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Book Review 

A book review by: Lon Woodbury


Where The Boys Are

REAL BOYS: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. By William Pollack, Ph.D., New York:Random House:1998.


THE WAR AGAINST BOYS: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men. By Christina Hoff Sommers, New York: Simon & Schuster: 2000.


The discussion about adolescent males has become a major topic of public debate in the last couple of years, seemingly following a similar pattern as last decade's debate about girls. At that time the debate was about a crisis because girls were allegedly falling behind boys in school and society. The predominant theme, it seemed, was research concluding girls were victimized by being shortchanged in school and society, and thus were falling behind. The debate resulted, among other things, in expanded laws, regulations and sensitivity programs concerning sexual harassment, which had been determined to be a major reason girls were "losing their voice." A concerted effort has been made in schools throughout the country to improve girls' confidence and academics up to that of boys, especially in math and science. Just as a crisis was seen in the early nineties regarding girls, now we are being informed that research has uncovered another crisis concerning boys.

These two books, one by Pollack, the other by Sommers, are representative of two primary ways this problem is being addressed. Reading them together provides a fascinating demonstration of how two scholars can start with basically the same facts about boys' underperformance in school and elsewhere, and arrive at two radically different definitions and solutions for the problem.

The books' subtitles are good summaries of what each author considers as the source of the problem. Pollack, in "Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood" emphasizes that boys are placed in a straitjacket of demands about how men should behave. It suggests the main cause of the crisis is a concept of masculinity that requires men to be "tough," and teaches boys to stuff their sensitivity; "boys don't cry." Pollack sees the solution is to root out those stereotypes and allow boys to be themselves rather than forcing them to adhere to some insensitive model. He sees the crisis in boys has resulted from the demands on them to model obsolete patterns of behavior that are contrary to the natural inclinations of boys.

The subtitle of Sommers' book is "How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men." The subtitle basically summarizes Sommers' central thesis placing the concept of the "toxic male" at the heart of the problem. She attributes this problem to the radical feminists' insistence on equity for girls, and their specific approaches to increase the academic opportunities for girls during the last decade. While she endorses efforts to expand opportunities for girls, she objects to the part of that campaign that she sees that denigrated boys and seemed to assume them as natural aggressors, inheritors of a patriarchy system of power, and beneficiaries of far greater advantages than girls, thus the "toxic male." She concludes that the way we approached remediation efforts for girls had the result of damaging boys.

For example, Sommers asserts that the national campaign for a "take your daughters to work day" was empowering to girls. She claims also, that unfortunately it also communicated to boys they were less important, or had been given unfair advantages. She further suggested that sensitivity training emphasizing girls' problems in schools also sent the message to boys there was something inherently wrong with their maleness because the training often implied or assumed that boys were natural predators. As a solution she suggests we stop seeing something wrong with boys. Rather, we should cherish their unique energies and work to channel, not change them.

Both authors share a similar view regarding the nature of the problem. In aspects of accomplishments shown to impact future success, statistically girls are increasingly outstripping boys, such as in verbal skills, G.P.A., attendance, honors, membership in the national honor society, and college aspirations. The only exceptions are advanced science and math, and even there the gap between boys and girls seems to be closing. On the other hand, when it comes to signs of what is likely to imply future failure, boys far outnumber girls. Simply compare the numbers of boys vs. girls who: drop out of school, receive disciplinary consequences, are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD, enroll in what frequently are dead-end resource rooms or remedial classes, and are arrested. Both authors seem to agree that the real gender gap in schools now is how girls are leaving boys behind. Sommers also makes the point that these trends were becoming obvious about the time the campaign for girls started claiming girls were being shortchanged, suggesting a political rather than scientific basis for that campaign.

Both authors recognize the existence of the "toxic male" concept as unfair and harmful to the healthy growth of male adolescents. The difference between the two writers is the way in which this concept is emphasized. Pollack sees the concept of the "toxic male" as just one factor that originated from society's interpretation of the reason for the increase in boy's misbehavior. Society, according to Pollack, has attributed an apparent increase in the misbehavior of boys to the inherent problem that boys model patterns of male behavior that are increasingly inappropriate to modern society. Pollack claims that boys are straitjacketed by the myths of boyhood and are confused about how men should act. They need a broad-based national movement to help them learn how to be more true to their real self, according to Pollack, and rid themselves of those old artificial behaviors imposed on them by parents and society.

On the other hand, criticism of the "toxic male" concept is central to Sommers' thesis. In Sommers' view, it originated primarily from the radical feminists' political agenda and their campaign to elevate girls, who she claims also resulted in being at the expense of boys. She states that especially in areas such as public school sensitivity training, educators there confront boys with the assumption something is inherently wrong with their maleness. Sommers concludes that these societal pressures result in a steady decline in the self-confidence of boys in general, while at the same time optimism and self-confidence in girls is on the increase. Both the general decline in boys' performance as well as girls' increasing optimism and performance are fed, in Sommers' view, by the popular perceptions of the "toxic male."

In terms of how the two authors interpret important events, Sommers' book has the advantage of being published after Pollack's, so Sommers is able to specifically critique Pollack's writings and research. The difference in perspectives regarding the shootings at Columbine High is instructive. Pollack is quoted in a June 18, 1999 Congressional Quarterly Researcher as saying "The boys in Littleton are the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg is all boys." Even though the Columbine High shootings came after Pollack's book was published, the statement seems to be consistent with the view presented in his book. He states that most boys are in crisis largely because "Boys are pushed to separate from their mother prematurely" (Pollack, p. 26) and are struggling with a "gender straitjacket." Sommers feels "taking two morbid killers as being representative of 'the nature of boyhood' is profoundly misguided and deeply disrespectful of boys in general" (Sommers, p. 17-18). In her perspective, a fairer and more typical representation of boys' behavior during the Columbine shootings were the numerous instances of heroism at Columbine demonstrated by what she considers to be boys acting out of their natural impulses. One used his body to shield a terrified girl, another lost his life holding a door open so others could escape, while others performed songs and read poems at memorial services for their lost friends.

Pollack reports, "much of this book is derived from my recent study called 'Listening to Boys' Voices'" (p. xxi). In it he finds that behind the façade of boys' bravado, "many of our sons are currently in a desperate crisis" (p. xix). Sommers takes him to task on the basis she can find no evidence of publication of this study in a scholarly journal and thus no evidence of peer review. Also, the copy of the study she was sent was in a form that was unpublishable as written, according to standard scholarly requirements. For example, she asserts staid scholarly publications do not make claims as she found in 'Listening to Boys' Voices.' She gives as an example the statement: "these findings about boys are unprecedented in the literature of research psychology" (Sommers p. 140). She also claims the study said nothing about how the subjects of the representative sample of the study were formed, nor provided details of the "modified Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)" (Sommers p. 141) which was an important basis for Pollack's conclusions from the study. She thus suggests that his book is more a personal opinion essay, than grounded in science.

Pollack opines that "we're getting ready for a second gender revolution" (p. 397), duplicating for boys the changes that have already happened to girls, which he sees as very positive. In Sommers' view, "If we continue on our present course, boys will, indeed, be tomorrow's second sex...But reversing the positions of the sexes in an unfair system should be no one's idea of justice" (p. 207).

Pollack is optimistic about this anticipated gender revolution. Partly, because he seems to have a very negative view of the traditional code men have been living by in the past, and advocates, "A New Boy Code….that will be based upon honesty rather than fear, communication rather than repression, connection rather than disconnection" (p. 392). He feels that the injunction that "boys will be boys" is a helpless confirmation of the Old Boy Code. He seems to be saying most adult men currently are operating by fear, repression and disconnection, and they are teaching this to boys in their care. Sommers is optimistic that "good sense and fair play will prevail. If you are a mother of sons, as I am, you know that one of the more agreeable facts of life is that boys will be boys" (p. 213).