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Saving our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes
By Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb, Mark Tappan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Mark Tappan, Ed.D.
All rights reserved.
Big, Bold, and Branded: What Boys Wear
When most of us think about boys and clothing, we conjure up images of grass-stained pants and shirts torn from climbing trees. Maybe it's all those laundry detergent ads reminding us that boys are especially active and get dirty. The stereotype is that boys don't care what they look like; they throw on jeans and a tee, grab a doughnut, and run for the bus. Only girls shop and stress over appearance.
In real life boys care very much about how they look and what image they project. Little boys long for T-shirts with images of their favorite cartoon characters and ballplayers. Older boys check themselves out in the mirror before their first dance to ensure their jeans fall just the right distance below their waist; many work hard to create an image that says they could care less about their image. The MasterCard ad of a young guy heading out to a club nails it: "Haircut, vintage tee shirt, and designer jeans: $238.00. Looking like you just rolled out of bed: priceless." Because boys don't want to look like they're trying too hard, marketers have to be careful not to blow their cover.
Anyone who thinks fashion isn't important to boys hasn't checked out the latest in tees, hats, hoodies, and sneakers or noticed the range of pant styles, hair lengths, piercings, and tattoos that boys are sporting. They've missed the significance of brands and the importance of logos. In fact, when we asked boys to list their favorite clothing brands, they named as many, if not more, than the girls we surveyed for Packaging Girlhood. Their tastes cover a wide range, and they most readily admit to buying stuff wherever they see something they like — from big department store chains like Wal-Mart, JCPenney, or Kohl's, to popular teen clothing stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister, to Southpole or indie clothing lines like Mighty Healthy that sell a more edgy, urban look.
The clothing marketed to boys says something more than "I just rolled out of bed." For the youngest boys, their Bob the Builder– and Thomas the Tank Engine– themed slippers, tees, and coats say more than that these are their favorite TV shows. After all, little boys love Dora, but you won't see her on their pj's. That's because these themes say something about a boyhood that marketers think is important to three-year-olds. Boys like construction and transportation? Maybe. More like, boys will be boys. And that's innocent enough. As they get older there are the fast and furious themes — race cars — and the big and scary themes — dinosaurs, sharks, air commandos. And, as always, there are the superhero themes, clothing that advertises PG-13 movies little boys beg to see and sports-themed attire that tells them it's not enough to be a team player; he also has to be "Team Captain." These all fulfill some fantasy of what it means to be a boy and what it means to be powerful. As boys enter the preteen years, they're given a choice of colognes and deodorants to wear that tell them they're powerful in other ways, promising them that hot girls will go crazy for them. And finally, as teens, the flair and style of hip-hop fashion and the sneaks to go with it scream "bigger, better, best" with bling and designer labels.
Are clothing stereotypes harmful to boys? It would be hard to make that case, especially in comparison to the overtly sexualized clothing marketed to girls. But there's more than meets the eye here. Clothing is a form of communication, and he knows his clothing speaks volumes about the kind of person he is and the groups and interests he identifies with. Parents ought to notice that he's also expressing who he feels he can't be and what he feels he can't communicate as a boy. From an early age marketers capitalize on these boundaries and the anxieties that keep them in place.
Clothes Make the (Little) Man
Why is it so hard to treasure the sweetness and vulnerability of little boys? Ask clothing manufacturers who insist on assuring us from infancy that boys are tough, rough, and ready. We visited the infant, toddler, and 4–7 boys' clothing sections of large department stores, like Kohl's and JCPenney, as well as specialty children's clothing stores, like Gymboree and Children's Place, to examine the themes. And here they are, as if a parent of a boy couldn't have guessed: transportation; sports; funny, scary, or gross animals; superheroes; and competition. All-boy, all the time.
From day one, cars and all forms of transportation cover little boys' stuff, and especially their clothes. Vehicles are virtually absent from girls' clothing, but on boys' clothes it's a dizzying display of planes, trains, automobiles, and more. Cars need to be racers. Trucks need to be big and scary (no smiling ice cream trucks). Except for friendly Thomas the Tank Engine, vehicles mean speed and danger. Could they have made the Disney movie Cars without speedy racing car Lightning "I eat losers for breakfast" McQueen? We don't think so.
What kinds of animals symbolize boyhood? Dinosaurs, lions, frogs, lizards, bugs, dogs, giraffes, and sharks. No kittens. Not even a cat, which presumably is too girly. From early on boys know that cats are girls and dogs are boys. Why? Because the distinction is made for them from infancy on. As we all know, cats and dogs come in both genders. But this is part of a gender split that sets up a girl-boy boundary that gets increasingly harder to cross and that can only be defended by referring to the brain or the planet Mars. There's nothing in boys' brain chemistry, or dogs' either for that matter, that says dogs are male, but big, goofy, loyal, and high energy suggests male. It's also easy to see why frogs, lizards, and bugs are all-boy. Marketers assume that boys like yucky, slimy things — they're not afraid of them, like girls are supposed to be. Dinosaurs, lions, and sharks? They're big and scary, but a boy can handle them! Thus starts the pressure to be big, bigger, biggest.
In our exploration of young boys' clothing, it was surprising to see how many tiny T-shirts boasted winning some competition, being the best, the most successful. The tiniest of tikes will wear clothes that announce boys should be, wanna be, will be in "First Place"; they'll be "Champions," "All-Stars," "All Pro," "World Champs," and "Team Captain." No team players — only team captains. They're taken up into an all-American culture that brags about being number one, that needs to be number one instead of one among many.
If they're not winning, they're proving themselves through adventure. Marketers assume boys will drive their cars at "full throttle" with "Maximum Speed 250" before their parents even let them pedal a tricycle. These shirts tell boys to go "off road" in jeeps, go on "Safari Adventures" (a summer theme in all the stores we visited); they can be little versions of surfer dudes "Catching" a "Big Wave" or a "Wild Animal Explorer" in the jungle. Of course they can always find that adventure in the military, as many an advertisement for the National Guard points out, and as their small camo-patterned pj's, T-shirts, pants, hats, fleeces, coats, and sneakers reinforce. They too can aspire to be on a special military team — "Air Commanders."
Whereas little girls learn that to be noticed or important in this world they don't need to act but simply to look pretty as "special" princesses, action is a priority for boys. Sports themes abound as the quintessential action for boys, so at The Children's Place the parent of a 0–3 month old can choose between "Fourth Quarter," "Nine Innings," and "Second Half" onesies. But soon, as they get a little bit older, they'll find that just any action isn't good enough. It has to be wild and crazy action, and in the end boys have to rule, to win, to be the champion. There's never a suggestion that he might not be into speed, that he might like art or music, or, God forbid, reading. Just wild, fast, action-packed everything.
Superheroes have always been a popular theme in boys' clothing, all the way down to their first Spider-Man pull-ups. No wonder. Superheroes are champions. They're the best at something. They seek out danger. And they are called to adventures. They rescue others, but they stand alone. At the age of three, little boys look to identify with fantasy figures that are big and dangerous and powerful — the Hulk, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a Power Ranger. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about this phase in boys' development, of identification with powerful fantasy figures as they work hard at feeling competent in the world. Sigmund Freud wrote about it too, as the bulking up of the little ego in competition with the Oedipal father before joining the father in civilized pursuits. It's telling that this is the time of nightmares and night terrors, psychoanalytically understood to be the boy's own aggression projected outward onto some terrifying monster. But let's understand this in a different way, as a response to their early notions of what it means to be a boy. They are told they must rule, seek danger and be dangerous, identify with fighters and winners and terrifying beasts, sharks and T-rexes. It's all they see; it's what's expected of them. How can such a little being contain that much aggressive energy or become that aggressive? And how does he contain the shame if he can't or doesn't want these things?
As little boys respond to the world around them, propping themselves up to be big and unafraid, parents and adults respond to them by propping them up too. It may seem like self-esteem building — "brave little man" and "you can do it!" Yet there's little in our responses that confirms to them that they are vulnerable and have a right to be afraid of a T-rex or a car going 250 miles per hour, that it might even be okay to feel as little as the kitten on their sister's tee shirt.
Boys are not only victims of the pressure to rule but are encouraged to believe in their worthiness to rule. It may not seem obvious at this point in their lives, but they are consistently fed messages that they are born to take the lead, to have authority, and always to be in control. For some, this translates into entitlement. They may feel the need to grab the authority they're told they're entitled to, to take power rather than share it or yield to someone else. Others might use authority to take risks, compete, and do well. Still others may see themselves as failures or "less than" a real man if they don't fit the stereotype of those who are invited to take power and rule.
We wonder if anxiety about their sons' masculinity or parents' need to prop them up is behind the latest trend — clothing for little boys that reflects the humor and attitudes of very big boys. Through their clothing, little boys are encouraged to be the ultimate players. "Chicks Dig Me" says a onesie for a three to six month old. "Playground Pimp" says another — pimp spelled out in cartoon alphabet blocks. Similar to the increase in the "little hottie" version of clothing for girls, these messages on boys' clothing say something about the erosion of the boundary between childhood and adolescence, and also about what some are calling the general "pornification" of the culture. One has to wonder about companies that promote onesies and tees that say things like "My Mom Is a MILF" (definition: Mother I'd Like to Fuck), "All Daddy Wanted Was a Blow Job," or "Hung Like a Five-Year Old," but they're easy to find online, and of course someone's buying them. These kinds of tees account for 20 percent of T-Shirt Hell's sales. Gary Cohen, T-Shirt Hell's director of operations, justifies them by saying, "Younger, hipper parents are looking for something that's not the same, that has a little more attitude." Why is this particular attitude the definition of hip?
Of course, these tees say more about the parents than the child, but given that little boys aren't interested in shopping, that's generally true of most any article of clothing a boy younger than, say, six or seven wears. In that sense, T-shirt Hell isn't any different from the companies selling high-priced couture infant and toddler tees. Marketing to parents' interests and nostalgia, Crib Rock sells colorful versions of baa baa black sheep and three blind mice in styles "reminiscent of your favorite souvenir concert tee from those head-banger days. Hard rocking never felt so soft."
Whether they base their purchases on their own loves or whatever stereotypes designers and marketers dream up, if they think about their little tike as a whole person, smart parents will begin to notice what's missing, what part of their son's imagination and interests isn't represented in his clothing. Imagine tiny tees for boys that say "Best Friends" and show two boys with their arms around each other's shoulders, or a boy and girl throwing a Frisbee. Imagine a "jump into a book" toddler tee, an "I'm smarter than a fifth grader" slogan on an infant onesie — imagine anything that says he's clever, thoughtful, intellectual, kind, or loving. Also imagine the little face of a three-or four-year-old boy as he ponders a T-rex or a backhoe. Clothing for baby boys needn't only portray fierceness, but could also show awe and wonder, vulnerability and sweetness too.
Special Forces Jungle Fighter Child
Surf the Web, flip through the many catalogs, or walk through department stores beginning in early September to look for a Halloween costume and Boyhood (that's with a capital B) will assault you at every turn. Take him to any big box store like Wal-Mart or Target and your little boy can choose among a dizzying array of costumes. When boiled down, his choices include scary characters, fighters, and heroes — either in superform, like Spider-Man or Batman, or the real-life version, like police officers, military personnel, or sports stars. For the youngest boys there's the occasional Pooh Bear or SpongeBob, even a cute puppy or lion, but they are buried in an avalanche of ninjas, special Delta Force soldiers, and Transformers.
Thanks to marketers, Halloween for boys is about embodying a sense of power and full-throttle action. Boys dress up as men, and the version of manhood presented to them is one in which superheroes and warriors are ready to save the world. Their costumes come with every weapon they need to control, dominate, and save, and just to prove they're physically up for the challenge, costumes come complete with fake muscles. "Bulging padded 'muscles' are stitched into torso, arms and legs," announces a catalog description. "Transform your little hulk into the most powerful human-like creature."
Most powerful. Every costume says extreme action! Being a soldier is tame, almost boring, compared to being a Special Force Fighter Child, complete with ragged, ripped camo pants and "3-D foamed muscle top jumpsuit" that fakes six-pack abs — "A great costume if you want to be Rambo." Of course few boys today know who Rambo is, aside from those who have seen Stallone's recent R-rated sequel with the tagline: "Heroes never die; they just reload." Even if he's not allowed to see the movie, the little boy posing in the costume — his camo headband off-kilter, his hands on his hips, his best five-year-old "don't mess with me" expression — conveys the idea pretty well.
It's no surprise that Halloween invites boys to dress up as the superheroes they watch in movies or sports stars they admire on TV, but it's striking how many costumes are just variations of tough guys carrying all manner of weapons. Fighting crime like Superman and imagining you can dunk a basketball like Lebron James or win the Daytona 500 like NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson is great fantasy, but just as pink and princess have overrun all manner of girls' costumes, boys' costumes have to come with some kind of ninja attitude and fighter paraphernalia.
And more is always, always better. More stuff, bigger muscles, tougher-sounding descriptions. Who wants to be just any ninja when you can be Shadow Ninja Bounty Hunter? This extra-tough guy costume includes a jumpsuit with muscle torso, attached belt, sword, shin guards, apron, hood, and badge. The red and black mask covers all but his eyes: "You'd better hope this ninja isn't on your trail if you're a fugitive on the run because he always gets his man."
Perusing the Halloween costume catalogs sent to homes across the country, we're also struck by the images of little boys posing for these costumes. They must be told by the photographer to give him or her their hardest, scariest, meanest looks, to show the world how big and strong and frightening they can be, how fearless and intimidating. Like WWE stars, they model threatening poses, some showcasing their fake muscles, others in aggressive battle stance, their guns, swords, knives, light sabers, and blasters at the ready or their fake boxing gloves raised, as if to strike the next blow. Many are made up to look like they've just been in a fight, but they're still standing, hair messy, an eye blackened with makeup to show toughness, torn shirts and fake muscles pumped and ready for more.
Excerpted from Packaging Boyhood by Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb, Mark Tappan. Copyright © 2009 Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Mark Tappan, Ed.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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