Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Packaging Boyhood

While I've never been particularly girly, I'm sure that my childhood was shaped by my gender. That's something I'm thinking about now as I find myself raising a household of boys. What can I expect? What will be different? What influences boys and affects their character? We're still in the Elmo and Thomas the Train stage in my house, but I know that tough pop culture messages seep in more quickly than parents often realize.

So I was intrigued when I received a copy of Drs. Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb and Mark Tappan's Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. The book documents "the narrow version of boyhood that is sold to our sons"-- a version that involves violence, being aloof and non-emotional, not caring about academic achievement, and often disrespecting women, or at least not seeing them as partners in this adventure called life.

I had interviewed Lamb, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, about girls and media in the past because she previously co-authored a book called Packaging Girlhood. She agreed to join us here at Gifted Exchange for a short Q&A.

Gifted Exchange: You (well, 2 of 3 of you...) wrote Packaging Girlhood before Packaging Boyhood. Is it tougher to raise girls or boys these days, or is that the wrong question to be asking?

Lamb: Thanks for mentioning that it might be the wrong answer. We are so trying to get away from 'battle of the sexes' and even though you're not really going down that lane, it's close enough. It's hard to raise kids and I find raising boys has particular challenges related to the kinds of stuff being thrown at them about what it means to be a boy or man in this society.

GE: Why do media messages aimed at young children enforce such strict gender segregation? And given that society is becoming more tolerant, why is the "sissy" label still so potent?

Lab: I think that there are a couple of reasons for the segregation. It's easier to sell to a stereotype than to a bunch of unique kids... And think about who are the people creating most media? White guys is my guess... But we all live in a world where these stereotypes abound. It's not like the creators of media start from scratch; they look around with no concern about gender stereotypes and write what they see. If we could work with these producers to be alert to the stereotypes and the harmful effects, they might write/produce differently. Re: the sissy label. It's homophobia -- and it still exists. Plain and simple.

GE: While there are plenty of slackers (and violence), at least many of the TV shows targeted at boys show the main character taking action to solve problems -- something many of us wish there was more of in girls' entertainment. Why should parents still be cautious about these messages?

Lamb: What kind of action? Sure it's a problem in girls' media that they too often are spectators... and yes boys get action. And solve problems. But with what emotional involvement? Do they have to solve these alone? Do they get friends? Can they rely on their parents? Are they allowed moments of desperation and sadness? Is the solution a solution that gets revenge? Those are the things to consider.

GE: Little girls are the target of increasingly sexualized messages from marketers. Did your research find this is starting to happen to boys, too?

Lamb: I don't think as much. But boys are being sexualized to be the ones that reinforce, call for, and celebrate the sexualization of girls as a form of bonding or to enhance their image as players... The sexualization of boys comes in the form of their not having a range of options of ways of being sexual. They can only be gung ho 24/7 and never have complex romantic feelings that might lead them to back away at times rather than "go for it."

GE: What advice would you give parents of highly gifted boys-- who sometimes behave like children and sometimes like adults -- about talking about media messages? How do you start these conversations? Why should you have them?

Lamb: Gifted boys will be great at deconstructing media messages and sharing this with their friends. The best thing for them to know, though, is that they are not immune. They may think because they're smart that they are able to fight the stereotypes and media messages in ads and such. But research shows that when people think they are most immune, they are most vulnerable to picking up these messages. Watch and listen with him, and have good conversations about what he enjoys as well as what he sees. Tell him it's okay to enjoy this stuff some times, as long as you don't let your guard down in terms of the really damaging stuff. Lyn, Mark and I are fans of some really stupid TV shows... what can we say? When some damaging stuff comes on, we get on email and deconstruct it. Sometimes we even complain to the shows!


Kevin said...

Our son is now 13, and while raising him has not necessarily always been easy, we have not encountered the problems outlined here.

It probably helps that we do not have a TV. You avoid a lot of the worst messages by avoiding TV.

Leo said...

I think that putting the focus on TV misses the mark a bit. While the images and themes on TV reinforce some of the more damaging and pervasive stereotypes, I believe the problem is more widespread.

Kudos to you in raising your son. Making great - sometimes difficult - choices for and about our kids help shape them into the great people we all hope they will.

But the stereotypes aren't just on TV. They're on billboards, magazine racks, movie theaters, even grocery store shelves. When your child interacts with kids who do watch TV, they are likely being exposed, by contact, with some of these stereotypes.

We can try, but we will likely never change the media in a significant fashion. The media will follow what society does, reduce to the lowest common denominator, and sell to that. If we want the stereotypes to change, we have to focus on what we teach each other. When it becomes financially beneficial to portray beneficial, balanced roles to our kids, the media will deliver.

Kevin said...

My son has certainly been exposed to stereotypes. It is, as Leo points out, nearly unavoidable. But the exposure through TV seems to have a much bigger effect than other media (while else would TV advertisers pay the huge amounts they do for TV ad time?).

While I can't claim that my son is free of stereotypes, he is certainly much less influenced by them than most kids his age. Whether this is due to his temperament, his intelligence, our community, or our parenting style is (of course) difficult or impossible to determine.

The Princess Mom said...

I don't think it's TV so much as particular channels. There is a lot of gender stereotyping (of both sexes) and sexualization on the Disney Channel shows for middle school kids ("Hannah Montana" and "Zack and Cody," for example).

I preferred to have my boys (now 14, 15 and 19) watch "Adult Swim"-type cartoons like Futurama and South Park (with parents, of course) than the Disney Channel (or MTV) garbage.

J. said...

Hey, Kevin, intrigued you don't have a tv. Caught that comment on the Sesame Street post as well.

Neither do we. Always refreshing and gratifying when others choose this rather atypical path too.

Kevin said...

Well, just to convince you I'm wierd, not only have I not had a TV since childhood, but my wife and I have never had driver's licenses and have never owned cell phones. We *do* have computers, DSL, and a microwave oven, so we're not complete Luddites.

J. said...

Yea, Kevin, you are weird :). And I like it! Sounds like you have a pretty cool family there and you and your wife appear to be doing a great job raising your son.