'You could tell the difference'
When I was at school there was a teacher who used to reminisce about the days 'when boys were boys and girls were girls, and you could tell the difference'. It was one of his catchphrases. Another was: 'when they cut me open I'll be blue and white inside'. Blue and white were the school colours, and one of the places they were worn, naturally enough, was on the rugby pitch on Saturday mornings.
I was never there, however, because I didn't play rugby. I was hopeless at all sports, in fact. I couldn't throw, or catch and I lacked co-ordination and speed, as well as any interest in playing games. This was not a boy being a boy, in my teacher's view: I know this because he once called me a 'poof' for losing a running race during a PE lesson. I was ten. He was nicer to me after that, but I suspect only because my mother complained, which probably made matters worse as far as he was concerned. After all, not only did I not like rugby, but I was a mummy's boy to boot. And what kind of a boy is that?
I think that many people's thinking about gender has moved on since then: after all, rugby players can now be gay, and footballers can cry. We increasingly understand that the qualities we might associate with manliness (or boyhood) are not necessarily innate, and that there isn't just one way to be a man--as Butler (1990) suggests, masculinity is performative, something we 'do' in a way that varies according to social and institutional context. Like Connell (1987) it is better to use the term 'masculinities', and to think about the way our society privileges some of these discourses and marginalises others.
But what do the boys we teach think? As a teacher in a single-sex school I wanted to find out, in part because I was sometimes discouraged by the behaviour that I observed amongst the students I taught. It seemed clear to me that much of their thinking about gender in general and masculinity in particular was, to say the least, lacking in nuance. It appeared that traditional signifiers of masculinity, such as physical power or athletic prowess, were often more highly valued than other characteristics, which were given a correspondingly lower status as a result. It was also acceptable to use language that might be perceived as homophobic (for example the use of the word 'gay' as an insult), and which certainly suggested narrow, straight-jacketed thinking about the many different possible ways to be a man.
Of course, it could be argued that this is something many teenage boys go through, a phase that is the product of teenage insecurity and the search for identity that characterises adolescence. And although I am not overly concerned, in the long term, about the attitudes my students may have about these issues--I think, on the whole, that they will grow up to be fine young men, and not bigots--it does bother me, on a short-term, pastoral level, that boys who do not fit the hegemonic masculine ideal might be unhappy or, even worse, bullied by their classmates.
For this reason I decided to undertake an action research project with the aim of investigating further what boys thought about gender, and to see if there was anything I could do to enhance and broaden their understanding of manhood and masculinity. I hoped to be able to give boys the tools to think critically about the roles men are expected to play in our society, something which to me seemed particularly important in an evolving world, in which gender roles are changing and where it is no longer necessarily the case that 'boys are boys and girls are girls and you can tell the difference'. After all, these boys will eventually have jobs in workplaces that, some commentators argue, have become increasingly 'feminised' and in which traditionally masculine traits are not valued. Whether or not this is true (and many feminists would still say it is a man's world) boys and young men should certainly be able to look with clear eyes at some versions of masculinity, and to choose whether they wish to inhabit them. …