"Packaging Boyhood" authors Lyn Mikel Lamb and Mark Tappan Interview.Jennifer V. Hughes
In 2007 writers Sharon Brown and Lyn Mikel Lamb published Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, a book about the messages girls get from marketers and what parents can do about it. From the beginning, they also wanted to write a book about boys.
In their new book, Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers and Other Media Stereotypes, writers Brown, Lamb and Mark Tappan analyze all types of data, all the way down to the valentines Johnny and Joey can give to classmates and how they’re riddled with menace (one Transformer card features the police car robot shouting: “I’ve been looking for you”).
The Valentine’s Day cards are just one tiny example of how stereotypes and other media images play out to boys. The message that boys get is that they have to be strong – and not just strong, SUPER strong. They have to play games, but they always have to be the winner.
What does this mean for boys? And what options are left out? What happens when they don’t win? If they’re not strong? Why exactly is a PG-13 movie (Batman: The Dark Knight) linked to T-shirts in 2T?
It’s a story in which those with the most power too often have the wrong kind of power – they are the bullies, the narcissistic athletes, “dogs” or “players” – the ones who call the shots and get the scantily clad, booty-jiggling music video girls. It’s a story that teaches boys that they need to avoid humiliation at all costs, seek revenge if wronged, dress to impress and intimidate, be tech-savvy, show wealth and take risks all while pretending that they don’t care about any of it.
Think this doesn’t apply to your little tot? In one hilarious and frightening example, the authors use movie quotes and invite readers to tell whether they were spoken by Rambo or Raphael, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. (The quotes are equally violent.)
Authors Lyn Mikel Brown and her husband Mark Tappan talked to Babble about what to do and what you can say to your kids to combat the media bombardment.- Jennifer V. Hughes
Your work has turned me into an advocate. I’m always pointing out things from your first book, like how few classic children’s books feature girls as the hero. But I often get the “what’s the big deal” response. So what if a kid’s t-shirt has Spiderman on it? Who cares if boys are obsessed with sports?
Lyn: The series of messages and a kind of typing about boys that happens pretty early on sets up an ideal that is pretty narrow and pretty hard for boys to fit into. The ideal of always winning and being a superhero closes out a whole range of options, for example, being able to talk about being vulnerable or feelings, the complex things we want to support in our children that make them healthy as they grow up.
Mark, how did you see this kind of thing growing up?
Mark: Things have really changed since I was a boy. One of the things we noticed was how pervasive it is, in toys, movies, books, everywhere. The other side of it is the slacker stereotype, the “I don’t care,” Bart Simpson character. It’s the alternative to the hyper super macho. If you don’t measure up to that, you can be a slacker and still be popular.
Why boys shouldn’t always have to win.
by Jennifer V. Hughes
October 26, 2009
You talk in your book about how boys are pushed towards certain subjects, superheroes, for example. What’s so bad about boys identifying with Spiderman? He’s a good guy, he works hard, he’s flawed and human?
Lyn: Part of the problem is that the old comic books have been transformed over time. Now they’re these over-the-top action movies. There is a lot to like about Spiderman and for the most part he’s good. But now there’s also bad Spiderman, there’s Batman and The Dark Knight. It’s gotten a lot darker, a lot more scary and more dramatic. These are PG-13 movies that are really on the border of an R, and yet they’re marketed to the littlest boys.
Mark: We’re not against superheroes, but if it’s the only thing that boys have, then it’s a problem. Boys should have a range of toys to play with and people to identify with. Superheroes are a place for parents to have a conversation with their sons. In our culture, it’s just sort of accepted – what’s the big deal, boys will be boys. It’s different for girls; we have a sense that girls need to be protected. But it’s almost as if boys don’t matter as much. They’ll goof off in school, they’ll cause trouble, they’ll raise hell, they’ll fight and it’s normal. We think the media plays a role in that; it’s not just boys being boys in a natural sense.
I do think that there are some inherent things about boys: they usually are more high-energy, they usually do gravitate toward a ball instead of a baby doll. How do you accommodate a boy’s natural tendencies and still adhere to some of your ideals?
Lyn: What we’re talking about is the way that energy is translated into a very narrow stereotype. Why is action translated into violence? Action can be channeled in other ways.
So how do you try to address some of these issues of violence? Do you ban Bakugan? Say yes to Spiderman but no to X-Men? How do you decide?
Mark: There are choices parents have to make about what’s appropriate. We’d like parents to pay more attention to the ratings of movies, for one, so they don’t let their kids see PG-13 movies just because they got a Batman toy in their Happy Meal. We want parents to talk to their sons so the violence is a topic for conversation, not something that has to be banned. Ask them: “What does this mean? Why do you like it?”
It used to be that the idea was to keep the car on the track, now the idea is to crash. Lyn: The important thing is to listen. We don’t always know why they are attracted to something, say violent video games. One of Mark’s students helped us see that boys often like these games because of the complex storylines. As parents, if we listen to them, we can help channel that in other ways, help them find other ways to get that complex storyline.
When it comes to violence – what is the difference between what kids see today and what we watched? I remember adults thinking that Wile E. Coyote trying to blow up the Road Runner was too violent.
Lyn: We have so many examples of how things are different from the way they used to be. We were totally struck by Nerf and how big the guns are now. There are also Legos now where it’s not about creatively making what you want to make, it’s about making the Transformer. We looked at racetracks; it used to be that the idea was to keep the car on the track, now the idea is to crash. We saw the word “hyper” in a lot of toys and other marketing; even the name has to be over the top.
In your previous book, Packaging Girlhood, one thing that stunned me was the part about how children’s games show – by a huge margin – the boy winning or playing an active role with the girl as a passive observer rooting for the boys. Tell me one of the things that you were really surprised to discover in your research for Packaging Boyhood.
Lyn: With this book, after a while, we just felt like it was all too much. We started thinking of it as this frantic, desperate need to impose this on boys. I was thinking of all the little boys in their little bodies confronted with this all the time and the experience that they have to somehow live up to all of this in the guise of fun and action. It has to feed a kind of anxiety
Mark: Certainly for marketers, that’s the technique: you increase someone’s anxiety about not being pretty or smart or strong enough and then you sell them a product that will make them feel better. You tie that into the cultural anxiety about masculinity. One of the examples of that is, strangely enough, energy drinks. You start to listen to all those names – Full Throttle, No Fear, Monster, Tiger, Rock Star – it’s that again and again, this desperate sense of you’re big enough, you’re strong enough, you’re man enough, you’re hyper enough to prove something.
I thought it was really interesting how you point out that there are a lot of great shows for young boys (and girls) – WonderPets, Thomas – where the focus is not all on competition and violence and destruction, with good messages about teamwork and cooperation and affection. But then it seems to go straight to X-Men. At least girls get My Little Pony in between. Why is there so little middle ground for boys?
Lyn: I think that’s right. Not only that, but they go right into the tween shows, too. It’s interesting how much the show “Drake and Josh,” mirrors the show “Two and a Half Men”: one is the player, and one is the straight man. The other shocking thing about [shows directed to boys] is the idea of drinking, how much we saw boys’ characters getting “drunk.” SpongeBob gets “drunk” on ice cream; on “The Suite Life” they get “drunk” on soda. In Toy Story, they get “drunk” on tea, in Open Season, they get “drunk” on candy bars. It becomes a right of passage for boys, and it goes to the littlest boys, that out of control, action thing.
You address the issue of race more in this book than the last one. What have you found about how race is addressed in movies, TV, and other media?
It was hard to find books, except history books, where boys of color were the protagonist or the leader. Lyn: I think we were aware of the fact that we didn’t address race much in Packaging Girlhood, but at the same time I think it’s more of an issue for boys because a lot of the hyper masculine images are of men of color, in sports or music. One of the big concerns was in reading, it was hard to find books, except history books, where boys of color were the protagonists or the leaders. It’s pretty rare when you see that.
Mark: It happens in movies too. The character of color is typically the sidekick, like Donkey in Shrek .
Lyn: Of course, the lead character in Open Season is played by a person of color . . .
But of course he’s too drunk to do much good.
Lyn: Exactly, he’s getting drunk and saying things like “Bros before does” (referring to the adult version, Bros before Hos). That’s the kind of coded stuff designed to bring in adults, but it really does sell out boys in terrible ways.
So what’s your advice to parents, especially those with young sons, like four or five?
Lyn: That is the time when parents can introduce simple concepts of how they’re being sold something, what a stereotype is. You can guide them away from things and channel their energy into more constructive things. The hope is that if we can do that with little kids, as they get old enough, they’ll do the talking. We want to have a voice in their head with all that other media stuff.