Oh how hard it is to be a man! It used to be a fairly simple deal. A man was strong, chivalrous, well-groomed, responsible, and, if he was especially manly, a high school quarterback. Think Beaver and Ward Cleaver. But along came James Dean and Elvis and the beat poets and now the ideal of masculinity has broken into a thousand complex fragments. Some academics deem the situation “a crisis”–the crisis of masculinity. How to piece The Man back together? Look around. Sweaty firemen are hot items for obvious reasons. For less obvious reasons, young men wearing designer clothes and hair gel, driving fancy cars, and sporting sculpted chests seem to do well with women of a similar ilk. I recently met a guy in a local bookstore wearing a shirt that said “Chicks dig skinny white geeks.” (He was a skinny white geek.) Today, a man has choices to make about being a man. And it’s not easy.
No group better understands the bewildering choices faced by young men today than the Boy Scouts. Upon first glance, the cards seem stacked against this Irving, Texas-based organization. These guys are easy to mock. They wear cute little red scarves, they’re into badges, they have a special three-finger salute, their grandfathers are Goldwater Republicans and their dads are Reaganites; they get off on knots. Jay Mechling, however, takes us beyond the stereotypes to uncover a complicated world where boys honestly try to figure out what it means to be men. Lucky for Mechling, an American studies professor at UC-Davis and an Eagle Scout himself, they undertake their quest in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where, for two weeks, he participated, observed, and recorded his observations about the delicate transition from adolescence to manhood.
In the course of observing boys doing everything from farting and puking to dressing wounds and cooking meals, Mechling addresses three larger issues that have plagued the Scouts in recent years: God, girls, and gays. Do atheists, girls, and homosexual boys and men have a place in the Boy Scouts? Or–phrasing the question in a slightly different way–does the sociological task of teaching boys to be men benefit from the incorporation of these untraditional groups into the ranks of the customary cohort? Mechling’s short answer is this: Downplay God, welcome the gays, keep the girls out.
He deploys an interdisciplinary arsenal of anthropological, psychological, and historical theories to bolster his arguments. In the end, though, his justifications strike me as common sense solutions based on sound historical research and hours of sensitive and objective observation of boys negotiating the horrid morass of adolescence. With respect to God, he makes the significant discovery that the Scouts’ contemporary emphasis on “Duty to God” originates not in the organization’s first handbook (1910), but rather in a hastily cobbled together revision published during the Cold War. “Whenever you succeed in doing something well,” it instructed, “thank Him for it.” The guide continues, “Sometimes when you look up in the sky on a quiet night, and feel close to Him–thank Him as the giver of all good things.” This Godly inclusion was the Boy Scout’s two cents in the battle against those godless Communists.
On the ground, in the camps, at troop functions, God–as Mechling tells the story–is generally downplayed, if not altogether ignored. Between 1985 and 1992, however, several lawsuits filed by expelled atheist Scouts forced the organization to confront publicly the fact that a good number of boys did not think that discovering manhood required them to gaze at the Big Dipper and ponder the Almighty. The courts accordingly ordered that the Scouts readmit the young atheists. But the Scouts’ home office hemmed and hawed and protested and resisted and bitched and moaned at every possible turn. Mechling writes, “the religious conservatives who control the national office of the Boy Scouts see themselves as important troops in the culture wars.” Accordingly, they so thoroughly espoused the rhetoric of “muscular Christianity” that they inevitably interpreted ACLU protection of atheists as “an assault upon masculinity.” But manhood, Mechling suggests, requires tolerance for a variety of world views. The Scouts should accept the atheists, and shame on those Irving boys for not taking the decision like men and going gently.
Then there’s the gays. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has functioned as the de facto Boy Scout policy regarding homosexuals since the organization’s founding. Again, however, the issue recently came to the national fore through lawsuits. After several states reached contradictory rulings on the place of openly gay men in the Scouts, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case and ruled 5-4 that the Boy Scouts was a private organization protected by the constitutional right to freedom of association. In light of this decision, Mechling wonders, “Can a homosexual adult male be an appropriate role model for a heterosexual teen?” Reversing the proposition, he asks, “Can a heterosexual adult male be an appropriate role model for a gay teen?” His answers add up to a refreshingly straightforward and progressive consideration of masculine identity, and an equally straightforward and refreshing condemnation of the troglodytes running the show in Irving.
“I would have to say,” Mechling explains, “that heterosexual men can be appropriate role models for gay teens if by ‘appropriate role model’ we mean that the adults perform a more complex, broader spectrum of masculinity than the cultural stereotype allows.” Similarly, he also supports homosexuals as effective role models for heterosexual boys due to the fact that “[h]omosexual men are as capable of performing masculinity in the same broad range as heterosexual men, just as homosexual men are as capable of expressing misogyny as are heterosexual men.” His position rests on the key premise that “the performance of a range of masculine behaviors” has nothing to do with a man’s sexual orientation. It promotes the idea that, as Mechling continually witnessed among the boys at camp, “there are many ways to perform masculinity.” Between the fireman and the geek, in other words, one finds infinite variations on the theme of manhood. The inclusion of gay men can only broaden a boy’s view of those options, and thus make him more comfortable with his own brand of masculinity, whether it be muscular or nerdy, and whether he be gay or straight or somewhere in between.
Mechling’s conception of gender as a constructed category has its limits. Girls, for example, don’t make the cut. The androgyny that he appreciates within masculinity–an inherent flexibility that “expands the culturally expected performance of ‘male’ to include qualities and behavior usually reserved for women”–does not go so far as to erase the biological differences between men and women. There’s something about “the private folk culture of the adolescent boys” that Mechling finds especially sacred and, although he never really pinpoints why, he suspects that the inclusion of girls would scuttle the peer socialization integral to the development of masculinity, no matter how liberally that masculinity is conceived.
I have no idea if he’s right on this point, but I do have a supporting anecdote to offer. Not long ago, while walking my dogs behind the local grammar school (at the time I was finishing this book), I came across a group of Boy Scouts congregating around a hose to grab a drink. I stopped to watch them. Naturally, after a couple of gulps, horseplay ensued and the boys were playfully spraying the hose at each other. One kid was (less playfully) held down and summarily drenched, his glasses knocked askew, his clothes sopping. He was pissed. Shoving followed. A punch to the shoulder. More shoving. A headlock punctuated with a face rake. The adult Eagle Scout began to walk calmly towards the boys, presumably to resolve what seemed a common enough conflict. But then, out of nowhere appeared an adult leader of the local Girl Scout troop. She bolted towards the boys, who eyed her with fear and loathing and suspicion. When she came within a few steps of the harmless melee, the boys instinctively dropped everything and scattered, as if running away from a raging fire. The woman screamed at them to stop. The boys kept running. The Eagle Scout looked over at her and shook his head, as if to say, “you know, I had a plan.” Maybe the event means nothing, but I can’t see those boys running from a man.
The rest of this book is mildly entertaining. When not engaging the big issues, Mechling recounts his direct observations of the Boy Scouts being Boy Scouts. His method here is to describe a scene in vivid detail and then lay a thick layer of analysis over it. His descriptions, in general, are bland and his layers, in general, are as heavy as a hairshirt, which is exactly the item that you’ll feel you’re wearing as you suffer through some of his improvisational interpretive riffs. For example, after describing a game where the boys row out to an island, dig a “poison pit,” fill it with water and watermelon debris, urinate in it, and then play tug-of-war over it, he explains its deeper significance in the following babble (pardon the extended quotation, but it’s worth it):
“Key to this interpretation [of the pit] is the willingness to see the island as a metaphorical woman…..Recall that the island is called T.I., Tit Island, and that when approached from the water it resembles a supine woman. The boys dig into this woman’s belly a pit, a ‘hole,’ a metaphorical vagina, which they fill with water. The misogyny we found earlier as part of the folklore constructing a male identity explains why poison might be associated with a woman’s genitalia. For these boys, young women’s genitals and menstruation are mysterious, perhaps dangerous, matters…..[R]ecall that the watermelon rinds, flesh, and seeds are swept into the pit and that the folk speech of these boys makes explicit the metaphoric connection between red melon flesh and menstrual blood….So the symbolic power of the pit is twofold: it literalizes the put down of the other male into the passive, inferior, female position, and it punishes the other male by bathing him in symbolic dirt–menstrual blood and urine–which he must wash off in the lake.”
Well, you know, sometimes a game is just a game, and while Mechling indulges in this kind of freewheeling analysis a bit too often, it is at worst a humorous distraction from an ambitious if only partially successful attempt to write a narratively driven academic book. Plus, where else will you be able to read a book with a chapter that begins with “Somehow I slept through the reveille whistle,” ends with “I dropped off to sleep,” and, in between, includes footnotes citing articles like “Childhood Attitudes Towards Flatulence,” and presents a lively description of a ritual where boys masturbate on a cookie and make the last ejaculator eat it?
Christ, it’s hard to be a man.
James McWilliams never has been, is not, and never will be a Boy Scout.