The Feminine Gaze of Adolescent Boys
Teaching at an all-boys high school provides a unique window into the lives of adolescents. You are invited to participate in a culture with a language and moral code all its own. I was reminded of this recently when one of my seniors jokingly accused me of “swagger jacking,” the urban term for the act of trying to steal someone else’s popularity. It speaks to how young men constantly work to ensure that they are acting in the “right” way, following the bro code. In a school setting, this proves especially true when young men find themselves competing for the attention of female adults who serve as a pseudo-psychological experiment of sorts. They can gaze upon women in a school setting as a limited substitute for their own mother or as an ideal image of what they desire in an intimate relationship. A woman who is physically attractive and more intelligent than a student is simultaneously a threat and an object of desire to young men. In short, there is a fine line drawn in the sand between “being a babe” and “acting like a bitch.”
Through the (broken) looking glass
The increased presence of technology in the classroom has created a new dynamic in education for how one is seen. The new arena of adolescent competition is now through a screen where a teen can create and manipulate images in a matter of seconds, naïvely unaware of what is real and what is fantasy (after all, if it’s on the Internet it must be true). The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan echoed this idea in what he called the “mirror stage,” where infants first begin to look at their reflection and have a desire to see themselves as distinct individuals. They are beginning to distinguish between their real and imaginary self, between what is and what could be. Many teenage boys are aware of the seductive nature of media and its idyllic portrayal of women. As one of my students, Zach, a precocious 17-year-old drama actor, observed, “Obviously, with technology and media you get these doctored photos of women that make them look stunning. But then when I go out in real life I see women and 1) I don’t compare them to these ‘goddesses’ and 2) I don’t objectify them because of the photos I’ve seen.” An ideal image gives the appearance of looking back without hesitation, blinding their awareness to what is near. Another student, Mark, also 17, who plays lacrosse competitively but has a gentle demeanor, remarked, “Looking for the ‘perfect’ woman can cloud [being able to see] a perfect woman you already know.” The emotional frailty of boys is clouded by the illusion of anonymity that the Internet provides—to look upon women as if they themselves cannot be seen. The deception behind technology leads young men to believe they are in control, immune from rejection. This can feed the addictive nature of some boys because even the potential for losing control or power is seen as passive and weak. The negative connotations attributed to this perception in the dominant male culture are well known.
The other woman
When students have access to various forms of technology, they need to be empowered to utilize them appropriately. I have half-joked with my students that having iPads in class is like being in the proverbial candy store without touching anything. The allure of visual media beckons our attention seemingly around the clock, and yet we are unsure how to proceed in an appropriate way. However, rules that govern the ethical use of technology, colloquially referred to as “netiquette,” can establish a particular set of parameters that liberate young men to be free from the social temptations that can snare their malleable consciences. For example, the accessibility of Internet pornography presents boys with a literal window into a realm of misguided sexual exploration. Gender becomes commodified to the extent that advertisements and videos depicting a breast or thigh supposedly constitute a real woman. Meanwhile, boys unwittingly objectify themselves. As Chris, an introverted 18 -year-old observed, “I see no downside to porn, it just helps to flesh out your teenage urges…instead of raping other people I just rape myself…I am more eager to know [the woman I see] as a person rather than as a sex doll.” It is in this way that many adolescent boys struggle with the tension of sexual development as if it’s an either/or proposition, to objectify or not. Sexual climax merely becomes another adolescent social checkmark. The images students encounter online arrest their ability to embrace the complex nature of relationships—the social challenge of monogamy, financial disagreements, and professional aspirations, among others. Their gaze becomes stagnant—because to see the sexualized woman as intelligent and in control risks exposing the insecure boy gazing at her. This interaction occurs primarily within the private realm (alone with his computer) and is juxtaposed with the public nature of the classroom (where boys are required to foster intellectual relationships with women). The allure of the older and attractive female teacher is understandable (if not condoned) at a subconscious level because she can embody the attributes so lacking in many young men—academic confidence and mature sociability.
The challenge is to present adolescent boys with a variety of social roles that allow them the psychological space to safely explore what it means to be a man. To do so, we need to deconstruct masculinity, to better understand the moral and emotional needs of young men apart from the absurd reductionism that shrugs and says, “boys will be boys.” Interestingly enough, many of the young men at my school are quite aware of how artificial and dangerous the social construction of masculinity is, particularly as drawn in popular media outlets. While they view it as one-dimensional and limiting, most are often unable to see women in the same vein. I often tell my colleagues that the men at our school need to be the most ardent feminists. By modeling respect and care, they can promote solidarity as a tangible virtue quite differently from their female colleagues, given the single-sex learning environment.
Being a man is not a singular thing; it is a spectrum of opportunities. One way of redefining masculinity is to affirm those who occupy diverse roles in school. A student of mine several years ago, Steve, was a husky kid who played on the football team and sang in the choral choir on campus. It was a dichotomy that contradicted the expectations of his peers. Even for all of the eyebrows it raises, the “Brony” phenomenon—the male cultural fascination with the rerelease of the “My Little Pony” cartoon series—can be taken as a humorous yet genuine response to the strict social categories that limit emotional sensitivity.
Another approach is to uphold the dignity of individuals above all else. While this may appear a bit pious, it’s important to recognize our own prejudices and how they impact the ways we talk about gender. I take solace in the fact that I am privileged to be with young men who demand accountability. As Jake, a creative writer who is never reticent to speak his mind, recently wrote, “Being a man is not portrayed that well in the media because being a man [means] taking responsibility for your actions and thinking about others before yourself.” There is a real need to be mindful of the unique and complex lives contemporary young men are living. Many boys may be questioning their sexuality or come from households that do not subscribe to a particular image of family. Since schools serve the legal obligation of being in loco parentis—literally, “in the place of a parent”—it is the obligation of schools to act accordingly. To walk with boys in the spirit of care and concern along the path to greater emotional intelligence is paramount to an authentic education. So when adolescents gaze back at us, we have to ask ourselves, how will we guide them as they look within?
Patrick Tiernan is a member of the religious education department at Boston College High School in Boston, where he has taught for the last 10 years. He is currently a doctoral candidate in educational administration at Boston College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BC High is a Jesuit Catholic college-preparatory school for young men founded in 1863. The school enrolls approximately 1600 day students in grades 7–12 from more than 100 communities in eastern Massachusetts; more than 15 percent are minorities. The school annually gives more than $4,000,000 in financial aid to more than 40 percent of the student body.