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New Boys: Hope and Observation
5 March 2005

In Star Trek III: The Quest for Spock, Uhura, as she is commandeering a transporter platorm, says to the quaking ensign, “this isn’t reality – this is fantasy.” Similarly, this isn’t research; it’s hope. Well-founded hope.

“If I had a million dollars, the first thing I’d do would be to buy my mom a new house. I mean, she works so hard, and she really needs it” - this from the mouth of a 12-year-old skater boy. It emerged in a recent series of interviews conducted by my students, supported by co-instructors Anne Burdick and Lisa Nugent, as part of a research project focused on “tweens” at Art Center College of Design. Ten years ago, when I was researching the same age group, “skaters” (i.e., kids who ride skateboards, surfboards, or snowboards) were seen by their peers as marginal, tough, and transgressive. Today the skater ethos had picked up some shiny new cred in the world of boys, and the changes in its meaning reflect larger changes in our world.

A decade ago, one of our most disturbing findings was the brittleness of male identity in the tween years. Boys tended to feel extremely boxed in by their gender roles. While a few teen boys were experimenting with skirts, nail polish, and makeup, the tweens seemed extremely wary of (real or perceived) gender transgressions. When girls “invaded” a previously male space – in fashion, sports, or other activities – retreat was a common strategy. As girls appropriated the Mario Brothers, boys sought out (and the industry provided) videogames where extreme action and violence would serve to keep girls out of the clubhouse.

This was a weird non-consensual relationship between boys and middle-aged men. The boys who started the videogame business back in the late70s are 50 or 60 now. They don’t do research (and they never did). They don’t look at how boys are changing. And they don’t look at girls at all. What rocked their world is what their patronage still causes to be made: the alpha male adventure circa WW II, or maybe Vietnam (the punk edge of the trailing Boomers). Marvel Comics. They trust the younger men who design today’s games run their scripts, and their leg-hold contracts make it so.

An interesting side-note about Marvel Comics. The narratives of comics have undergone several changes – sex changes, culture changes. Take, for example, the X-Men. When they were comic books, they were for geek boys. When they entered the world of videogames, they were for slightly hipper nerd/geek boys. I was interviewing tweens about that time, and one girl’s comment about the X-Men videogames stuck in my mind. “These characters are so boring,” she said, “that you can’t even make up stories about them.” In other words, the videogame medium sucked the narrative right out of the root property. Flash forward a decade and we arrive at the feature film of X-Men, starring Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman as our dear Wolfie. Lo, girls are in the theatre. Girls have become fans. The videogame was a freeze-dried narrative. Character and action? Just add movies.

The computer game industry seems to have made things for new boys without even looking at them (ah, the exuberance of popular culture). The marketing for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for example, continues in the vein of revenge and violence as the hero Chuck “is framed for homicide by two corrupt cops” and “must journey across San Andreas to take control of the streets.” Yes, the boys we interviewed a few months ago were enthusiastic about the game. But the reason they gave was that they could drive right by their houses, because the game purported to model the actual geography of their urban areas. Curiosity and the coolness of a detailed simulation that maps onto reality seem to be the motivators. Stealing cars and driving them dangerously were just the side-show.

Ten years ago, interviewing both boys and girls with Interval Research and Cheskin, we found that “skater” boys tended to be outside of the mainstream. They were typically members of one of two groups. “Isolators” are loners who had few friends and very little identification with adult values. “Explorers” are a relatively small (<10%) segment of kids who drive cultural innovation, transgressive, yes -  but also highly generative. Explorers, too, have little identification with adults but very high levels of affiliation with peers. The heroes of Dogtown and Z-Boys were canonical “explorers” – outlaw boys who invented the art of skateboarding on one bone-dry day in Beverly Hills, rolling between the edges of drought-drained swimming pools.

Today’s skaters (and those who affiliate with them) are no longer outlaws; if our studies are generalizable, they show that these boys tend to strongly manifest those pro-social values that Neil Howe calls out as characteristic of the Millennial generation, including harmony, collaboration, and respect within family. I think that today’s boys are also much more socially confident and competent as a result of the pervasiveness of social technologies (including multiplayer games, SMS, IM, and cell phones). The relatively lower “social IQ” of boys has been noted for some time in America. The diversity of male attributes across cultures suggest that social facility and flexibility are transferred, not by genes but by culture. Recent changes that I see in the young male ethos tend to support this view.

The boys we interviewed gave us a new construction of tween and teen boy society. Roughly in order of social status, the groups that these boys identified are:

  • skaters
  • skater wannabees
  • ballers (boys who participate in team sports)
  • baller wannabees
  • gangster wannabees
  • gangsters

Parenthetically, several boys observed that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish ballers from gangsters because both groups tend to wear athletic clothing, differing only in the brands. When they’re not in athletic gear, ballers believe that saggy pants are over, whereas gangsters do not.

Pondering this new mapping of boys’ social landscape, I glimpse what may be a meaningful correspondence between boys’ categories and two leading symbols of adult male ethos: the astronaut and the soldier. I noticed that both of types are aspirational “alpha” male constructions as portrayed in media and popular culture in which boys are immersed. What’s really interesting to me is the reworking of the skater/astronaut ethos. We can see this, not only in the aspirations and identifications of tween and teen boys, but also in the adult world. For example, it was the astronaut corps’ insistence on manned space flight with full understanding of the risks that forced the resignation of the former head of NASA O'Keefe.

People who want to go to the stars are fundamentally hopeful. Boys who want to ride boards take pleasure in the moment, the flow, their companions, and their personal best. Boys who play ball tend to take pleasure in the same things, but with greater emphasis on teamwork and competition. The good news is that there is room in our culture for different kinds of men to achieve fulfillment and high status. But to me, the great news is that today’s skaters are ascendant. I believe that they may well transform what men (at least in the Western world) will do, make, and be. Indeed, that transformation from within the culture of men has the potential to cause the worst aspects of “the patriarchy” to fade away. In light of the changes I’m seeing in today’s young people, the worst excesses of the patriarchy may fade out, not because they have been actively overcome, but because our evolving human nature will simply make them obsolete.

Ben Tow, looking cool
“I am the new world,” he might say – my nephew, Ben.