Academic journal article Thymos

"Real Boys" Don't Sing, but Real Boys Do: The Challenge of Constructing and Communicating Acceptable Boyhood

Academic journal article Thymos

"Real Boys" Don't Sing, but Real Boys Do: The Challenge of Constructing and Communicating Acceptable Boyhood

Article excerpt

This paper describes a digital interactive book targeted at 10-14 year old boys which aims to educate about how the voice develops during puberty. The contents are based on a conventional print book for adults. The D-book has an advocacy as well as educative role-it attempts to argue in a "boy friendly" language that singing is part of a rounded and fulsome boyhood. It has had to consider carefully how this might be communicated to a potentially skeptical young audience. "Boy friendly" literature has been condemned by the critics of right wing recuperative masculinity politics. The paper therefore critiques the picture of boyhood that has been conveyed and discusses the justifications for the compromises that have been reached.

Keywords: recuperative masculinity, singing, boy-friendly, digital book, voice, real boys

This paper addresses the question of how to present an acceptable image of boyhood through educational materials targeted at boys in order to change perceptions of identity. It arises as a consequence of a large project funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council to address the gender imbalance in choral singing. A robust tradition of boys' choral singing has co-existed in the UK for several hundred years alongside an equally robust perception that singing is for "sissies"- an activity to be avoided by "real boys." The consequent difficulties in recruiting boys to singing have been conceptualized as an issue of identity. If singing does not give a boy an identity with which he is comfortable, then he will not sing (Ashley, 2009). One of the project outputs has been a D-Book (digital interactive) entitled I'm a Boy, how high should I sing? The book has been co-authored by the author of this paper and some of the boys involved in the research. This process has included boys' theorizing on the nature of boyhood (Alderson, 2003; Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000). The D-Book is designed to appeal to boys and is written and presented in such a way as to give boys an identity with which they will feel comfortable. It is, in other words, "boy friendly."

"Boy friendly" is a dangerous term because of its association with populist right wing recuperative masculinity politics, which have been the subject of rigorous and ongoing critique by those who have looked seriously at what is conceptualised in popular discourse as the "problem with boys" (Zyngier, 2009). It is not, therefore, a term with which I would want to be associated. The problem, nevertheless, of giving boys an identity which allows them to feel at ease with what have become increasingly written about as gender atypical activities is real and shows no signs of abatement at the present time. This paper briefly recapitulates previous empirical work before describing the theorization behind the conceptualization of the D-B ook and offering a critique of the notion of "boyness" it attempts to portray. Consideration is given tensions that arise between empirical observations of how boys are and an ethical discourse of how boys ought to be. The specific questions addressed are:

* What is an acceptable image of boyhood to defend?

* How can this be put across quickly and concisely?

How Boys Are and How Boys Ought to Be: "Real Boys" and Real Boys

There is no shortage of literature that informs or critiques the notion of the "real boy." "Real boys," of course, possess high degrees of physical capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and play a lot of sport (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). "Real boys" don't work hard at "sissy" schoolwork (Epstein, Elwood, Hey & Maws, 1998), they don't learn foreign languages because these too are "sissy" (Carr & Pauwels, 2006), and of course, they certainly don't sing (Green, 1997; Harrison, 2005). The danger is that all this reduces to nothing more than fightin' fuckin' 'n football (Mac an Ghaill, 1994), a shallow parody of what boyhood might be about.

Such descriptions of how boys are owe much to those theories that stress the relational construction of gender (Kehily, 2002; Frosh, Phoenix, & Pattman, 2002; Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2003). …

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