Thinking about affirmative feminist boys studies

9 June 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
A boy slams a door on a girl and her mother says, “You’re OK. He did it ’cause he likes you.” A father tells his son in a backyard cricket game, “Don’t chuck like a girl, mate.”

These were scenes in recent Australian advertising campaigns against domestic violence, well intended but sending negative messages to the boys and families they aimed to educate. 

“They risk alienating boys from the conversation,” said Dr Tim Steains in a presentation with Dr Jessica Kean at a SSSHARC Huddle, which examined the question, “Can there be an affirmative feminist boys studies?”

The day-long discussion in December 2019 brought together about 20 Australian and international researchers in gender and cultural studies, education, sociology, communication, and social justice to consider how to develop the emerging field of boys studies while upholding the values of feminism and girls studies.

Participants at the ‘Can there be an affirmative feminist boys studies?’ SSSHARC huddle.

Participants at the ‘Can there be an affirmative feminist boys studies?’ SSSHARC Huddle held in December 2019. Photo credit: Dr Shawna Tang

Catherine Driscoll, Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, is a member of the university’s new boys studies group, along with other speakers who brought different perspectives to their shared concerns.

She explained her aim in a paper published in Cultural Studies Review in December, and outlined at the Huddle: “The popular sense that an unbridgeable chasm lies between feminists and those concerned about boys is both a cultural and intellectual problem.

“What seems most urgently needed is thus an affirmative feminist boys studies, by which I mean research that does not position boys as problems simply because they are boys, and considers the values produced in and around boy culture with careful attention to context.

“I am not calling for something as simple as more positive stories about boys, but for productive feminist engagement with dominant, residual and emergent ideas about them, and how these articulate with contemporary boys’ experiences.”

Boys are more than a cipher for a society in crisis

Driscoll began her academic work in the 1990s, “the crucible from which girls studies emerged as a self-aware field, buoyed by a wave of highly visible discourses on girl empowerment” ranging from the riot grrls and Spice Girls to new educational policies. From there flowed “new, fundamentally feminist, assumptions through many institutions, industries, communities and families”.

Like others in gender studies and feminism, she has resisted the urge to talk about boys for fear of undermining hard-won gains, but considers it essential now to study boys as more than “not yet men” and “a cipher for a society in crisis”.

Anoop Nayak, Professor of Social and Cultural Geography at the University of Newcastle in the UK, gave a talk about his recent work on what it means to be a man, and countering toxic masculinity.

Anoop Nayak, Professor of Social and Cultural Geography at the University of Newcastle, UK

Anoop Nayak, Professor of Social and Cultural Geography at the University of Newcastle, UK

His research took him into classes of 9 to 10 year olds in three schools in the north of England, where he opened conversations with children by asking them to paint pictures and play with a bag of toys. If a girl pulled out a fire engine or a boy a pink Barbie doll, the class erupted in laughter.

“We asked what is permissible and what is not, and why,” said Nayak. “Get in early,” he advised others wanting to observe and influence gendered behaviour.

CJ Pascoe, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, spoke via Zoom about her research into boys’ use of homophobic epithets. In her 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag, she wrote about how they used such language “to train each other how to be men”.

Now they use the epithets in the same way on Twitter, with a twist. Boys add the words “no homo”, meaning “I’m not a homosexual”, to any comment that expresses friendship, affection, or even enjoyment of a sunset or chocolate or soccer.

“What we’re requiring young men to do is to use the phrase “no homo” to innoculate themselves against feeling emotion,” Pascoe said. Homophobia is still “an organising principle of masculinity in western cultures”.

But to her surprise, the analysis of 1061 tweets showed homophobic comments were used more often to express positive than negative emotions, reflecting a complex response to changing attitudes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

“My mother made me crash my car”

Many speakers referred to images of boys in popular culture. Dr Timothy Laurie from UTS cited the “man-child” played by Adam Sandler in the movie Billy Madison; “baby-men” in television series Married with Children and Modern Family. Even the film Lion had the unexpected message that mothers need to be less clingy and boys need space.

Dr Timothy Laurie, UTS speaking at the SSSHARC huddle.

Timothy Laurie (centre), Lecturer in the School of Communication at UTS speaking at the SSSHARC Huddle next to Catherine Driscoll, Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney (left) and CJ Pascoe, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon (right). Photo credit: Dr Shawna Tang

The ABC’s top-rating children’s cartoon, Bluey, about an anthropomorphised family of blue heeler dogs, presents a working mother and a father who cares for his children. Even so, in one episode the kids go to the swimming pool with their “fun dad” and find he’s forgotten to bring any toys or equipment. “Chilli [the mother] represents discipline and order; Bluey [the father] is fun, he’s a kid.” Laurie said.

He described He’ll Be OK by Celia Lashlie as typical of advice books that blame mothers for over-mothering and not preparing boys for the real world. He satirised the attitude as, “Boys crash cars because they never made their own sandwiches.”

Dr Grace Sharkey also talked about boys “who cannot grow up”. She has studied the phenomenon of incels (involuntary celibates), men who blame feminism for their failures and are often drawn to the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s controversial teaching about masculinity. “To dismiss Peterson is counterproductive,” she said. 

Two speakers addressed the particularities of transgender boys, who can be as subject to stereotypes as other boys.

Sydney University’s Dr Shawna Tang presented a 2019 documentary film, TransKids directed by Hilla Medalia, which follows the wide array of choices and support given to teenagers in Israel – “one of the most progressive LGBTQ societies” despite the strong influence of religion and the military.

By contrast, Dr J. R. Latham from Deakin University said: “Being trans in Australia is pathologised. Trans medicine and intersex medicine aim for a gender-normative future. 

“We have to try to think of transgender as something other than a mental illness that can be diagnosed and treated,” he said, also noting, “There’s been a masculinist turn in gender studies since it stopped being women’s studies.”

Why boys studies has not crystallised

Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell, a prominent sociologist for 40 years, gave a historical context to explain “why boys studies has not crystallised as some other areas of gender studies have”.

In the 1970s gender equity for girls was the major concern of education policy. By the early 2000s, under the Howard Government, there were equity programs for boys, emphasising their different intellectual needs.

Now one of the most active areas of Australian feminism focuses on violence against women. There’s concern that even feminist-driven research into boys and men can be misused, and domestic violence services fear defunding. 

“I spent half my career being seen as undermining the feminist position by focusing on masculinity and saying all men aren’t the same, they’re not all monsters,” said Connell, an advocate for “multiple masculinities”.

She encouraged scholars to be aware of the political atmosphere they work in and to direct their findings to a wide range of users, including parents, teachers, curriculum makers, teacher educators, health professionals and criminologists.

Driscoll said later that several strong ideas had emerged from the Huddle. There are plans for a series of workshops furthering research and looking towards major publications, a grant application, and a teaching case study on boys and feminism within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences interdisciplinary impact unit. CJ Pascoe will be a SSSHARC-funded visiting fellow at the university in 2021.  

“Can there be an affirmative feminist boys studies?” Huddle was held on December 11, 2019 at Women’s College, University of Sydney.      

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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