Friday, 17 December 2010

Boys and illiteracy

So the headlines say, at primary level. It is a subject I come back to since the headlines on boys generally is always bad. When exams come round the papers carry photos of girls hugging each other with hardly a boy in sight. Imagine the fuss it if were to be boys most of the time with not a girl in sight.

The article on the BBC site doesn't mention girls in particular, but then a boys bad news story is always worth having. As an article in The Times colour supplement pointed out a week or so ago, even men joke all the time about how rubbish they are. In TV advertisements the woman is always clever, the man always stupid. Women are simply better at everything is the story. So it continues in film and TV - except in stories that are clearly presented as fantasy.

I don't imagine the story is exactly what operates in real life or down at intimate face-to-face level but long saturation in the world of stereotype does gnaw levels away, one after the other. The feeling is internalised until it becomes reality. It has been no different for about forty years now. It is not uniformly and always the only story but it's the big continuous tidal story.

And the basis for it? I don't know. Maybe it is true that my gender has simply become stupider with each generation but it would be hard to prove that. Demoralisation might be one factor. The sense of being without a role might be another. Boyish virtues don't exist except in terms of irony. Soldiers on the front are 'our brave boys'. Once home they are just a problem. Sporting heroes are only heroes while on the field. The rest of the time they are yobs with dosh.

Suicide in young males almost doubled between 1977 and 1996. The proportion of male suicide to female suicide at that stage was over 7:1. Women self-harm, men kill themselves.


Not so long ago there was a great wave of suspicion of men as fathers (violent sexual abusers, monsters of recovered memory syndrome, heartless absconders, wife beaters, irresponsible feckless deadweights), as secondary teachers (dry-as-dust sadists, bores, abusers) and, as for primary teaching (potential five-star abusers, perverts, keep them away at all costs, and, should they ever become heads, regard them as unfairly advantaged). By 2008 just 2% of primary teachers were male.

I dislike the cant phrases of our time, role model being a leading example, but mostly we know what they mean. When our son was at primary school one of his class teachers was a woman who distinctly disliked boys and favoured girls. She said as much.

There is very little incentive for boys to perform at anything. They know they are expected to be useless. A boy with spirit and little intelligence will kick against the traces, or simply kick.

The generations of subculture boys is trouble now and will be more trouble later. They are not as thick as they are told they are, but nobody is going to tell them otherwise.


Gwilym Williams said...

In the 2010 PISA tests, which are test ability in Language, Maths and Science, the UK children did reasonably OK in science. I suspect, but can't prove, that science would be the field of the boys.
The girls, I think now (at a tangent) of the Bronte's in their parsonage, outperformed the boys as you have mentioned with their ability to read. I suspect, but again can't prove that boys don't like to read. They like to look at glossy pictures of cars, planes, ships, buildings and yes, even footballers. Girls really like to read. Reading is like gossip.
Boys can read a technical manual describing how to pull an engine to bits but this isn't real reading. Real reading, George, is Wuthering Heights. It is a love letter. Or the far distant hope of one.
It's all to do with our genes. In the olden days boys had reading beaten into them. Girls smiled and got on with their embroidery.
Times, as they say, have chnaged.

Art Durkee said...

Well, as they say, the women invented civilization and agriculture.

But news articles like this don't tell the full story, of course. Mostly they repeat stereotypes, or reverse stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

Well, Wuthering Heights, but I also remember, before the age of eleven: Moonfleet - Kidnapped - Biggles - Rev. W. Awdrey - numerous General Custer novels - Henry Treece - Willard Price - Oliver Twist - Lord of the Rings (natch, took me 6 months) - poems by Owen, Brooke, Betjeman - Agatha Christie - Sapper - Hornblower.

Pretty much all good boy stuff - I'm not convinced that all it should amount to is some sort of runway to the "more appropriate" skies of Austen and Henry James beyond.

Pretty much none of it was available to the 8-12 kids whose homework clubs I helped with in Kensal. There aren't that many specific boys books written now - one reason Harry Potter did so well - and those that do often reflect that mix of derison towards and suspicion surrounding the male sex that George was referring to.

George S said...

I remember those books, Anon. I also remember the aspirational comics such as The Eagle. But I am pretty sure, going by my own experience, that the vast majority of fiction editors, particularly in children's books, is female.

The truly saddening thing about young male suicide is that it is always discussed as a form of male failing. If only they were more like girls and communicated more, in more girly ways, their suicide rate might be more like that of - surprise! - girls. One typical example here:

In other words even when they kill themselves it is because of their male incompetence and failure to be women.

As many have pointed out women are always going to be better at being women, so men are doomed to fail, and hence to grow depressed, and eventually just to get out and die.

But as I remember from the pioneering days of the seventies and eighties some women didn't think that a bad thing altogether. After all we were the cause of nothing good and everything bad.

Gwilym, I suspect your hunch about the sciences is nowhere near as accurate as it might have been twenty years ago.

Michael Farry said...

It does appear generally that when males fail it is seen as the fault of the males, when females fail it is a system fault or bias. When girls outperform boys in our Leaving Cert there are few criesocidsz for a fairer exam system

Anonymous said...

Spot on George. Welcome to post-feminist sexism.

Gwilym Williams said...

In newsagents shops the shelves are practically groaning under the enormous weight of all the women's weekly and monthly magazines. You can wait for ages in a queue in WHS with your copy of Auto Monthly or Exchange & Mart as a line of women go through the checkout with a mag and a bag of chocs. In fact by the time you get to pay you'll probably have read most of the thing. I think Cindy (is that the name of that plastic doll?) who doubtless has her own comic series will always outrun her boyfriend whatever his name is even when they dress him up a la Schwarzenegger. My daughter bought My Little Pony comics and collected lots of pink and blue ponies. We must find something equivalent and good for the bad lads. Meccanotherapy perhaps?

Angela France said...

I think you are right about much of this - it seems to be hard wired into society to discriminate; which group is discriminated against changes over time.

However - the suicide rate: yes, the young male suicide rate is dreadful and the rise more than concerning - but it isn't that more males are feeling suicidal, or that they don't talk about it - it is simply that men tend to use more direct/violent methods (hanging, shooting, jumping from height) while women tend to use methods that take time (overdose, cut wrists etc). So, while many more women than men *attempt* suicide, for the men there is usually little opportunity for change of mind/rescue.

George S said...

I don't think so, Angela.

Why do men choose those methods? Because they definitely mean to die, precisely so they cannot change their minds.

Why do women choose their methods? Perhaps because they mean not to die and something might come along to change their not fully resolved minds.

Furthermore, why do so many more young men want to die?

That's the one no one wants to answer. They just say, How dreadful. If only they were more like women. But they are not like women. And so it goes on.

Angela France said...

"Why do men choose those methods? Because they definitely mean to die, precisely so they cannot change their minds.

Why do women choose their methods? Perhaps because they mean not to die and something might come along to change their not fully resolved minds."

That doesn't chime with my experience (on a helpline) but we will have to agree to differ.

George S said... is simply that men tend to use more direct/violent methods (hanging, shooting, jumping from height) while women tend to use methods that take time (overdose, cut wrists etc).

But I am still curious why men choose method a) and women choose method b), Angela? I am genuinely interested. Do you have an idea why?

And still no one goes anywhere near the huge increase in young male suicide. As if it wasn't worth mentioning because they weren't worth the trouble.

Angela France said...

It isn't true that no-one goes near it - the Samaritans have funded research, ran campaigns, published reports and created male-targeted resources. You can search their site for some of those resources and reports:

I was a samaritan for 20 years (stopped about 3 years ago). I am wary of discussing this at depth because of confidentiality - I'm happy to give my opinions, formed by the years of listening to suicidal people, but can't back it up with anything other than the published reports.

My own view about the methods chosen is that it is cultural conditioning: boys/men are expected to be noisy, violent, aggressive. A violent way of ending one's life is just another way of fulfilling expectations - the same expectations that can prevent boys achieving at school.

Suicidal women are often concerned about leaving a mess - more cultural conditioning. I don't believe for a moment that the women who overdose are any less suicidal than the men who hang themselves or drive into a wall.

By the way, my daughter had a (female) primary school teacher who preferred boys and had a very difficult time with her; but that was just as bad for the boys as for the girls because the teacher liked 'lively, naughty' boys. A quiet thoughtful boy had just as difficult a time as the girls - so she was setting up the boys to fail in her own way as she promoted the expectation that boys would be disruptive, unable to sit still etc etc.

George S said...

Surely it's not ALL culture and expectation. And again the same message - if only they were more like girls and less 'noisy, violent and aggressive', which parents expect their sons to be. Well, what a shame to have boys then. We did not expect our son to be violent, noisy and aggressive. We waited for him to be what he would turn out to be, which is quiet, considerate , intelligent and kind. I don't think he is an exception.

I'm sorry Angela, I just don't believe this. Essentially it's the same, It's all your own fault, you failure. You should have been a girl. And why now? Have boys always been expected to be noisy, violent and aggressive? If so, then why the big rise in suicides now?

Forgive me if I get angry about this. It matters a great deal to me. But perhaps I'm just loud, aggressive and violent.

Angela France said...

"But perhaps I'm just loud, aggressive and violent."

I hope you didn't think I was saying that I shared those expectations - I have been essentially agreeing with you, George.

I work with challenging/disengaged teens in my day-job and I do think boys have a very hard time. They get mixed messages all the time - advertising messages aimed at boys are about being tough, superhero, being a man, lads will be lads. Most tv/film images stereotype thoughtful, clever, hard working boys negatively as 'nerds' or 'geeks' but if they act up to the expectations then they are demonised. There is little that gets me angrier than they way our young people are being alienated and demonised. They are being sidelined into a sort of alien race, stereotyped as violent hoodies.

It goes both ways - there is much that is still unequal for girls/women - but I see no point in you and I getting into a 'who has it worst' to and fro.

I actually think it is wider than the boys/girls thing: I have been concerned for a long time about the polarisation of opinion. True debate seems to get rarer and rarer - everything appears to boil dow to you're with us or against us. As an example, did you see the nonsense about the Pope's offer to anglicans risking The Pope's offer to Anglicans risking "inciting discrimination and even violence towards Catholics in Britain" How absurd is that? Every issue is now presented as black or white and we know life ain't like that.

I don't usually post poems on other people's blogs but I'm going to, just to show that I've been concerned about the demonisation of boys for some time (this poem is around 4 years old)

The Cost of Boys

All male children, on reaching the age of 12, shall be delivered to Responsibility Camp™. Any boy not so delivered will be collected by designated agents and said boy’s parents/guardians invoiced for the costs incurred.
Draft White Paper: Responsibility Campaign

No-one complained when they took the hoodie crew boys,
feral ones who wear shivs for hands and blue their faces.
We nodded as the black vans trawled the streets,
Boys with such short and violent lives
must really want the chance to live as decent people do.
It was three years before the screens blazed the first returns:
citizens in smooth suits and new skin, two or three
to a workplace.

They took the boys who were heard to blaspheme,
the ones caught drinking, the truants, the smokers.
A government scientist pronounced on all channels
Trouble is coded into them.
We kept them away from VR violence
and hard streets, taught them to think, to feel.
Some mothers raised their boys as girls
but their neighbours betrayed them.

They came for my boy four years ago.
I watch the ones who return.
I avoid the mothers of ones who don’t.
I don’t know if I can bear to see the remains
of my boy in a thin, straight mouth;
in eyes as flat as sharkskin.

Angela France said...

I missed some italics -
"Boys with such short and violent lives
must really want the chance to live as decent people do. " should be italicised