saving our sons from superheroes, slackers, and other media stereotypes

Q & A

1. What is Packaging Boyhood about? Our book takes a hard look at the tough guy, player, jock, slacker stereotypes sold to boys by media and marketers. Boys are bombarded with messages about what it means to be a boy, including directives about violence, over the top risk taking, and how to perfect a slacker “I don’t care about anything” image. We challenge these and also the stark commercialization of gender that tells boys they have nothing in common with girls and that what it means to be a real boy is reject the deeper, substantive parts of themselves to match up to some fixed ideal of masculinity. We offer parents advice about how to talk with their sons about the most troubling messages and provide parents with tools to help their sons resist and hold on to their unique, complex selves. 2. What inspired you to write Packaging Boyhood? As soon as Packaging Girlhood, our first book on how marketers and media sell girls a commercialized version of girlhood was published, and we began talking with school and community groups about our findings, parents asked us, “What about the boys?” It was a good question, but not one that we were fully prepared to answer at that time. So we went back to the malls, hit the movie theaters, and re-entered cyberspace to explore how the media packages a narrow, but equally damaging, form of boyhood to boys. 3. How is it different from all the other marketing to kids books out there? There are some good books out there that tell you about the techniques used to market to kids. Our focus is not the deceitful, sometimes cheesy, sometimes savvy strategies marketers use, although we can't help but point out one or two. Instead we focus on and question the messages they're sending about what it means to be a boy. That is, we look at the world of boyhood created by marketers and the media, and the way it undermines what makes your son a true original. 4. Did you do research? How did you gather your information about what boys wear, watch, read, listen to and do? We surveyed over 600 boys from across the country about the media they love and the products they buy – what they watch, wear, read, listen to, and play with. We conducted focus groups with boys, mothers, and school counselors about the kinds of things they see in boys’ worlds that concern them and also that they like. We did walk-throughs of the stores boys told us they love, talked to sales people at malls, interviewed boys in book stores and clothing shops, watched hours of boys' favorite TV shows and movies, listened to music boys told us they love, and read loads of books and magazines aimed at boys. We analyzed all this media with an eye for repeated stereotypes and messages. 5. Any surprises or interesting experiences while conducting your research? After Packaging Girlhood, we didn’t think we could be surprised by anything we saw in the media world. After all, we’d seen an entire Girl Power movement co-opted and sold to young girls as the power to be sexy, shopping fashionistas! With boys, the surprise was not so much that there were stereotypes and crafty marketers using them to sell just about everything, but just how over the top media stereotypes of boys had become. It seemed almost desperate, frantic— like if they didn’t pump the volume up as loud as possible, they might lose out to the reality that boys have lots of other things to do in their lives. We give plenty of examples of some of our more surprising finds: Nerf has morphed into dozens of high tech rapid-fire guns, LEGO is full of opportunities for boys to demolish cities and create fighting machines, crashes escalate in each consecutive action movie to include buses, helicopters, explosions, and anti-war missiles. Even spoofs of masculinity, like Bruno have to be over the top. Another big surprise was how frequently we saw the slacker image and how early marketers introduced this image to boys. We, like many others, love some of these loveable losers. Who doesn’t laugh at Jack Black and Will Ferrell or the new collection of losers like Seth Rogen and company? But when we began to see the volume of messages boys got about how losers are really winners, and how boys are said to be sloppy, smelly, school-hating, lazy couch potatoes, well, we began to wonder about the connection between these images and the problems boys are having in school today. 6. What concerns you most about the ways media and marketers "package boyhood" to boys? The things that concern us most are those things that surprised us, like how over the top the violence can be, how pervasive the slacker image is. Perhaps not as surprising but equally concerning is the treatment of girls and women. And as gender studies teachers, we continue to be concerned about the way boys and girls are described as coming from or living on different planets. There is so much more they have in common than the media would like us, and them, to believe 7. What advice do you give parents who worry about the impact of media on their sons? We're still all about reality-based parenting and the reality is that you can't turn off the world. These days TV, movies, the internet, music studios, clothing and toy manufacturers, fast food restaurants, and even publishing houses are all part of one big media network. So here's what we suggest:

a. Become familiar with what's out there. Watch what your son watches, listen to his music, read his books and magazines. Know what messages this world sends him about what it means to grow up boy.

b. Listen; Get to know your son’s world from his perspective. Don't assume you know what a particular rap artist means to him means or why he loves a certain song. Ask him, and then really hear what she he to say.

c. After really listening, you can bring your son the world on your terms. Reflect on what he says. Share your discomfort. Help him notice the bigger picture, for example, how all that player or slacker messaging gets bound up with “boys aren’t into school” or how that tough guy message can come across as “boys don’t get hurt or feel much.” Sure, being a guy who’s up for anything can make him popular, but it can also connect him with a lot of other stuff he might not have noticed, thought about, or even like.

Most important? Parent from a place of maturity and thoughtfulness, not from a place of fear or anxiety. That means spend some time thinking about how you feel about the messages in your son’s media before you start a conversation, so you’re not over-reacting or shutting him down. When we asked boys how they think parents should talk to their sons about issues in boys’ media, they answered: “Calmly”, “just sit down and talk”, “person to person,” “no yelling,” “try to recommend the good stuff and guide [us] away from the bad stuff,” “be nice, patient and don't get frustrated.” Sound advice. 8. Are there any good products and media out there? How can boys and parents find and support what's going right for boys? Yes. Most stuff marketed to boys has both good and bad messages, which is why we encourage conversation and critique. There can be some great messages in superhero comic books and movies, for example, like the importance of loyalty, courage, and being on the side of good. But too often these story lines turn into narratives of revenge and justified violence and thoughtful messages can get undermined by the wildest special effects. Fantasy books, on the other hand can sustain a level of tension and complexity. The Harry Potter series offers some wonderful messages about choosing love over hate, relying on friends instead of going it alone, valuing goodness and compassion even in the worst of times. City of Ember and Lionboy are also great books for boys.  Among the movies we recommend are Hoot, Holes, Billy Elliot, Stand by Me, Napoleon Dynamite, and Boyz 'n the Hood.  We also like some of the sneaker and clothing fashions for boys—so much more creativity, flair, and color than we used to see. Music, too, can be a place of voice and resistance to injustice and narrow stereotypes. The problem is that these things can be hard to find amidst the hard sell of more marketable stereotypes. QUESTIONS PARENTS OF YOUNGER BOYS MIGHT ASK: -How do I respond to my son when he begs to go to the next PG-13 superhero movie? He sees the trailers and the toy tie-ins advertised constantly on his favorite cartoons. It can’t be that bad, right? Listen to why he wants to see that movie and talk to him about the way marketers are lying to him when they advertise during his cartoons or give little boys tie-in toys – the lie is that they’re saying this is a movie for kids, when it’s not. Ask if you can read him a comic book about the superhero where he can look at the pictures with you as you read and you can discuss the themes, the good and the bad. Better yet, ask him to make up his own superhero. What powers will he have? What will his costume look like? And don’t forget to ask what his family will be like and who his close friends are. In this media world of over-hyped action and power, it’s up to parents to create the space for a little down to earth sweetness and love. -Shouldn't we all just turn off the TV? Most kids watch TV and even if they don't, the TV is a small part of the media picture these days. Turning it off doesn't turn off all the other media images TV spawns or that interact with it. And some of what's on TV is quite good, so you need to know what's out there and talk about it with your son. The goal is to show him how to question what he sees, to give him the bigger picture that includes an awareness about who's making decisions about what's cool and what's not, and who benefits from the image of boyhood packaged to him. He may still choose to watch shows with plenty of stereotypes, but he'll be less likely to be duped by all the hype and less influenced by the endless images of cool, tough players or funny beloved slackers.