Monday, June 14, 2010

Boys and the Arts

I watched the Tony Awards, the Oscars of the theatre world, with my 12-year-old son last night. We critiqued the musical numbers, commented on the plays and predicted the winners. And at the end of the night, my 12-year-old son watched me jump off the couch and applaud my childhood best friend as he took the stage at Radio City Music Hall, part of the crowd accepting Memphis' award for Best Musical.

I was proud of my friend because he's my friend, but also because he and I grew up together, here in a small midwestern town where sports reign supreme. I watched, supported and shared his interest in the arts over the years, listenting to Phantom of the Opera in his room (on new-fangled CDs!) and applauding wildly the first time we saw Cats. We sang in choirs together, acted in plays together and attended the theatre together.

But while all of those activities were deemed OK (if not cool) for me, my friend fought an uphill battle because boys, you see, aren't supposed to like art. Boys are supposed to be manly and tough and strong. They're supposed to play football, not participate in show choir.

That was the message, at least, 20 years ago in this small town. Things are changing -- and I give a ton of credit to the choir director who came our junior year, who elevated the arts in our community -- but culturally speaking, the message still looms large. The arts are for girls -- or fags.

Don't believe me? In his 2002 report, Engaging Boys in the Arts, Scott Harrison cities a number of studies that uncovered stereotypical and homophobic beliefs about boys in art:

  • From Hanley, 1998
Singing is viewed a feminine activity - boys who engage in singing are feminine by implication... the peer group is hung up on the image that boys don't sing and those who do are gay or sissies or whatever - weak anyway

  • From Levine, 1995

American adults held...that only certain occupations were appropriate for homosexuals... They included nurse, librarian, airline steward, waiter, interior decorator, hairdresser and dancer, musician and artist...Homophobic men do not participate in sissy, womanly, homosexual activities or interests...Fear of being thought to be a homosexual thus keeps some men from pursuing areas of interest, or occupations, considered more appropriate for women or homosexuals.

Yes, the studies are older studies, but given the trouble my son's show choir has attracting male members, I don't things have changed as much as we'd like to believe. As far as art is concerned, our sons face some serious obstacles.

That's why I'm so glad my son watched the Tonys with me. He's been interested in music, dance and theatre from the beginning, and while we've encouraged his passions, nothing compares to a role model. When my son watched the Tonys last night, he heard performer after performer reference their dreams, dreams that once-upon-a-time seemed impossible. And when he saw me jump off the couch and my friend take the stage, he knew, somewhere deep in his soul, that boys from small midwestern towns can do anything they want.


  1. Great job, Jen! The sad thing is that sometimes it is just as difficult to shed a small town image for even jock-minded people like myself. I grow tired of people assuming because I am an athlete and love to promote physical well-being (and I'm from a small town) that I am a homophobe or a closed-minded, small town simpleton that cannot tolerate our collective global cultural differences. We all have our personal individuality and should be proud of who we are and strive to be the best human being we can. I have two non-athletic children, geeks by some peoples' standards, and I love how they are willing engage in things they love, rather than engage in things I love. It was very exciting to see Bill at the Tonys. It truly did my heart good to see someone who has worked so hard to pursue his dream achieve success and recognition. Thanks for being such a wonderful voice to us small town folks. :)

  2. As a high school drama teacher, I have to say you're right that it's not always "cool" to be in shows and choir. But I do think it's getting better. It's tons better here and I, like you, credit that to the one in charge of our singers.

    I so enjoyed the Tonys last night. It's a family tradition at our house, and I reminded my CA boy that it was tonight, so he dvr-ed it. I just revel in all that talk of dreams coming true -- the actress from Fences gave the sweetest speech, I thought.

    We need to nourish their dreams, don't we?

  3. I remember several years ago in my English teaching days having students read aloud parts of "The Crucible" in my "regular" (i.e. not-necessarily-going-to-college) American Lit class; there was one kid, Adalberto, who emerged as a real talent. I had coincidentally assigned him the role of John Proctor, and his performance was electrifying--he elicited gasps of wonder and spontaneous, heartfelt applause from everyone. The class demanded that he read John Proctor every day from then on. I spoke to him and encouraged him to try out for the school play--and he refused without giving any good reason. I think it was maybe because he was Latino--and there was not one Latino kid involved in theater. I'm hoping that with more Latino actors on TV these days that this will help change things for kids like Beto.