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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Misreading Masculinity: Speculations on the Great Gender Gap in Writing

Misreading Masculinity: Speculations on the Great Gender Gap in Writing

"In middle school, during one of her periodic bouts of frustration,
my older daughter met with one of her male friends
to talk through her troubles. Midway through he stopped her,
“I have an idea—do you have a bicycle?”
“Yeah,” she said, puzzled.
“Well, ride it.”
“Whatever!”

When she told me the story, his logic made perfect sense: simply recounting what makes you sad won’t change anything. What you need to do is act, move, release this frustration. Talk, in other words, is an avoidance of action, of resolution, of decision-making. But when I told this story to a female friend of mine, her reaction was that his advice amounted to avoidance: rather than confronting the problems by talking through the frustration, he seemed to say you can run away—or at least ride away—from them. Furthermore, in a classic example of the mismatches that Tannen (1992) has made part of our gender folklore, my daughter’s friend saw his role as offering advice, when my daughter wanted a listening partner who might share his own frustrations rather than fix hers.

If we view writing as drawing on strongly gendered attitudes, such as the ones on display in this conversation, it is small wonder that the writing of boys and girls differ... the biggest gender gap that now exists is not in the areas that have received the most attention, girls falling behind boys in mathematics (a gap which is closing). It exists in writing (where the gap is not closing) (Cole, 1997). According to the most recent reports of the Educational Testing Service, the gap in writing between males and females at the eighth-grade level is over six times greater than the differences in mathematical reasoning (Cole, 1997, p. 15).

Another way to look at the magnitude of this gap is to compare it to the differences in writing performance of ethnic and racial groups. In the 1996 NAEP assessment for eighth graders, White students outperformed Black students by 29 points (on a 500-point scale) and Hispanic students by 21 points; females outperformed males by 25 points (Campbell, Voelkl, & Donohue, 1997, p. 167). In other words, the gap between females and males is comparable to that between Whites and racial/ethnic groups that have suffered systematic social and economic discrimination in this country...

Since Donald Graves’ research on gender differences in the early 70s, researchers have documented consistent gender differences in writing:

• When first graders were asked to imagine themselves as an animal in a story they might write, there were clear gender differences in the choices. Girls tend to choose domesticated animals (cat, horse), while boys choose animals that are dangerous and wild (cougar, monster) or comic (monkey) (Ollila, Bullen, & Collis, 1989).

• Second-grade girls tend to choose “primary territory” (home, school, parents, friends) as topics for writing. Boys consistently choose secondary territory (professions) or extended territory (wars, presidents, space) (Graves, 1973; McAuliffe, 1994).

• Second-grade boys write stories which focus on contests, physical and social, in which the protagonists act alone. Success is determined by winning or losing in these combative tests. By contrast, girls’ writing tends to focus more on joint action and protagonists who struggle to remain connected to the community (McAuliffe, 1994; Trepanier-Street, Romatowski, & McNair, 1990).

• When boys include females in their stories, they tend to be passive and, not coincidentally, professionless (Gray-Schlegel & Gray-Schlegel, 1995–96; Many, 1989). They tend to write about males in traditional roles of authority. When, for example, boys were asked to invert gender roles and write about a male nurse, one had the hospital invaded by aliens to change the terms of the task (Trepanier-Street, Romatowksi, & McNair, 1990).

• Because boys’ writing deals so consistently with physical contests, it is far more violent than girls’ writing (S. Peterson, 1998), a trend one pair of researchers called “disturbing” (Gray-Schlegel & Gray-Schlegel, 1995–6, p. 167).

• In a study of first-year college students, women wrote autobiographical essays that were judged better than those of their male counterparts (Peterson, 1991). In analyzing the differences, she found that males tended to write about times when they acted individually, often in physical challenge that built confidence. Women tended to write about a crisis in a relationship (boyfriend, family, or an encounter with culturally different persons). In terms of writing qualities, males showed no deficit at rendering detail; their lower scores were due to a perceived difficulty in rendering “significance,” in the capacity to reflect on the meaning of the experience.

• Boys’ preferences in reading and writing narratives are more closely aligned with visually mediated storytelling—film, TV, video games, computer graphics. They also rank humor higher than girls do. Millard (1997) suggests that the traditional literaturebased curriculum may ignore the more visuallymediated narratives that boys prefer.

It is one small step to turn these differences into deficits. The writing of males can be read as endorsing a whole set of antisocial values: the use of violence to resolve conflict; the lack of empathy for victims of violence; the subordination of women; extreme individualism and competition; and escapism. Even to allow such writing might be seen as complicity in a culture that condones male violence. Boys might also be viewed as drawing inspiration not from good literature, but from the morally questionable and exploitative visual media/toy culture. It is only one more small step to take on a missionary role or at least a prohibitionary role—to ban the violence, convert boys to more realistic and socially responsible fiction, wean them from space and aliens, guns and blood. Yet I suspect that any frontal assault on boyhood, as it has been culturally constructed, is a misreading of male students that is doomed to failure.

A major difficulty with the debate about “violence,” as it relates to the media’s effect on boys, is the almost unlimited scope of the term, often covering everything from the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (Bryce, 1998) to Roadrunner cartoons, from the Kennedy assassination to the death of Kenny on South Park, from mass suicides to hockey games. Of course, a waiver is granted to the violence in great literature— Grimm’s fairy tales, Hamlet, the Bible—which for some reason uplifts and humanizes us. Can anyone doubt that the medieval audience listening to Beowulf, which would become the first classic of British literature, didn’t delight in Grendel’s sheer awfulness? This waiver raises the question: is the criticism really about violence or is it about taste? Is it about all violence or just “low class” violence in the more popular media?

There is also a troubling—and in my view sexist—assumption of extreme male susceptibility to any presentation of violence. During one of the crackdowns on violent rap music, noted African American scholar Henry Louis Gates often claimed that the critics of rap were holding a double standard. Black males, he argued, were being treated as “dry tinder” ready to ignite when they heard the rappers advocate violence. Yet no one worried that White women would start imitating Madonna (except in a campy way); everybody would assume that White women would maintain some ironic detachment, some bemusement at Madonna’s antics, a presumption they would not extend to Black males. While I’m still troubled by some of the lyrics Gates defends, I think his caution is a good place to start in looking at boys’ writing about violence. It is a mistake, I feel, to automatically equate boys’ use of violence in writing with any desire to be vicious or sadistic. To do so ignores the possibility that “violence” can be mediated, viewed with humorous detachment, and appropriated for a variety of non-violent ends, including the maintenance of friendship...

Literacy gets in the way of the need to move, to talk, to play, to live in and with one’s own body. In one sense, writing represents the choice of language over physical action; yet this choice can be mitigated by stressing action in the writing. Watch any first-grade boys composing and you will see the drama of hands simulating explosions, accompanied by sound effects, with intervals of consultation with friends about who is in which space ship. When I have asked boys how their writing differs from that of girls, they are dismissive of the lack of action in the girls’ stories. As one said, making a face, “They write about walking home together.”...

Normally collaboration is seen as the means to the end of producing a piece of writing. From the child’s standpoint, though, writing may be viewed as a means to collaborate, a ticket to participate; the fundamental attraction is not producing a piece of writing but the social opportunities the writing opens up and maintains.

For boys, this language of affiliation will often be coded in the language of violence and assault, so it is essential to read the subtext of the message. While Andrew was repeatedly using his attack sharks to tear “Jon” apart, he was in fact maintaining a channel of friendship. And a decade later, he looks back to these stories as the high point of his literacy history...

A literature-based curriculum for teenage readers usually stresses novels which explore character and making sense of individual experience. In her interviews with boys, these books were often dismissed because “nothing of consequence ever happened” (p. 43). Yet realistic, introspective fiction often is considered “better literature” than comedy, science fiction, crime novels, and nonfiction, in other words, genres that traditionally appeal to boys and could form the models for their writing. Millard claims the school curricula have “naturalized” a novel-reading practice that in the 19th century was enjoyed almost exclusively by women...

As Millard (1997) has shown, crossdressing comes easier to females than males; “tomboy” has never been the pejorative term for girls that “sissy” is for boys. If masculinity is a more tightly constructed cultural category, with sharper penalties for deviance toward the feminine, it follows that to create equity in access to literacy, teachers will need to acknowledge the cultural materials (e.g. the affection for parody and action, interest in professional sports, cartoons, videos games) that boys (and many girls) bring into the classroom (for an example see Salvio, 1994). To fully engage this cultural material, it is necessary to understand the masculine distaste for sincerity, and the complex ways that the positive can be encoded in the negative, praise in criticism, friendship in violence, love in death.

One key to working with this cultural material is recognizing the openness of even the most “violent” writing to parody and humor. In fact, much of the violence boys like is “violence with a wink,” violence that parodies itself or at least suggests its own unreality (the James Bond movies are full of such moments). The student who can engineer humor within the context of an action story almost invariably gains status. So, while it is tempting to bring boys into the “realistic fiction” camp, another strategy is to explore the ways in which they honor parody in their own stylized “violent” writing...

The most serious mistake, it seems to me, is viewing these preferences as pathologies, as anti-social ways of being that must be modified, or, if that is not possible, banned. I view this attitude as a form of cultural suppression that is sure to alienate male students from literacy and the school culture in general. Boys become the “natives” to be converted to more socially responsible preferences. It calls to mind W.E.B. Dubois’ question— “How does it feel to be a problem?” (1989, p. 3)"
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