Archive for January, 2010

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Country Boys

31 January 2010

Hugh Campbell, Michael Mayerfeld Bell, and Margaret Finney, eds.  Country Boys: Masculinity and Rural Life. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 322+ix.

In the age of corporate identities, urban men often look to rural men as possessing something primeval and masculine.  Whether the frontiersman or the farmer, the cowboy or the co-op producer, something about the wilderness remains in these men.  There seems something rooted to a masculine essence. 

Country Boys contests these powerful images with gritty, provocative sociological studies.  In truth, they say, rural men have their masculine identity socially constructed every bit as much as the city man.  Fifteen essays, from various authors and covering country life from America to Ireland to New Zealand, examine and challenge the gendered values held in these environments.  While its essays are of inconsistent quality, Country Boys is overall a very useful volume for men’s studies. 

As the introductory essay recognizes, men of the fields and forests and outdoors uphold “the symbolic power of the venerable rural myth of rugged individualism” (2).  They exude a sense of toughness, structure and discipline.  They gravitate towards a rather patriarchal order.  Because rural psycho-social organizations erect firm boundaries and expectations, men in these environments sometimes have a hard time challenging norms or responding to dramatic shifts in cultural climate.  There is often a subtle but ubiquitous enforcement of conservative, white, heterosexual lifestyles.  Many of the essays in this volume illustrate the force of rural hegemony. 

The several studies on rural men’s bodies are, I think, the strongest contributions.  Will H. Courtenay writes about the health effects of manly codes, cataloguing compelling statistics about these men’s injuries, illnesses and early deaths.  Jo Little’s contribution explores different ways the male body tends to be portrayed, such as naked calendars and homely singles ads, and how each is intended to steer people away from “scary sexualities” back to the valuation of the family.  The gem of Country Boys is probably David Bell’s “Cowboy Love,” which provides four vastly different portraits of rural homosexualities.  Without sounding bitter or didactic, Bell describes the perilous identities of these men, also explaining how we cannot conflate the idyllic “homosexual rural” with the actual “rural homosexual.”  The essay is all that much more impressive since it was written before the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon.

Missing from the volume is a look into religion among men of the country.  (How it is possible to speak of cohesive societies and cohesive masculinities without religious ties, I do not know.)  Also omitted are studies about migrant workers.  Sometimes lacking is a counterbalancing sense of appreciation about rural men’s decisions, and how their (increasingly unpopular) values help facilitate their often happy lives.  These points aside, Country Boys can be said to contain important studies.  I recommend it as a library resource and a book for upper division sociology classes.

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Open Forum: Is Avatar Pushing Traditional Sex Roles?

15 January 2010

Take one part Star Wars, one part The Matrix, add a dash of the Smurfs – and voila, you have Avatar.  What would sound like an improbable sci-fi blockbuster has become the smash hit of the winter, and rightly so.  The plot line is engaging and the screen effects are unrivalled.  It is certainly worth your $11.00 to see it in the theater. 

The movie’s agenda regarding native cultures and the environment notwithstanding, what do you all think about the way it portrays roles for men and women?  Does the Na’vi tribe strike you as patriarchal or equalitarian?  Does the movie embrace traditional views of gender, or does it suggest something more progressive?

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Christians Who Drink Beer

3 January 2010

Historians will look back on the years 2000-20 someday and call it the Second Age of Muscular Christianity.  Quote me on it.  Let me unpack at least one aspect of this phenomenon: beer-drinking Christian men.

A decade ago a seminarian explained to me how there are three types of PKs (pastors’ kids) in the world: PK-A, the obedient child, PK-B, the outright rebellious child, and PK-C, the child who knows how to be rebellious but chooses to live mostly (mostly) within the bounds of the PK-A lifestyle, that is, Christians Who Drink Beer.  For him the mark of cultural engagement and anti-legalistic assertion involved whether or not one went to the pub.  The coincidence is almost too uncanny: the same rule is now applying to the other PKs, Promise Keepers.

Now in 2010 the pattern seems to true, especially for Protestant men.  Former “nice boys” and Promise Keepers attendees, they now look to buck the restraint associated with Victorian morality and fundamentalistic codes.  The new Muscular Christians are showing their rough side… by throwing down a couple of cold ones.  Preferably stouts.  For instance, hipster pastor Mark Driscoll writes in Radical Reformission how light beer is a sin – a claim that could be taken figuratively until one considers that he helps to sponsor a brewing club at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.   Meanwhile, John Eldredge, a light beer hater himself, encourages men to disregard legalistic conventions and follow their wild heart (or stomach?).  Attempts to follow this injunction in the beer department have led to some funny results.

Not that Muscular Christians encourage drunkenness.  They do not.  Rather, a more regal form of hold-your-liquor masculinity applies here.  Don’t drink too much.  And no matter how much beer you imbibe, don’t let it compromise your self-will.  Remember, we’re PK-Cs here.

One final example.  A friend who works for Campus Crusade in Utah tells me that drinking beer has become a standard way for Evangelical men to distinguish themselves from the Mormons.  The teetotalling LDS guys don’t dare assert themselves that way, and pretty much have the squeaky-clean masculine archetype all tied up.  Which leaves wide open a handy, malty lacuna for Protestants. 

Being set apart has never been such a happy ordeal.