Boys are back.
by Kenneth Kidd
University of Minnesota Press. 253 pages, $25.95
IT SEEMS appropriate that a gay scholar named Kidd would write a book about "boyology." The term originates in the early 20th century in pseudo-sociological and pseudo-an-thropological studies of boys and their behavior. Kidd's rather specialized book is an academic, cultural analysis of the construction and the mythology of boyhood. The disciplinary context for Kidd's work is provided by the last thirty years of feminist, gender, queer, and men's studies, and he provides useful and sometimes corrective critiques of fictional and quasi-scientific versions of the boy story.
Kenneth Kidd's introduction, "Boyhood for Beginners," sets up his paradigm, defining "boyology" as a term coming from social work: the "boy worker" was the specialist authorized to work with boys, presumably to civilize them but also to defend them against contravening social influences--most recently, feminism, as a new boy movement seems to have emerged in the 1990's in "a pop-psychological language of self-esteem and self-help." Kidd points out the misogyny and myopia in some recent boy-centric work, in particular Bruce Brooks's Boys Will Be (1995), which Kidd describes as "a nasty attack on girls," adding that the book "implies that boys are blamed for society's woes and that girls should stop bitching about their sorry lot."
Because of the civilizing impulses in much boy work, Kidd links boyology with the "feral tale," the mythology of the wild child, the boy raised by wolves (popularized both in Romulus and Remus-like stories as well as in a handful of documented cases, most famously that of Victor, the subject of Francois Truffaut's film The Wild Child). Kidd discusses the feral boy in the context of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and his chapter "From Freud's Wolf Man to Teen Wolf" is probably the most interesting for the non-specialist reader. In a discussion that mentions Michael Jackson's groundbreaking video "Thriller" (what study of boys would be complete without Michael Jackson?), Kidd argues that "heterosexual manhood is identified with, and made possible by, the masculinized inner wild child. Although such films [as "Thriller" and Teen Wolf] are designed for children and teenagers, they often feature an adult male character who must recuperate or manage his inner wild boy."
Kidd is a literary critic. Much of his study centers on 19th- and 20th-century American (and, to a lesser extent, British) literature. He devotes some time to a discussion of Mark Twain, addressing a debate in classical American literary studies about the reputation of Twain and his position as a juvenile author in the "bad boy" books tradition, a narrative genre in which delinquent boys (like Huck Finn) are shown to be harmless, even charming. Kidd also discusses Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self Reliance," several novels by Rudyard Kipling, and the scholarship of Van Wyck Brooks and Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel is of particular interest because it focused in part on the homoerotic and racist elements of "bad boy books."
Kidd has an in-depth chapter on Father Flanagan and Boys Town, the social uplift program that gained notoriety when it was invoked by Newt Gingrich as an ideal model for dealing with juvenile delinquency. Kidd's analysis is sensitive and insightful in the uniqueness of the Boys Town approach and on its cultural uses and abuses.
Making American Boys is a wide-ranging study of boys and boy work--the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, popular literature, and film all get attention and analysis here. Kidd's analysis makes use of various theoretical and practical lenses through which the social construction of boys in American culture can be viewed. Through those lenses, readers can see how our views on boys color so many other issues, including gender relations, anxieties about sexuality, and socio-economic and racial questions.
Chris Freeman teaches English at St. John's University, Minn.