April 28, 2004
Where the Boys Aren'tBy Alex Frasca
Part one of two parts. Part two is here
A revolution in the way American society regards and treats the two sexes has been accomplished in a remarkably short period of time. Very often, this is viewed as victory for feminism, in that more career options have opened to women, and women are increasingly represented in all segments of society. But has this victory produced the predicted increased happiness for women? A quick view of the massive 'pro—choice' abortion advocates assembled in Washington, D.C. last weekend revealed very few smiles, and much rage. Today, I'll look at the changes wrought in our view of the two sexes, while tomorrow I'll examine the demographic data and implications.
He was telling us about a girl he had just been set—up with. They had a good time together at a party, so he asked her if she would be interested in going out on another date. She told him, "I wouldn't mind studying with you, but I really don't have time for a lot of dating or a boy friend."
His comment was, "What's with all of these ambitious girls?"
His question was in keeping with a number of thoughts we've been mulling over for a year or so. What indeed is it with all of these girls?
Our 9th—grade son attends a California public high school where the ratio of boys to girls is roughly 50/50. The latest edition of his school's parent's club newsletter honors the students who are achievers in various categories of academic activity. Of the first place finishers in the regional science fair, 9 out of 11 are female. The winner of the Rotary Club and Lions' Club Speech Contest are mentioned, both female. The school's Mock Trial championship team comprises 15 members; 11 are female.
The newsletter listed the names of life members in the California Scholarship Federation. Members are awarded "lamp pins" and are entitled to gold tassels at graduation as well as recognition on their transcripts. They are "members for life." Females represent 72% and 70% of the seniors and juniors listed.
My daughter is a sophomore at a California public university, and is spending the summer in Europe working as an intern in the U.S. embassy to the host country; she'll be doing this after she spends an academic semester in Greece enrolled in a classics program. There will be three interns working at the embassy; they are all female. There are 15 students enrolled in the semester in Greece and they are all female.
A brochure recently arrived in the mail for her university's summer camp for alumni and the families of students. It's filled with photos of smiley campers and their families, as well as camp counselors having fun in the Sierra. One photo is of the camp's 7 lifeguards sporting their camp uniforms. There are 6 females and 1 male. Her university's 37,000—student body is 55% female. You don't have to be much over 30 to remember when lifeguarding was predominantly a male domain; now it seems predominantly female.
Indeed, what is it with all of these ambitious and high—achieving girls...and what has happened to the boys and their ambition? Are they on their skateboards instead of on their schoolbooks?
These observations of course do not constitute a scientific study but it seems like something is going on here. Furthermore, these observations are starkly playing out in some shocking and statistically valid data discussed below.
There is a new twist on this that was recently discussed in an article entitled Boy Bashing that appeared recently in several Bay Area newspapers.
A company based in Clearwater, Florida, called David and Goliath, markets different T—shirts and journals that say:
Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them; and
Lobotomy: How to train boys; as well as pajamas that say
Boys are smelly.
These days one can also see T—shirts and other clothing that say:
I love boys. They're stupid; or
Boys are great. Every girl should have one; or
Girls rule, boys drool; or
Boys lie; or
I make boys cry; or
Boys are useless, dump them.
Hilarious aren't they? What fun! Sure is a good thing they're not talking about blacks or Jews or girls...whew!
The article talks about Jim Benton, the "creator of the 'It's Happy Bunny' line of stickers, notebooks, air fresheners and clothing," which "sells millions of products...through retail chains such as Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic."
Despite the friendly name, the cute smiley—faced bunny character has a bad attitude that's reflected in edgy mottoes, such as
Boys lie and kind of stink;
Hi loser; and
You're ugly and that's sad.
When Benton originated It's Happy Bunny, he expected the products bearing his artwork —— including a handful containing anti—boy phrases —— to appeal to young women ages 16 to 26. "It actually turned out to be much broader in appeal than we thought," he says. In the Bay Area, for instance, It's Happy Bunny can be found in shopping malls at Claire's, a nationwide retail chain that targets its accessories to girls ages 7 to 12.
"The idea behind it is not to suggest that all boys lie or stink," Benton says. "All I'm trying to do is make people laugh. I'm not trying to offend or shock anyone."
n fact, Benton recalls receiving only two complaints from parents, including one mom who thought he created It's Happy Bunny for young children.
Benton, the father of a 5—year—old daughter and 9—month—old son, is the first to point out that he would never produce slogans critical of girls.
"I don't find misogyny funny," he says. "I do find girls' contempt of men funny.
"I do find girls' contempt of men funny"? Huh? Do girls hold men in "contempt?" Is that funny?
Do you think that this might be having an effect?
Do you think a lot of this might discourage boys?
It used to be that boys could find refuge from this kind of nonsense in such organizations as the Boy Scouts. Unfortunately, the Scouts are under attack throughout the country, and public facilities, United Way contributions, and other resources are being denied to them, while some parents are less favorable toward the idea of their sons participating in Scouting.
In the last several years, a number of books have been written on related topics (The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, by Christina Hoff Sommers; The Myth of Male Power, by Warren Farrell; The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women, by Lionel Tiger; The Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents, by Michael Gurian.
The Imagery of Popular Culture
My 21—year—old son put it best: the television—ad male is almost inevitably portrayed as some variant of buffoon, nebbish, slob, or geeky nerd. "The viewers see the stupid faces of three goofing—looking white dudes (backwards baseball caps de rigueur) lit—up by the purple light of a TV screen, as they concentrate on football. But these geeks aren't even watching a real football game; they're playing a video game. The room of course is cluttered with open pizza boxes and the remnants of the other junk food that we are to assume sedentary shlumps eat.
Males are increasingly portrayed in advertising as geeks or clowns in their appearance and comportment...they are poorly dressed, weird—looking dorks, alternating between fat or crane—thin, but uniformly physically unattractive, the butt of any manner of mishap, either by their own hand or as the victim of some capable, dominant female.
In contrast, the females are always more attractive than the males; they're physically fit, often stunning. They are decisive and take—charge types: the fit looking blond in the tight navy blue, mini—skirted business suit arrives at the corporate board meeting just in time to save the company with her competent decision making while the stupefied faces of the inept males in attendance look on.
Humor and slapstick are established attention—grabbers and have long been regular components of effective advertising. But I can't remember males having such a monopoly on the fool side of the equation as they now do.
Why are the shnooks always male, virtually without exception?
Who makes these ads?
What kind of people are they?
Peter Seely (Associate Professor Communication Arts Department Benedictine University) contributed to this discussion in the early 1990's in Gender and Utopia in Advertising: A Critical Reader. In discussing one of Madison Avenue's favorite television—ad—depiction of males, viz., the "wimp," he says that:
The purpose of the advertiser in these portrayals is to alternately empower women and diminish men, either to make the man reliant upon and subordinate to the woman or to weaken him among his male peers.... At times wimps are just a step behind the woman or, in the more extreme cases, take on definite man—child qualities.
In television ads, it is common for the man to become reliant upon the woman. For example, in two Western Union ads, a man is at the mercy (or lack thereof) of a woman. In one ad, a man and woman are having dinner at a Japanese restaurant, as the chef 's cleaver casually carves up his credit card. To solve the problem, he goes to a pay phone and meekly calls "Lisa," a Western Union agent upon whom he has apparently come to rely. In another ad, a man is shown receiving a sentence for a traffic violation; and when the man repeats aloud what he must pay, the female judge says, "You can add fast, too." She may be referring to his fast driving, but she is subtly dominating him, in the way that a man in a commercial might have once said, "And she can cook, too!"
Some television ads portray a man's wife more like his mother than a marriage partner. Implicit in the cold medicine ads is the image of the mother/son relationship, such as an ad for Robitussin, where a wife enters the room with the cold medicine, while the adult male pulls the covers over his head and says, "No, not again." The same image can also be observed in an ad for Advil, where the wife takes on a similar maternal presence...
...The wimp may occasionally be contrasted with more virile, masculine men but more often shares the screen with a stronger, dominant female...She is supremely confident and in control. Sometimes this power is benign; at other times, sinister. When the latter occurs, it may very well be only in the imagination of the weak, helpless male—she is sinister only because he is so wimpish and cowardly...One might expect that advertisers would avoid offending women at all costs with such negative portrayals. It appears that while advertisers have this sensitivity toward women, however, men are "fair game" and therefore subject to a ridiculous as well as demeaning image type...
This was written in the early 90's. By now two more "types" have been added to the portfolio of images for male portrayals: the Caucasian version of a Steppin' Fetchit buffoon (always white, never black, for obvious reasons) and the fat slob.
In the film genre of this, for every Master and Commander there seems to be three times as many Meet the Parents (which, by the way, was hysterically funny). Then, there is new action genre encompassing Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, Charlie's Angels and Lara Croft Tomb Raider —— hot chicks in skintight leatherette body stockings, expert in martial arts and high tech weapons. The trailers inevitably show some fat, double—chinned white guy taking a knee in the crotch from one of these karate—kicking babes.
Women are rarely portrayed as such pathetic, semi—helpless saps. If they are victims, they are noble, pure, and hobbled only by their excess virtue.
Tomorrow: The consequences
Alex Frasca is a tax consultant in Northern California