Two very different, and distorted, media messages for boys

August 31, 2007

BOSTON -- I'm willing to bet that Judd Apatow didn't read The Dangerous Book for Boys, or at least not the chapter on "Girls." The advice includes such tidbits as "be careful with humor," "avoid being vulgar" and "make sure you are well-scrubbed."

If he had followed this, Mr. Apatow might never have produced Superbad, let alone Knocked Up, two films that have provided boffo box-office bookends to a summer of boytalk. Both star spectacularly vulgar and unscrubbed males of adolescent age or mentality who win over sane, attractive women.

The remarkable thing is that the best-selling book and the No. 1 movie are out there offering the most opposite and fanciful revised images of boyness since the culture became obsessed with the "boy crisis," "boy trouble" and assorted imaginary "wars against boys."

The Dangerous Book for Boys is a nostalgic compendium that ranges from instructions on how to make a treehouse and a paper airplane to which lines of Shakespeare you should know and which stories of ancient battles you should remember.

Conn Iggulden, one of the two British brothers who compiled the book, promotes it by saying that boys are hard-wired to seek danger and "need to learn about risk." But the only danger in the book is in the title. The rest is tame stuff fit for an era when kids wear helmets to ride tricycles and parents worry about everything from online predators to toys made in China.

The subtle marketing message isn't that boys should embrace danger but that they are endangered as a species. If there's nothing intrinsically male about the information in this book, the idea is to reclaim the treehouse as a boy space. It's to celebrate male heroism up to and including the dubious Earl of Lucan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death, saying, "We have no choice but to obey."

And for good measure, it reminds boys to carry a handkerchief to offer a girl when she cries.

If Mr. Iggulden's boyworld is positively Edwardian, what then of Judd Apatow's? In Superbad, Jonah Hill plays a high school hero who does indeed embark on a dangerous quest. But in this not-so-classic tale, the quest is an all-night pursuit of booze - the golden fleece - with which he hopes to win the hand (or some other body part) of his fair lady.

Our courageous knight's contemporary dream is to ply the object of his affection with enough alcohol so he could become the one-night stand she would live to regret. "We could be that mistake!" he proclaims idealistically.

In Superbad, as in Knocked Up, Mr. Apatow is utterly unconvincing in showing why any woman would fall for his men. But he is accomplished at creating a clueless male world.

So we have two wildly popular images of boys. On the one hand, little Edwardians encouraged to follow Lord Lucan once more into the breach. On the other hand, 21st-century slackers striving to be a girl's mistake.

Is this where we've landed in the epic drama of boy crisis? With these media-marketed choices? We have a cohort of fathers and mothers far more involved with jointly raising children than ever before. And we have images as distorted as they ever were.

Lest you were wondering, a sister book is soon to arrive from Britain. The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls is a compendium of girldom. That means instructions on how to sew and embroider, throw a flower fairy party and do a stage-faint: "Bend your ankles, bend your knees, and let yourself go floppy."

Meanwhile, Disney has just bought the rights to make a movie out of The Dangerous Book for Boys. I think I'll bring my own handkerchief to the theater.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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