Boys in Children's Literature and Popular Culture: Masculinity, Abjection, and the Fictional Child

By Wu, Andrea Mei-Ying | Thymos, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Boys in Children's Literature and Popular Culture: Masculinity, Abjection, and the Fictional Child


Wu, Andrea Mei-Ying, Thymos


Boys in children's literature and popular culture: Masculinity, abjection, and the fictional child by Annette Wannamaker. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2007, 200 pp.

Since the publication of John Stephens' (2002) Ways of Being Male: Representing Masculinities in Children's Literature and Film, a pioneering collection of edited works on boyhood/masculinity studies in the field of children's literature, the boy subject(s), whether in literary, historical, or social contexts, have become a significant source of academic attention and research inquiry in children's literature scholarship. Kenneth Kidd's (2004) Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale and Lorinda Cohoon's (2006) Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840-1911 are two prominent examples of such scholarly endeavor. In line with the earlier critical works to mark out the complexity of boy culture as well as boy issues, Annette Wannamaker's Boys in Children's Literature and Popular Culture constitutes a timely and crucial response to the growing interests and concerns of boys as gender(ed) subjects, in particular, in contemporary children's and young adult novels, popular films, comic books, as well as television programs that appeal to boys and young men. With careful examinations of those cultural artifacts for boys, she offers readers a critical insight into the complex connection, contradiction, and contestation of boyhood discourses.

In the Prologue, Wannamaker presents a detailed discussion of the current "boy crisis" discourses. The so-called boy crisis, as Wannamaker and other scholars point out, depends largely on the political or ideological position the authors of the boy books hold. Child psychologists, such as Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson in Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and William Pollack in Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, specifically affirm that boys need allowance for emotional expressions to be what they truly are and/or to maintain a healthy life. Speaking for the Political Right's concern over boys' feminization, Christina Hoff Sommers in The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men however asserts that what is at stake with boys is not a lack of emotional outlet but a denial to the traditional view and value of boys will be (tough) boys. Seeing the discrepancy between the converse discourses on boy crisis, Wannamaker astutely argues that boys in both cases are often taken as "a blank slate for adult fears and desires" (p. 4). Part of the reason she contextualizes her discussion of boys in children's and adolescent literature within current controversial debates about boys in crisis is to raise our attention to the way "such public discourse makes its way into the texts" written for children and young adults and how such discourse "affects the ways we read and understand those texts" (p. 3).

With an aim to explore the variety and multifaceted dimensions of boy subjects fabricated in children's literature and popular culture, she incorporates and scrutinizes a wide range of "boys' texts" (i.e., texts that are for and about boys and that boys love to read or watch), including "Disney films, television programs, video games, manga, anime, comic books, adventure stories, and novels" (p. 16). Refusing to see that "popular, commercially successful texts are inherently negative, amoral, or the causes of illiteracy and violence among America's boys and young men" (p. 23), she argues instead that those texts popular among children and young adults are actually significant cultural sites or artifacts for critical scrutiny, because those texts might substantially shape or mirror boy readers (viewers) in ways that form their positions and perceptions as gendered subjects. Drawing upon feminist theory, psychoanalysis, and sociology among others, she particularly looks into the nuances of how dominant versions of masculinity are often constructed as such against an abjected Other (the feminine or the queer) in popular children's texts. …

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