- “Stories People Tell”Myths of American Masculinity
Near the end of From Boys to Men: Rhetorics of Emergent American Masculinity, Leigh Ann Jones discusses the inevitable power of myths about identity. She argues, “While American youth organizations for males draw from myth to serve specific political purposes, I contend that it is not possible or even desirable for boys to avoid entirely incorporating myths into their identities” (111). Jones is no promoter of the “youth organizations for males” that she analyzes: the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the Sigma Chi fraternity at Columbia, and the US Army. She does emphasize, however, that identity myths matter, and her rhetorical analysis of artifacts from these organizations explores the ambiguous internal architectures of these myths. Jones’s orientation to myth and identity aligns with, among others, the linguist Deborah Cameron (2007: 4), who suggests that myths can have dual meaning as “widespread but false belief[s]” but also, importantly, as “stor[ies] people tell in order to explain who they are, where they have come from, and why they live as they do.” Cameron’s and Jones’s insights on myth, and the concomitant analytical methodologies, are promising pathways for teachers looking to help [End Page 359] students think more capaciously about questions of identity. While a true-or-not inquiry into a given myth tends toward the closed-ended, an inquiry into the meanings and uses of identity myths in context, perhaps through a class discussion or writing prompt, opens space for students’ critical observation and analysis.
Jones’s rhetorical analysis of organizations for young men is driven by the theoretical description and application of her method for investigating such myths as well as her method for facilitating her own upper-level composition students in their own investigations. While Jones’s actual analysis is fascinating, her approach to examining masculinity and young people—and in the research and pedagogical implications of that approach—may be the most significant contribution of this book. The approach is even more remarkable for its dexterity in addressing an evident scholarly gap in the field of composition and rhetoric: potential intersections with the field of critical masculinity studies. Jones calls work on such intersections “incomplete” after Robert J. Connors’s work, and it is important to understand her book as, in part, an attempt to (re)start that conversation.
Jones’s concern in From Boys to Men is with particular sets of myths underlying what she calls rhetorics of “emergent masculinity” or “becoming a man.” She defines emergent masculinity in these contexts as “a set of language practices using oaths, mission statements, creeds, and handbooks to construct young males as subjects in the process of becoming hegemonic men who fill a key role in the nation” (120). Jones notes that emergent masculinity as a construction can be highly visible; she suggests that this becoming is “perhaps the most fundamental element of representations of masculinity in the United States” (2). In addition to being visible, she argues that Americans are often led to believe that emergent masculinity “is an enduring natural phenomenon and an essential component of American identity, and that the outcomes of the transformation process have important consequences for the United States as a nation” (4). Jones establishes much of the exigency for her book by claiming that emergent masculinity is visible, natural, and important in the perceptions of Americans.
Given the exigence of myths of emergent masculinity, one of Jones’s most fundamental arguments is that we need to find productively critical ways of examining these myths. Her theoretical framework, established in chapter 1, calls on Kenneth Burke’s theory of rhetoric as performance as well as subsequent rhetoricians’ notions of constitutive rhetoric. Jones emphasizes that, for Burke, identity performances in a given rhetorical situation both create and are created by that situation. Neither the identity nor the situation [End Page 360] is ever static; they are, rather, constantly made and remade. She argues that rhetoric as performance “explains how language moves boys and young men to imagine themselves...