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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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