The Magazine

WHEN BOYS WERE BOYS

Oct 20, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 06 • By DAVID FRUM
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G. A. Henty

 

Selected Works

 

Lost Classics Book Company, Lake Wales, Florida


On his first day of nursery I school, my son was understandably nervous. Who knew what might be waiting for him there? So he decided he wanted to take along a little precaution: a small blue Power Ranger doll. Bad move on his part -- our nursery school absolutely forbids all "violent" toys.


It's not at all clear what the school thought it was accomplishing by this rule (other than to give him his first taste of injustice -- even at 3, he noticed that the girls in his class were permitted to bring along whatever small plastic figurines they liked). The little boys we know don't play together any less aggressively when permitted only blocks than they do when given access to the entire G. I. Joe arsenal. Boys are boys: There are good ones and bad ones, rough ones and gentle ones, and plastic objects don't affect their character much one way or another.


But then, to many adults nowadays, the phrase "boys will be boys" is a challenge: an invitation to test the outer limits of social engineering. This is not a good time to be a boy. Courts are ordering girls admitted to Boy Scout troops and hockey teams. The schools view boys suspiciously as potential sexual harassers. Tests on which they do well are being gender- normed, while the tests on which they do not are being left alone. And lurking in the shadows are the omnipresent psychologists, impatient to pump them full of Ritalin. It must sometimes seem to the American boy that the whole world is hostile to him, that every authority in his life wants him to be dainty and docile, that nobody will permit him to escape the supervision of women and find out who he is and what he's made of.


They won't permit it even in imagination. My son is a little older now, and I spend a good many of my lunch hours in local book stores searching for books he might like. The classics are always there, of course. But as one looks through the racks of new books, one is overwhelmed by how hostile grownup society seems to be to its sons.


It's not that grownup society is hostile to boyishness as such. On the contrary, grownups eagerly encourage risk-taking and adventuring -- provided only that it's done by girls. There's no shortage of books for young readers about wars and western exploration, about mountain-climbing and bravery during floods and hurricanes. But the protagonists of these books are usually 10-year-old girls. Pick up a catalogue of the children's books published in the past two or three years. You'll find Seeing Red, the story of an intrepid Cornish girl who saves her village from Napoleonic invasion, and The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, about a young girl's adventures in the California Gold Rush. There is Grace the Pirate, Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmond, Civil War Spy, and the Daughters of Liberty series, which tells bold stories of girlish derring-do during the Revolution.


Stories for boys are no longer permitted to be so exciting. Here is a publisher's blurb for a book about a boy who courageously "defies teasing to remain enrolled in ballet class." Here's another about "Lame teenager Shem" who "finds manhood in the Michigan wilderness with the help of an old Indian woman." And a third: "Doing volunteer work at Santa Barbara's Sidewalk's End, a day-care facility for children of the homeless, Ben witnesses an instance of physical abuse and -- for the best of reasons -- decides to take matters into his own hands."


Indeed, one of the things most striking about the books for boys being published today is that before being allowed to have adventures, male characters must be transformed into something else: giant mechanical insects, as in one popular series, or androgynous androids, like the Power Rangers. And of course, boys must always have girls with them, doing everything they do -- indeed, almost always doing it better. You hear many complaints that boys today don't seem interested in reading. Who can blame them?