le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Friday, March 22, 2013

tweens, adolescence, and sexgender

I've been thinking a lot about adolescence for the last few years, and one of the things I've thought about - but not had time to really pursue - is the way American adolescent culture plays to/engages with/creates sex/gender in different ways. [note: I have not yet come to any satisfactory conclusion about how to refer to sex or gender, because neither term quite gets at what I want to express, which is something to the effect of traditionally-understood, normative traits and qualities associated with males or females, regardless of how an individual is constructed biologically (sex) or psychologically (gender - and psychologically is a problem term here too). For the purposes of this post, I'm going old-school regressive and just saying "boy" or "girl" to mean those normative, traditional qualities and characteristics, with many apologies to trans-and-pan-and-queer-and-counteridentifying persons]

Recently - a week ago or so - I wondered on facebook if "tween" is just girls, or if it includes boys as well. I always think of tween as girls; when I first encountered the term "tween," it was in an article about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and I've rarely, if ever, seen it used in connection with boys. I was surprised that my friends - all of them academics of one sort or another - replied with certainty that of course, tween includes boys.

I was pleased, then, earlier this week to read Tyler Bickford's post of the text of his paper given at this year's SCMS conference, because he writes

the sphere of children’s entertainment that is emerging the most rapidly is directed to “tweens,” who a category that is presumptively (if not categorically) made up of girls. The term, which is a cutesy play on “teen” and “between,” emphasizes an age-based tension between grown-up autonomy and childhood domesticity that resembles nothing so much as the postfeminist tension between feminism and femininity. So talk about tweens is always already gendered. It’s also always already white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist, but then childhood also, as it’s hegemonically constructed, is itself presumptively feminine, white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist.
(emphasis mine)

I felt slightly vindicated in my conviction that tween is predominantly female, and that it at least is far from obviously a category that extends itself to include males in that Awkward Age (because really, that's what tween is: ages around 11-14).

So if, as Bickford claims (and as far as my exceedingly cursory sense of it goes) the most rapidly emerging sphere of children's entertainment is for tweens, where are the boys left?

It's a rare occasion when I say "but what about the boys?!" and mean it in anything but a sarcastic way. I say it when I think about Disney Princess culture, especially as it's enacted at Disney parks, where little girls (and big girls, and adults) are routinely addressed as "Princess." There's just no character set analogous to the princesses that is "for" boys. Of course, and obviously, plenty of little boys play princess quite delightedly, and plenty of little girls scorn princessing. But the culture emphasizes little girls in its focus on princesses, and that leaves the boys with...what?

I feel like this a bit about adolescence and boys. When I browse the teen section of my library (which is often, and it's a good teen section), I'm continually aware and reminded of how many of the books have pink covers, or purple covers, or sparkly covers. Many of them have images of girls on their covers. Many of them have girls as their protagonists, and many of them are written by women, or under female pseudonyms.

When I've asked my undergrads - and because I usually teach children's lit courses, I have a painful dearth of male students - what they read while they were themselves in high school or younger, the girls can usually rattle off lists: Sarah Dessen, Twilight, Hunger Games, Gossip Girl, Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, and so on. The few boys, when I put them on the spot, usually say they didn't read much, then go on to mention James Patterson, Stephen King, maybe Neil Gaiman. Once, I had a boy student who was really into Neal Shusterman - possibly the only boy to name a young adult writer as someone whose books he read as, you know, a young adult.

Despite my general avoidance of Real-World studies and surveys and things that look like social science, I would be extremely interested in surveying a whole lot of teenage boys to see what books they read when they read voluntarily, or get to pick their material. I suspect it would be a whole lot of James Patterson-type stuff.

In class once, talking about something related to adolescence, I mentioned teen magazines - 17, YM (if that even still exists), Teen Cosmo, Teen People - then realized these were all girls' magazines. Then further realized I couldn't think of any teen magazines that weren't for girls. Once again, I put the few boys in my class on the spot and asked about magazine-reading (I supplied them with Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition just to get that awkwardness out of the way; some day I need to write and think deeply about how incredibly uncomfortable Kids These Days seem to be even acknowledging sex and erotics). The boys said: yeah, things like that, Rolling Stone, snowboarding or dirtbiking magazines, or other sport-specific ones. Those are adult publications - not in the brown-wrapper kept behind the counter sense, but just in that they are not produced with a teenage audience in mind.

so how come girls get to (or are forced to) have this distinct experience of teenager-ness, complete with rituals (prom, homecoming), periodicals, literature, movies, music, and so on?
why do we expect 14-year-old boys to be reading the same material as 34-year-old men? Is one group being "forced" to grow up too quickly? Or is one group being expected to act like teenagers their entire adult lives? Some combination of the two?

I'm concerned about the alienation of boys from YA fiction, in particular. There are some great YA books for and about boys, and plenty of the male students I teach end up really liking a lot of the "girl" books, too (Speak, for instance, always resonates with boys; they are very often the first to initiate class discussion and talk in very serious ways about how the book felt real and relatable). But the YA section as a whole looks extremely girly, and that turns boys off.
Women are attending college in markedly greater names than men now, and while I am not worried about men being oppressed and made into sad minorities, I do think that any kind of substantial gender imbalance - in schooling or in most other places - is not likely to turn out well in the end on a society-wide level. I can't help thinking that there is, or might be, or could be, a connection between the ways boys seem to be left out of this tween/teenage space of cultural production/consumption, and declining rates of college attendance. I could be totally wrong, and that's fine, but I do, for now, have the feeling that something is slightly askew here. Can't quite figure out precisely what it is, or how to correct it - is it a problem of how we're targeting girls? or a problem of how we're failing to target boys? is a creepy normative set of boy-oriented teen crap what I really want to see? (but then, how is that different from Maxim?)

I'm exceedingly interested in this, and I think it's important. I'm near the end of the list of the last people who would say that men in this country are sad, oppressed victims, but I do think that boys are being left out of an important cultural space. And that space also seems to be dedicated almost entirely to building and reinforcing traditional ideas about girl-ness and femininity in a way that is very hard for me to see as feminist or empowering or anything progressive and positive. This is a problem, and I think it's a big one - and it's one we need to be thinking about closely and carefully.

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