Academic journal article Thymos

All the Boys Are Straight: Heteronormativity in Contemporary Books on Fathering and Raising Boys

Academic journal article Thymos

All the Boys Are Straight: Heteronormativity in Contemporary Books on Fathering and Raising Boys

Article excerpt

Over the past decade a rapidly growing number of books have been published on fathering and raising boys. Whilst these books purport to simply describe boyhood, this article suggests that they are in fact actively engaged in constructing boyhood and in making available to boys particular gender and sexual identities. In an analysis of ten such books, the article demonstrates how they are informed by a range of heteronormative and homophobic assumptions about boys and masculinity. Particular focus is given to constructions of the "average boy," the assumption that such boys are "naturally" attracted to girls, discourses of the "sissy" boy, and accounts of gay boys. The analysis provided suggests that constructions of the first two rely upon the negative constructions of the latter two. Implications for the ways in which we understand boys, fathering and families are drawn from the findings. Recommendations are made for research agendas that not only respect and include gay boys and their parents, but also celebrate the experiences of non-gender normative, non-heterosexual boys.

Keywords: boys, fathering, heteronormativity, male homosexuality

Over the past decade we have witnessed the development of a rapidly growing body of popular literature focusing on both fathering and raising boys. Often presented in conjunction with one another, these two topics represent a growth industry in pub- lishing on parenting, with an increasing number of new titles being added each year and at least one specific publishing house (the Men's Studies Press) focusing much of its energies on publishing work on men, masculinities, fathering and boys. Many of the books already published on fathering and raising boys report multiple editions (Biddulph, 1998; Elium & Elium, 2004), with some celebrating "10th anniversary editions" (Gurian, 2006), some claiming to be "million-copy worldwide bestsellers" (Biddulph, 1998), and others identified as "silver bestsellers" (Lashlie, 2005). This literature has not been limited to books aimed at the United States market, but includes titles written by authors in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

Whilst it may be suggested that the growing literature on fathering and raising boys responds to a gap in published research, it is important to question how this literature may also be invested in creating both a market for such research, and a particular way of understanding boys and fathers that is often normative in the way it portrays masculinity. To suggest this is of course nothing new. Authors such as Kidd (2000) and Grant (2004) propose that the recent spate of books on boys very much mirrors early twentieth-century books on boys that were aimed at celebrating "boy culture," instructing boys and their parents on how to live their lives, and countering what was then (as again now) seen as the "feminization" of family life. As such, these early books on boys and their contemporary counterparts may be seen as not simply describing boys and boyhood but actually prescribing what boyhood should be (Grant, 2004).

Historical studies of the introduction of sex education in Australia (Jose, 1999) and the United States (Carter, 2001) suggest that instruction aimed at educating children about sexuality and reproduction has primarily been aimed at reinforcing the norm of heterosexuality. In this sense and as Carter suggests, not only does sex education teach children about desire, but it also teaches them about what is considered the appropriate object of their desire, namely, someone of the other sex. As the analysis presented in this article suggests, contemporary boys are almost exclusively presented with an image of heterosexuality as the only viable identity category through which to recognize themselves as sexual beings.

In her historical examination of parenting advice in Canada, Gleason (1996, 1997) cites common themes running through such advice that are identified in the analysis provided in this article, including the focus on children needing the presence of a father figure, the supposed "threat" of homosexuality as a developmental outcome for children, and an emphasis upon heterosexual marriage as the most appropriate context in which to raise children and to which teenage intimate relations should aspire. …

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