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Publication: Thymos
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 79689
ISSN: 19319045
Journal code: MSTP

This paper addresses the question of how to present an acceptable image of boyhood through educational materials targeted at boys in order to change perceptions of identity. It arises as a consequence of a large project funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council to address the gender imbalance in choral singing. A robust tradition of boys' choral singing has co-existed in the UK for several hundred years alongside an equally robust perception that singing is for "sissies"- an activity to be avoided by "real boys." The consequent difficulties in recruiting boys to singing have been conceptualized as an issue of identity. If singing does not give a boy an identity with which he is comfortable, then he will not sing (Ashley, 2009). One of the project outputs has been a D-Book (digital interactive) entitled I'm a Boy, how high should I sing? The book has been co-authored by the author of this paper and some of the boys involved in the research. This process has included boys' theorizing on the nature of boyhood (Alderson, 2003; Woodhead & Faulkner, 2000). The D-Book is designed to appeal to boys and is written and presented in such a way as to give boys an identity with which they will feel comfortable. It is, in other words, "boy friendly."

"Boy friendly" is a dangerous term because of its association with populist right wing recuperative masculinity politics, which have been the subject of rigorous and ongoing critique by those who have looked seriously at what is conceptualised in popular discourse as the "problem with boys" (Zyngier, 2009). It is not, therefore, a term with which I would want to be associated. The problem, nevertheless, of giving boys an identity which allows them to feel at ease with what have become increasingly written about as gender atypical activities is real and shows no signs of abatement at the present time. This paper briefly recapitulates previous empirical work before describing the theorization behind the conceptualization of the D-B ook and offering a critique of the notion of "boyness" it attempts to portray. Consideration is given tensions that arise between empirical observations of how boys are and an ethical discourse of how boys ought to be. The specific questions addressed are:

* What is an acceptable image of boyhood to defend?

* How can this be put across quickly and concisely?

How Boys Are and How Boys Ought to Be: "Real Boys" and Real Boys

There is no shortage of literature that informs or critiques the notion of the "real boy." "Real boys," of course, possess high degrees of physical capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and play a lot of sport (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). "Real boys" don't work hard at "sissy" schoolwork (Epstein, Elwood, Hey & Maws, 1998), they don't learn foreign languages because these too are "sissy" (Carr & Pauwels, 2006), and of course, they certainly don't sing (Green, 1997; Harrison, 2005). The danger is that all this reduces to nothing more than fightin' fuckin' 'n football (Mac an Ghaill, 1994), a shallow parody of what boyhood might be about.

Such descriptions of how boys are owe much to those theories that stress the relational construction of gender (Kehily, 2002; Frosh, Phoenix, & Pattman, 2002; Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2003). It is through such viewpoints that it is presumed necessary for boys to avoid any kind of performance associated with femininity. Connell (2005) has reiterated her view that gender remains relational and, in spite of the possibility that even hegemonic masculinities are multiple, the need for boys to react against some model of femininity, real or imagined, remains. For many boys, vocal performance, not least because it is so frequently seen as a "doing" of key aspects of femininity, is one such model.

Helminiak (1998) proposes a neat epistemologica! system in which there are successive viewpoints. These begin with the viewpoints of chemistry and physics, which are said to be the best, indeed, the only "clean" example (p. 64) of what can be demonstrated through publicly verifiable, quantitatively measurable data to be the actual case- what is. This positivist outlook progresses through those sciences where measurement becomes less clean, first biology, then psychology, to a new viewpoint which Helminiak calls the philosophic. This concerns itself, not with what is the case, but with what ought to be the case. We are thus presented with the possibility that there is a debate to be had about how boys ought to be that is fundamentally different to debates that centre around contestation of how boys actually are.

Paechter (2006) makes a crucial point when she argues that the relational definition of masculinity offers us little more than a description of "what men and boys do," femininity being the "Other" ofthat (p. 254). The power of this statement is twofold. First, it draws attention to the fact that much of what is written about boys is descriptive, and second, it points out that a consequence of this is that femininity is "othered." This notion of "othering," which as Connell (2005) has seminally pointed out applies to non-hegemonic males as well as females, is profoundly important. It is not only that it "others" non-hegemonic boys but, as we shall see, it creates pressures to celebrate the hegemonic aspects of boyhood in order to "de-other" boys who sing or otherwise engage with the arts.

Though much of the writing about boys is descriptive, it would be difficult to argue that it is descriptive in Helminiak's sense of positivist empiricism. Descriptive writing about boys, as Archer (2004) argues somewhat forcefully, takes place within an ideological battleground between the social constructivist and biological/psychological empiricist viewpoints. The former often attempts to portray the latter as essentialist, that is to say, wedded to an ideological belief in the innate maleness imagined to exist by the mythopoetic men's movement. The latter attempts to portray the former in terms of an ideological commitment to a pro-feminist notion of gender as performance, increasingly written about in such terms as "doing boy." Archer (op. cit.) dismisses this notion as a mere neologism.

In writing about boys and singing, it is almost impossible to adopt wholeheartedly one or the other of these ideologies. There is an important biological dimension to boys' singing. Between the approximate ages often and fourteen, boys reach a pubertal midpoint in the development of the larynx which results in vocal qualities that are all but unique to boys. These qualities can be and are measured and explored with quantitative precision by empirical vocal science (Cooksey, 1993; Sederholm, 1998; Titze, 1992; Welch & Howard, 2002). However, once placed in social context, the complexity associated with these acoustic and biological fundamentals escalates exponentially and only a social constructivist approach can begin to make sense of the observations that need to be explained. Not least amongst these is the controversy raised in my own work which arises from the fact that boys of mid-pubertal age may use different techniques of singing. They can charm adults by "sounding like angels" (Mould, 2007) or they can distance themselves from grandmothers and mothers by sounding "belligerently masculine" (Cambiata Press, n.d.). This is but one question that, though resting on biological foundations of what is measurably the case, needs to be framed as an "ought" with huge social consequences.

It is relatively easy to describe what is the case with regard to how boys who sing actually behave and what attitudes and opinions they hold. There is insufficient space here to describe in depth three studies that have done this. The reader is referred to other publications by the author, cited below. However, a summary necessary for the present argument is given. Study one consisted of an in-depth ethnography of the boys who sang in an all-male church choir (Ashley, 2002a, 2002b). Study two consisted of twelve detailed case studies of boy vocalists (aged between 11 and 14) and the response to their work of approximately 600 children of similar age in seventeen different schools, purposively sampled across England, Wales and the Isle of Man according to social class, ethnic mix and urban/rural location (Ashley, 2008a, 2008b).

Study three was a follow on to study two and consisted of further observations of and interviews with boys participating in the filming of an extensive multi-media knowledge transfer resource on boys' singing. It has generated large amounts of material filmed by a professional production company in which boys give "vox pop" interviews, targeted at school peers, about their participation in singing. Techniques of naturalistic observation (Bowen, 2009; Lincoln & Guba, 1985) employed in study one have also been used to observe and record the behavior of the boys during filming in settings ranging from schools to recording studios. Particular attention has been paid to the behavior and language of the boys during recreational breaks, field notes having been taken and interpretive interviews conducted (Ashley, 2009).

The ethnographic element to all this work has supplied perhaps the most important dimension of data. During rehearsal, almost all boys have been observed to be highly focused on the work. Outside rehearsal, the most dominant activity has invariably been football, complemented by sideshows of wrestling, chasing, playfighting, climbing lampposts and playing with S boxes and similar computer based games. A very small minority of boys have been "other" to this activity, preferring to sit out and expressing disdain for football and romping around. It can be argued that this is a fair picture of what most boys involved in singing do, an empirical account of how these boys are.

A key question, of course, attaches to the meaning of "most." Skelton et al. (2009) rightly draw attention to the fact that, in spite of ongoing admonition, the folly of homogenising "all boys" or "all girls" continues. To address difficulties such as this, I have evolved the terms "real boys" and real boys. Hegemonic masculinity itself is often thought of as an ideal, to be attained or critiqued according to point of view, rather than a description of the actual lives of significant numbers of men or boys (Connell , 2005) . Given this, "real boys" are a theoretical construct based on the notion of hegemonic masculinity whereas real boys are individuals who need to be understood. It is doubtful that there exists a real boy who is truly a "real boy" in every sense of the theoretical idea.

Nevertheless it is necessary to accommodate the observation that many traits of orthodox hegemonic masculinity are found amongst boys who sing. Questions arise about how the facts that boys in choirs frequently also play sport, engage in roughhousing and playfighting, annoy or cheek teachers or employ humour as a strategy for social positioning are to be portrayed and used. Should these behaviours be highlighted as part of a strategy to convince boys that to enjoy singing is not to be "sissy," to convince them that singing does not mean having to give up sport or other valued features of boyhood identity?

Boys Will Be Boys and Teachers Will Be Teachers?

Epstein, El wood, Hey and Maw (1998) described three dominant discourses associated with the "problem of boys" and recuperative masculinity, "poor boys," "failing schools/failing boys" and "boys will be boys." It is the last of these that is most relevant to the present discussion for, when it comes to singing, there is ample evidence that boys are afforded a special privilege on the grounds that "boys will be boys." That many female teachers continue, unwittingly or otherwise, to uphold "boys will be boys" is captured in Jackson's study of lads and laddettes.

I think if you ask most teachers I think they would be able to rattle off ten names- of the loveable rogue. [Mrs Byatt, Firtrees] (Jackson, 2006, P- 21)

Reay (2007) has observed that, when it comes to minor misdemeanors or "acceptable naughtiness," boys will be boys but "girls will be little bitches." This can readily be extended to behavior in choirs where, perversely, it is a boy's cheeky naughtiness that renders boys' singing more attractive to certain classes of adult audience than girls whose behavior is appropriately demure (Ashley, 2009; Holland, 2004). Indeed, further analysis of this phenomenon reveals that the masculinities of most boys that sing are most accurately described in Connell's terms as complicit, and that such boys reap a patriarchal dividend (Ashley, forthcoming).

There is a view in the present work of how boys ought to be. It is that they ought to be well rounded individuals with a breadth to their education and character that permits an engagement with the arts at least as much as the sciences, and with singing at least as much as sport. They ought to have sufficient sensitivity to other human beings to be prepared to stand up against a variety of injustices that would certainly include racism and environmental degradation. The willingness to question the patriarchal structure of society, to lend their support, as Connell desires, to the gender equality project would be another (Connell, 2003). This might be described as a pro-feminist standpoint and has been the one owned up to in a methodological disposition that prioritises narrative and life history based methods within a humanistic phenomenological framework. This framework itself that has grown out of ethnographic roots (Kendler, 2005; Smith & Osborn, 2003; Wolcott, 1990).

A recent German television series has promoted the "boys will be boys" image as a successful strategy for attracting boys to singing. The Dresdner Kreuzchor has been featured through the title Engel, Bengel und Musik (Angels, Rascals and Music) with its message that "boys can be boys" but also engage in beautiful music making (Der Kreuzchor, 2009). This is clearly an attractive formula for any project that attempts to portray for boys an appealing image of singing or choir membership. Producing the Dbook raises two particularly big issues. Might "boyness" be destroyed by demure, conforming behavior? How is there to be gender equity if girls are to be kept in their place by strategies that label them as vicious or unpleasant if they attempt to trespass on boys' privilege to be charmingly naughty?

Some teachers observed during the research appeared to go a stage further than "boys will be boys." In response to the belief that the exclusion of girls is necessary for boys to sing a "no girls allowed' motif has been introduced. For example, in one of the case study films a primary school boys' choir has named itself The Yorkies after a well known chocolate baron sale in the UK which advertises itself through the slogan "it's not for girls." A secondary school that has been successful in motivating boys to sing has named its boys' singing activities NFG (not for girls). The evidence to justify such practices is in fact ambivalent. My own research suggests two things:

* The use of a not for girls slogan, though associated with apparent success, is not necessary. There have been case studies of successful boys' singing enterprises that have not used such an approach.

* It does appear to be the case that between the ages of about eleven and fourteen, boys will not sing if they perceive themselves to be outnumbered by girls. Thereafter, the dynamic changes as boys (whose voices have changed) begin to perceive participation in singing as a way of associating with girls and gaining their attention.

Importantly, Skelton, Carrington, Francis, Hutchings, Read and Hall (2009) stress that at around the age of seven or eight, children are simultaneously unconcerned about the gender of their teachers and highly concerned with their own gender identity. My own studies of boys and singing indicate that a renewed concern with gender identity accompanies the early stages of puberty. Between the ages of about ten and fourteen, it is not uncommon to find a tendency for boys and girls to segregate themselves, girls tending to regard boys as "immature" and boys tending to regard girls as "yuk." A survey of boys, conducted without adult mediation by an older boy, revealed responses such as "girls are yucky," "They giggle and scream too much" or "I will leave if girls are allowed to join the choir" (Ashley, 2009, p. 98).

For the making of the films, an extensive trawl of schools that had been successful in engaging boys with singing was conducted. The factor common to all of them was that they provided opportunities for boys to sing without girls, either by virtue of being single sex establishments, or through practices such as providing parallel single sex singing activities within a co-educational setting. Most commonly, it was the 11-14 age group that was targeted for this, boys and girls tending to reunite in upper school once the critical part of the biological phase of voice change was safely passed. This lends support to the view that particularly around the age of twelve, boys experience a gender related crisis of identity confidence and respond to feelings of inferiority to girls by declaring activities where they feel vulnerable as "gay" and not for "real boys." Nevertheless, boys are able to reflect on the fact that this is a transitory state of affairs:

I hate girls!

Really? Do you think you will always hate them?

No, because I'm not going to be gay when I'm grown up.

A crucial point is perhaps the degree to which this kind of thing can be written off or even capitalized on as a passing phase. Equally crucial is the degree to which acceptance of this as "what is the case" can be condoned. The real dilemma for the D-book is that of whether, in the interests of creating a resource that will ultimately encourage boys to resist hegemonic masculinity, some elements of "boys will be boys" as a transitory phase can legitimately be acknowledged as a necessary "hook" to secure boys' commitment to a longer term project.

The Digital-Interactive Book

The D-book is the second of two principal resource outputs of the project Widening Young Male Participation in Chorus, produced in collaboration with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council. The other principal resource output that has already been referred to was the series of professionally produced films about boys and their voices in contemporary multi screen styling, with high graphic content and linked together through a user driven web interface. The D-book has been intended for more reflective study by boys in their own time and is firmly based upon the "peer2peer" principle that was suggested by the author's earlier research. This is clear that adult males are not the principal "role models" who will encourage boys to sing, older boys are (Ashley, 2009). This is akin to the notion of the "fratriarchy" proposed by Mechling (2008). Realisation of this is through the process of including in the text actual quotations from boys interviewed in the previous research and employing boys as consultant sub-editors. Boys have been treated throughout the project as co-participants rather than subjects, and invited into theorization rather than being treated simply as the sources of data (Ratcliff, 2000).

The D-book evolved out of an earlier e-book that was produced prior to the present AHRC funding. The principal difference between an e-book and the D-book is that the former is a passive .pdf file accessed through the web, whilst the latter is interactive through being itself based on web technology. The text is therefore capable of continuous modification. Unlike the e-book, the D-book also contains active links to Youtube clips, downloadable MP3 files recorded especially for the project and expandable .pdfs that give more information about key concepts and terms. When each page opens, an audio file of two boys engaging in a form of humorous banter plays to explain the learning objectives for the page. The user can turn this facility off if desired. As it contains images of boys it is password protected and access is restricted to schools (through the domain name and other organizations across the world that can provide satisfactory evidence of their bona fide status in relation to boys' musical education. It is intended that boys be given access to their school's password and then encouraged to read and interact with the book themselves.

Unlike the films, the D-book provides a direct link between the boy authors and the boy readers without the intervention and mediation of the (adult male controlled) film company, a factor that proved quite significant in developing the peer2peer principle. However, the very existence of the book, the boys' participation and the ultimate editorial control of the text rests with the author of this paper who is also the author of the research on which the book is based. It is therefore a strategic alliance between boys, an adult male and the associated community of scholarly practice. Also significant has been the team of graphic designers who have been behind the book, the principal member of which is an adult female.

The task of the book has been simultaneously to communicate facts of interest about singing and boys' physical, vocal development through puberty whilst advocating singing as a suitable and enriching activity for young males. The input by boys collaborating in authorship is intended to ensure authenticity, credibility and a language and feel that will appeal to boys and communicate directly to them. Questions of considerable significance thus arise about "boy friendly" and the way in which power will be shared between young boys and an adult who is knowledgeable about the critical literature on gender construction, but also keen to give boys a voice in encouraging their peers to sing.

The earlier e-book undoubtedly erred on the side of "boy friendly" that would be the subject of critique. There was some anxiety on the behalf of the author to portray those findings of the research that showed that the majority of boys who sang in choirs were also "real boys" in that they were as interested in sport, for example, as most other boys. This claim, objectively, could be substantiated by data (see Mecke, 2009). However, given the advocacy role of the book, there was no acknowledgement that a small number of boys who sang in choirs specifically to resist aspects of hegemonic masculinity or avoid participation in sport had also been identified. The first page of the ebook thus had the following introductory text:

OK, so you're a boy.

AND you sing?

Great. You probably do it because you really enjoy it. I hope so.

And if you're a boy, you probably also (tick boxes that apply)

Play sport

Fight other boys

"Forget" to do your homework

Run around like a lunatic

Leave your bedroom in a mess

Annoy your teachers/parents/sister

Ride your bike too fast and scare people

Something even worse

The difficulty with this is that, on the one hand, it reinforces a stereotype and constructs a contestable view of how boys "ought" to be, but on the other hand it is justified by the author's research with boys. The qualitative data below are an example of how three of the "boys will be boys" stereotypes arose quite spontaneously in a thirteen year old real boy singer's response to a question about how he would like others to perceive him:

Yes! (face lights up). I like lots of sport (he reels off a long list which seems to include everything except tennis, which is singled out as not particularly liked). I don't feel pressured, I love being a kid, rolling around in the mud, free to do what you like, playing in the paddling pool and getting all your clothes soaked. Getting in trouble with the teachers is the best part! (said with a broadening grin). Messing about and annoying the ones who can't shout properly (Aged 13)

Here, "real boy" and real boy seem to be fairly convergent and there is some debate to be had about what to do if a statistically significant number of boys conform to what might be considered stereotypes. Is the reporting of what is the case to be regarded as stereotyping? A statistically significant majority (though not all) of the boys observed and interviewed did in fact describe how they did things such as annoy teachers, neglect their homework, play near constant football or fight other boys.

In practice, however, the opening page of the e-book appeared to have little impact on the boys I observed reading it. Most passed quickly over this page and one explanation for this was that they did not interpret it as tongue in cheek humour, but as a "boring" tick box checking task that they actually had to do. This approach was therefore dropped from the D-book, lessons having been learned about how boys in the 10-14 age range interpreted humour. On the question of "no girls allowed," however, a more protracted consideration took place.

The design work for the D-book had been sub-contracted to a small firm of graphic designers and web developers. Their response to the brief to create a design and layout that would appeal to boys in the 10-14 age group was to come up with a design that included a side bar on which a wooden notice, reminiscent of a boy's den in the woods, proclaimed "No girls allowed." This feature had not been requested, but was the idea of the (female) lead designer. Should this be interpreted as harmless humour, or should it be acknowledged that the patriarchal dividend is once again in operation through the complicity of the female designer? This was the most difficult challenge that had to be faced and one response was to consult boys before reaching a final position.

Boys' Initial Reactions to the D-B ook

The generic design for the D-book was shown to eight members of a boys' choir, aged between eleven and eighteen, and from which the voices to speak the learning objectives were to be drawn. It was also shown to a focus group of five boys aged between thirteen and seventeen who attended a state funded comprehensive school and who were to be recruited as singing ambassadors to primary schools. The boys in each case were asked simply to look at the design and give their opinions as to how successfully the designer had carried out her brief. Would the book appeal generally to boys of the target age twelve? Their view was entirely positive in both cases. Most felt that the colours and layout were in touch with boys' current tastes and expectations. There was a consensus amongst the older boys that the design would appeal particularly to boys of about twelve, but less so to older teenagers.

None commented without prompt on No girls allowed. The question was then put directly. Should that wording and image be included?

From my age group that sign would be a little bit childish, but if I were looking, if you're looking at it from a boy's point of view, Y7 and Y8, maybe Y9 you're going to have that sort of thing, they want to hang around in groups of boys. (17 year old school pupil).

The thirteen year old (Y9) in the school focus group responded instantly with:

No girls allowed, good!

Some of the youngest boys in the choir tended to interpret the question pragmatically. This eleven year old had to be pushed hard to give an opinion:

It's a headscratcher really. Some boys might be embarrassed (if girls saw the material in the site) but I wouldn't personally.

His interpretation appeared to be literal (see Bariaud, 1989). Should or should not girls be allowed to read material that was written specifically for boys? It wouldn't matter to him if they did. The older boys (14 upwards) however nearly all regarded it as an issue of humour.

Well, it's havin' a laugh. It's not really meant seriously. (17 year old choir member)

The seventeen year old member of the school focus group described how he normally played sport on a Saturday, but sometimes had to say no to his sporting friends if he needed to attend a special choir rehearsal. He had learned over the years that the best way to deal with this was through the humour he described as "witty banter":

When boys say oooh choirboy it's so annoying, it's such crap. I used to turn round and thump them but now I've learned to go, oh just shut up and it's become a kind of witty banter. (17 year old school pupil)

The boys in the school focus group were asked specifically to comment on the degree to which the practice of single sex grouping for singing was justified. Their comments were both consistent with the earlier data and showed recognition that the D-book was attempting to make boys more sensitive:

It's appealing to boys in Y7, Y8 and Y9 and it's to encourage them to enter the arts and be sensitive. (17 year old)

They judge more, girls do. (13 year old)

It's always the girls who are willing to go to the arts. Girls don't need that push, boys do. (14 year old)

Some of them coming up from Y7 will be intimidated by girls and just fade into the background. If a girl says something, they just crumble. (16year old)

If you say to Y7s you big nonce, you great girl's blouse, they go into themselves, they beat themselves up (17 year old)

One fourteen year old member of the choir, however, did say that that he thought "no girls allowed" might be sexist. The reaction of his choir peers is significant:

Oh that's just <n>. You don't want to worry about him. He always takes things too seriously!

The boys were thus asked directly for views on gender equality. The ability to keep things in proportion through humour emerged as significant:

I've got nothing at all against women. The whole sexism thing gets annoying if you make so much out of something trivial. (15 year old)

In the school focus group, the (male) teacher interjected with a response that might be considered to lie within the recuperative masculinity tradition:

We're aiming at an age when boys do need support, the sexist behavior would actually be in the girls who dominate the arts.

This teacher later recounted how he had been the victim of his own step-father's hegemonic attitude, and how he had resisted this:

I was taken out of orchestra by my step dad and made to watch football.

I resented that and eventually got back into orchestra.


The questions addressed by this paper concern what is an acceptable image of boyhood to defend, and how this might be communicated effectively to boys. Connell's contention that the gender equality project requires the willing co-operation of men and boys provides a contextual theme. The theoretical conundrum that has been described is that of the relationship between empirical observation (of what is, or appears to be the case) and philosophical argument concerning what ought to be the case. There are strong arguments against a recuperative masculinity politics that positions boys as the "new disadvantaged," but these arguments need to be weighed against the evidence that, in singing and perhaps more generally access to the arts as a means of developing sensitivity in boys, boys experience a particular context specific disadvantage between the ages of about eleven and fourteen.

A key discussion point therefore exists around the degree to which transitory stages in boys' constructions of identity are to condoned or challenged. They might be condoned on the grounds that to do so enables boys to identify with a broader model of boyhood that retains such elements as sport or roughhousing but also opens doors to engagement with the arts and greater sensitivity to such issues as gender equity. They might be resisted on the grounds that similar opportunities continue to be denied to girls and that other unwitting consequences might arise. For better or for worse, the Dbook has opted for the former course, but the consequences of this will be monitored and evaluated.

Two images of boyhood emerged as ones that are defended in the D-book and used to assure boys that singing is not "sissy" as so many appear to think, but part of a rounded picture of a fulsome boyhood:

* Most boys (including those who sing) enjoy and play a lot of sport

* Most boys (including those who sing) bond through a sense of humour or fun that can also be a defensive strategy

There is a growing literature on boys' use of humour as a strategy to construct masculinity, control and direct social positioning and maintain or develop power relationships (Dubberly, 1993; Martino, 2000; Swain, 2004). "Havin a laff" is a concept that dates back at least to Willis's seminal lad study (Willis, 1977). Some studies, such as Watts (2007) or Kehily and Nayak (1997) have suggested that humour serves to exclude and to marginalize those that "can't take a joke" or who wish to resist the sexist nature of some male humour, but it seems equally to be used as a coping strategy (Woods, 1983) or, as in Swain (2004, p. 179) a means of "holding your own" when you are not at the top of the hierarchy. This literature is ambivalent to a degree, but generally confirms the role of humour in communicating with boys.

The logic of portraying boys as engaged in sport, and doing so with a sense of humour or fun, is clear. It is unlikely that boys will be attracted to a gender atypical activity such as singing if undue prominence is given to the relatively small minority who do not like sport. Highlighting the fact that sport is not compulsory might justifiably be done in order to show that boys are not being homogenized and to contest hegemonic masculinity. The primary purpose of the D-Book, however, is not to do that, it is to show that singing is as acceptable an identity for boys as is sport. Moreover, there is a risk that boys who do not like sport might be seized upon by others as a proof that singing is an activity chosen by "wimps."

The case for retaining the "no girls allowed motif however appears much weaker once it is realized that the notice might as well be extended to read no girls or wimpy boys allowed. In spite of what the boys in the focus groups said, this has to be the trumping argument. It connects directly with the argument that the oft heard put-down "you sound like a girl" has meaning only because it operates within a heavily patriarchai context. The riposte to "you sound like a girl" ought perhaps to be "what's wrong with girls?" This, however, is very seldom considered although the point is raised in the book thus:

The boy is in top gear and he can go way high:

He goes so high for two reasons. First he's small so he has a small larynx (he'll grow!) Second, he's in top gear. But doesn't he sound like a girl?

THAT, my friend, is an outrageously sexist remark: .com/watch?v=D7TaNpnjqq0.

This clip referred to is of a fourteen year old boy and girl performing together on a TV talent show and it is hoped that it will either speak for itself or at least provide the context for boys to think in a different way about "sounds like a girl."

A similar conundrum has been seen to arise with regard to the more general picture of single sex schooling. This is not without relevance given the degree to which the book portrays, on the basis of sound evidence, boys in single sex situations. Might this imagery, which is representative of success in boys' singing, be generalized by some to an argument for extending single sex schooling? There is a growing body of opinion, mainly within recuperative masculinity politics, that this is the way in which boys will "catch up" with girls. Authors such as Wills, Kilpatrick and Hutton (2006) indeed have claimed that the desire for co-educational schooling is fundamentally ideological and unsupported by theoretical justification. They single out Skelton (2001) as associated with "powerful educational interests . . . frequently interpreted as an injunction to socially create androgynous children" (p. 279).

Such views, also arguably ideological, are not supported by a comprehensive review of single-sex teaching in UK schools participating in a four year raising boys' achievement project carried out by Younger and Warrington (2006). The general conclusion was ambivalent. It was difficult to separate single-sex teaching from other school improvement initiatives that were operative. Pupil responses were also ambivalent. Some pupils were enthusiastic whilst others had some quite significant reservations, not the least being that boys' behavior in the lower sets was even worse and the best teachers were allocated to boys, thereby disadvantaging girls and confirming patriarchy. It is important to stress that this study, like almost all others, concentrated only on the "important" subjects, English, maths and perhaps science.

There is an issue here, then, of "real classrooms" and real classrooms. Both supporters and detractors of recuperative masculinity politics may be in danger of overgeneralising, excluding other important variables and constructing "real classrooms" that do not actually exist. At the same time, on the more micro level of the specific, time limited needs of boys undergoing voice change in a singing class, possible lessons go unlearned. The difficulty may be inherent in the logistical nature of schooling itself. Schooling organized on principles that have advanced little over fifty years is not always able to respond to pupil groupings that change from activity to activity. Boys who read the D-book are engaged with this discussion through pages such as those that highlight the inappropriateness of organizing sport and singing at the same time and celebrate the success of schools that have found ways round such problems.

Reluctance in other schools to engage with the challenge of considering specific, time and place limited cases will do nothing to address the tendency for generalized "all boys tend to" type statements to continue to appear. A key point that is made in the DBook is that boys do actually have choices- choices about the kind of music they listen to and choices about the kinds of identity they reveal to the world. The D-B ook, in its imagery, language and subject matter is not about a generalized pastiche of "all boys" but attempts to give a very specific portrait of a specific situation. Paechter asks for a clear picture of what men and boys do do, lamenting that we do not actually have such a picture. The possibility discussed in this paper is that such a picture may be a chimera and ultimately unobtainable. We have only "real boys" and real boys.


The real crux of the matter rests, perhaps as always, upon power relationships. The use of humour as a device that is common in boys' discourse is also central to the image portrayed. Although the majority of boys regarded the "no girls allowed" motif as humorous and indicative of a stage of social development that would pass, there is too much evidence that boys involved in singing overcome the connotation of "sissyness" through falling into a form of complicit masculinity that perpetuates patriarchal power structures. In consequence, the "no girls allowed" sign was altered in the final version of the D-book to read "adults keep out." A different kind of power relationship attaches to the "adults keep out" motif that is both more clearly humorous and, unlike the prohibition of girls, relates to a change that will happen. The boys will become adult so all will, in due course, become the victims of their own prohibition- hung by their own petards, to coin a phrase from Shakespeare. The notice is also a humorous way a diffusing another potential area of conflict. Access to the D-book is password protected on account of a clearly stated child protection policy. The prohibition of adults, though stated humorously, is literal.

In the end, it has been necessary to exercise judgment as to what is fit for purpose as a tool of advocacy. The exercise has revealed the size of the chasm between how boys are and how boys ought to be and the debates that remain to be had about what is an acceptable image of boyhood. It has also raised questions about the size of the gap between research and practitioner communities and the degree to which academic writing is impacting on the lives of boys through the intermediary role of practitioners. Sales of Yorkie chocolate bars remain buoyant.


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Author affiliation:

Martin Ashley0

Author affiliation:

"Edge Hill University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Martin Ashley, Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University, St Helen's Road, ORMSKIRK, L39 4QP, England UK. Email:

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