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It's time for us to rethink boyhood


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Gender: It's back with a vengeance, but also with a twist. Fox television has launched The Boyz Channel and The Girlz Channel, sex-differentiated cable networks. Toys R Us is creating separate girls' and boys' zones in their stores. And in elementary classrooms and schoolyards across the country, the boys and girls seem, as much as ever; to be from different species: the girls talk, draw, read; the boys yell, punch, can't sit still. My daughter Emma knows what all girls know. Boys are stupid and annoying.

We children of the '6Os thought that gender was a social construction. We thought that if you raised boys and girls the same, they'd turn out the same. And maybe more importantly, we thought that the difference between boys and girls was wrong and oppressive, especially for girls. We thought that gender difference was a patriarchal plot.

And so when it came time to have babies of our own we took our shot. We went for green rather than pink and blue. We stocked our little girls' rooms with trucks and bought dolls for our boys. We changed the word "fireman" to "firefighter." We sat the kids down in front of ungendered television shows, in fact shows that were almost desperate in their political correctness: "Sesame Street," "Barney."

And we failed. We found out that if gender was a patriarchal plot, it was a damn good one, hard as hell to resist. And maybe we started to suspect that it wasn't a plot after all, that there was something (gasp) in the hormones. Our boys wanted to go bow hunting with Nerf products or fight with Star Wars Light Sabers. Men kept getting nominated for president of the United States and going to movies that consisted mostly of explosions. Finally we gave up and started reinstituting painful truisms like "boys will be boys."

So difference has returned. But this time around difference is different. Mass androgyny has turned out to be something that we couldn't quite get behind. So much rests on differences between genders: desire rests on it, for one thing. And cross-dressing. And whole sectors of our economy. Androgyny would be asking us to give up too much fun and profit. But though the feminist movement didn't succeed in eliminating gender; perhaps didn't end up wanting to, it did succeed in remaking femininity in an interesting way. You'll still find Barbie in the girls' zone of Toys R' Us (though Mattel has lately reported disappointing sales), but you'll also find girls checking out with roller blades, video games, and WNBA official basketballs. Much of what they're buying has "Girl Power" or "Grrrlz Rule" emblazoned across it. Bad sass attitude is a superficial sign of deep change in our popular culture and in the lives of our children.

A perfect symbol of today's girlery is the Cartoon Network show "The Powerpuff Girls." Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup are cute little preschoolers with big eyes & a tendency to play house. But when bad guys threaten Townville, they prosecute with extreme prejudice. They're made of sugar, spice, everything nice, and... Chemical X. ~Girls today have a wider selection of off-the-rack personae. They can be sporty. They can be fern. They can be computer freaks. They can kick butt. There is now a major subset of popular culture that caters to them and offers fuel for their identities, options, and even pride. For the first time, the idea of being a girl is radically open.

One has the sense that femininity is in flux, and that the people who are girls today will he an unprecedented generation of women.

I wish I could be as optimistic about future men. One might think that as the meaning of femininity changes, the meaning of masculinity would also be at stake, but it doesn't seem to be. Boys seem to be stuck in the same old categories of jocks and geeks, with the jocks at the top of the masculine hierarchy.

Indeed, though attitudes toward masculinity have become more hostile because of the same feminism that opened the concept of femininity, boys don't seemed to be offered anymore options. Masculinity still means aggressiveness, but now that aggressiveness is frowned on and pathologized, to the undoubted delight of the makers of Ritalin.

Masculinity in boys seems to be something to be treated rather than something to be celebrated. And the popular culture that is aimed at boys seems to have changed very little. If girls are into basketball now, there is no corresponding opening of possibilities for boys. A boy who plays with Barbies is still a gender anomaly who is going to be teased within an inch of his life.

The quality of pop culture aimed at boys is poor and the messages very limited.

"Dragonball Z" on the Cartoon Network is my son Sam's latest obsession. It's all about cool heroes with cool powers fighting the bad guys and trying to collect the dragonballs so they can make a wish. Things for boys don't seem to have changed all that much since He-man was mastering the universe. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against fighting or against heroes or against dragonballs and wishes.

But if l could make my own wish, it would be that our understanding of masculinity could keep pace with our understanding of femininity, and not only because it might produce more interesting television.

If we don't rethink boy- and manhood, we risk creating a seriously asymmetrical generation of young people in which the females have changed but the males haven't, in which femininity is cool and masculinity is medicated. We're creating a generation of boys who are going to be puzzled and conflicted about how to be men. In fact, most men are already puzzled about how to be men.

The Boyz Channel is trying. It has a show called "Boyzopolis," "an original production that explores issues important to real boys' lives.

Here's a sample:

"Being an ideal man doesn't necessarily mean the one with the biggest muscles." That's at once an expression of hope that masculinity can be opened up and an admission that it hasn't been. So are boys about to throw out their dumbbells in an ecstatic bra-burning moment? I doubt it.

Hardly anyone still dreams of eliminating the difference between boys and girls. But we can dream of opening up possibilities for new ways to inhabit gender. If our popular culture is any indication, girls are finding that opening.

And boys? Well, maybe. My 12-year-old recently started asking his mother to highlight his hair, and now all his friends are coming over, frost caps and bleach packs in hand.

The dudes on Nickelodeon's Rugrats-grow-up show, "RocketPower," are cool, yet interested in relationships. Maybe in a few years being a boy will be.

-Crispin Sartwell teaches media criticism at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg.


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