We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love before Girl-Craziness

Article excerpt

We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love before Girl-Craziness by Jeffrey P. Dennis. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2007, x + 283 pp.

For decades adults and adolescents have assumed that when boys reach puberty their hormones begin to flood their bodies and induce in them a form of insanity that has been called "girl craziness." We now question the assumption in this phrase that the lust of teenage boys is always heterosexual, and we see the normative work the pirrase "girl craziness" accomplishes in our culture, erasing homosexual desire and the whole range of complex desires a teenager is capable of feeling. Still, American popular culture-television, film, music, advertising, journalism, fiction-continues its portrayals of "girl crazy" teenage boys. Dennis wants us to see that this was not always so.

The author's central argument is that in American popular culture from about 1900 to the end of World War II, a range of popular culture texts including teen fiction, film, serials, comic books, popular journalism, radio shows, and even high school yearbooks employed formulaic narratives and images for and about teenage boys engaged in "homoromantic," not "heteroromantic," relationships. Girl craziness in that period was seen as infantile or effeminate. Instead, boys "were encouraged to form intimate passionate bonds with other boys or with men, romantic friendships, or homoromances" (p. ix). These relationships were more intense, intimate, and exclusive than "ordinary same-sex friendships," but the homoerotic gaze in these representations never crossed the line into homosexual acts. Dennis wants to know why these homoromance narratives flourished when they did and why they all but disappeared by the end of World War II. He understands that "hetero-mania" (p. 1) is an ideological construct, and he aims to show the ideological work of that construct.

In his survey of popular culture texts constructing the homoromantic formula, Dennis detects three main types. The Boys Next Door tend to be white, s mall-town, Protestant, and wholesome. The Lost Boys, in contrast, tend to be of immigrant stock, urban, working class, sometimes crude, and often Catholic. The Adventure Boys use the world as their playground, and they often introduce the orientalist desire for the exotic other. Running through these types is an absence of heterosexual interest. Girls appear in these homoromances, but they are not the objects of the boys' erotic gaze. Paradoxically, notes Dennis, pre-teens in the texts from 1900 to World War II sometimes have heterosexual obsessions, but during this period the "girl crazy" teenage boy was "framed as deviant" (p. 11).

Dennis asks the excellent question, "Whose interests did the homoromantic narrative serve?" One group was the largely closeted gay writers, actors, producers, and directors who were adept at presenting coded homoerotic films and novels. Another group was the "homosocial public sphere" that could be an audience for these narratives . And a third interest would have been shared by many-a fear of the feminization of American culture in the early twentieth century.

Dennis devotes separate chapters to each of the three types of boy. The Boy Next Door appears early in series novels (beginning with Horatio Alger) read in large quantities by boys from 1880 to 1930. Dennis explores the film version of this type by tracing in some detail the careers of Jackie Cooper and Freddy Bartholomew. A strength of Dennis's book is that he does close readings of many "B-movies" that film critics and culture critics usually ignore. His reading of Tom Brown's School Days (1940), for example, makes me want to look again at that film. He also offers an interesting, extended discussion of the immensely popular Hardy Boys novels (first published in 1937), explaining how a homoromance between two brothers solves any suggestion that homoromances lead to actual homosex.

The Lost Boys are familiar figures from both the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when teeming hordes of urban, immigrant "street Arabs" stimulated discussions of juvenile delinquency and the creation of youth organizations like the Boy Scouts. …