the feminizing and homoerotic implications of bodily displays of masculinity.
For me, the most interesting essay is "Making the Invisible Visible: Stereotypes of Masculinity in Canonized High School Literature," by Ingrid Johnston and Jyoti Mangat. Drawing from their own ethnographic work in U.S. and Canadian high schools, Johnston and Mangat look at the gendered responses of students to hypercanonical texts like The Crucible, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye. Teachers routinely teach these books, they point out, because they were taught those very titles; implicitly at issue here, even if the authors don't dwell on this, is the reproductive work of literary capital and English education. What Johnston and Mangat do emphasize in their analysis is telling enough. "The vast majority of the boys [in their study] consider that their in-school literature is not reflective of the roles of males in contemporary society," they note, whereas about half the girls surveyed feel that those same depictions of rugged, even abusive masculinity are quite realistic. Such a disparity points to different conclusions, one of which is that girls are right to think that boys get away with abusive behavior. Johnston and Mangat opt instead for a more upbeat conclusion...