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«Revenge of the Beta Boys: Opting out as an exercise in masculinity Alicia Walker McGill Journal of Education / Revue des sciences de l'éducation de ...»

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"Revenge of the Beta Boys: Opting out as an exercise in masculinity"

Alicia Walker

McGill Journal of Education / Revue des sciences de l'éducation de McGill, vol. 49, n° 1, 2014, p. 183-200.

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URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1025777ar

DOI: 10.7202/1025777ar

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ALICIA WALKER University of Kentucky ABSTRACT. This study examines the factors influencing underachieving boys on a high-performing high school campus. Unlike the “laddishness” often seen in studies of underachievement among boys, the boys in this study were quiet, unobtrusive, and compliant within the classroom. Using qualitative interviews and observations conducted over a one-year period, the study showed the formation of student identities in response to the hegemonic masculinity of the “golden boy” portrayed by the popular boys on campus, which included high academic performance. The boys constructed an alternate masculinity, the Beta Boy, designed to demonstrate superior intellect through eschewing in-class work and homework but performing particularly well on tests.



RÉSUMÉ. Ce projet de recherche étudie les facteurs ayant une influence sur des garçons sous-performant au sein du campus d’une école secondaire à rendement supérieur. Contrairement aux comportements immatures et tapageurs fréquemment observés dans le cadre d’études portant sur l’échec scolaire chez les garçons, les jeunes hommes de ce projet de recherche étaient silencieux, effacés et respectueux des règles de la classe. En se basant sur des entrevues qualitatives et des observations menées sur une période d’un an, les résultats de recherche montrent la formation d’identités étudiantes en réaction à la masculinité hégémonique du «golden boy», représenté par les garçons populaires du campus, incluant ceux réussissant sur le plan académique. Ces garçons ont élaboré une identité masculine alternative, les Beta Boy. Cette masculinité cherche à démontrer des capacités intellectuelles supérieures, en évitant tout travail scolaire en classe et à la maison, mais en réussissant particulièrement bien les évaluations.

The academic underachievement of boys is an educational issue around the globe in industrialized societies. In the U.S., it is a growing problem in particular. Numerous sources indicate that boys are lagging behind as soon as they enter the education system, and that this continues over the life 183 McGILL JOURNAL OF EDUCATION • VOL. 49 NO 1 WINTER 2014 Alicia Walker course throughout both their college and working years. Indeed, contrary to past patterns in higher education, in 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau (2008) estimated that only two-thirds of young men ever darkened the doors of higher education and that they are significantly less likely than their female counterparts to earn their degrees. This growing issue has only been exacerbated by the Great Recession during the late 2000s, as men held three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost (Rosin, 2010). This is largely due to the specific fields in which those losses occurred, which have long been considered the work of men: construction and manufacturing. It’s no coincidence that these fields do not require higher education.

The phenomenon of underachieving boys is not a new topic. There has been much discussion and inquiry into this subject in recent decades. Some attention has been given to working class students on this issue (Epstein, Elwood, Hey, & Maw, 1998; Ingram, 2009; Lucey, 2001; Lucey & Walkerdine, 2000; Morris, 2005; 2008; Reay, 2001; Weiner, 1998; Willis, 1997) as well as race (Conchas & Nogura, 2004; Ferguson, 2000; Luttrell, 2005; Majors, 2001; Osborne, 1999;

2001; Oyserman, Gant & Ager, 1995; Polite and Davis, 1999; Oyserman & James, 2008), while some researchers call attention to the intersectionality of race and class (Griffin, 2000). Many discussions look at shifts in education over the last few decades to locate the problem within schools themselves (Raphael, 1998; Johnston & Watson, 2005). Among these foci is a discussion pitting boys’ success against the success of girls (Gurian, 1996; Hoff-Sommers, 2000; Pollack, 1998). Much criticism has been raised concerning the way the discourse posits boys as “victims” and girls as “privileged” (Epstein et al., 1998;

Griffin 2000; Lingard & Douglas, 1999; Rowan, Knobel, Bigum & Lankshear, 2002; Watson, Kehler, & Martino, 2010), and many researchers have cited the entire “masculinity in crisis” discourse as a backlash against feminism (Epstein et al., 1998; Raphael, 1999; Skelton, 1998).

Of particular interest is the phenomenon of capable boys choosing to disengage from their academic work, but who are doing so in a very restrained and subdued manner as opposed to the assertiveness of hegemonic masculinity or the disruptive nature of laddishness described in previous studies. The purpose of this data collection was to discern some of the factors triggering the lack of engagement of certain male students, who based upon all available educational indicators should be performing at high levels. This study strove to understand the context and motivation of the underachievement of boys on a high-performing campus.


Masculinity is an oft-used concept in the academic discourse surrounding the underachievement of boys, and the most commonly referenced in the literature is hegemonic masculinity (Carrigan, Connell & Lee, 1985; Connell 184 REVUE DES SCIENCES DE L’ÉDUCATION DE McGILL • VOL. 49 NO 1 HIVER 2014 Opting Out as an Exercise in Masculinity & Messerschmidt, 2005; Connell, 1987; Epstein, 2006; Frank, Kehler, Lovell & Davison, 2003; Kessler, Ashenden, Connell & Dowsett, 1982; Renold, 2001). Hegemonic masculinity is predicated on the male norms, which Sexton explained “stress values such as courage, inner direction, certain forms of aggression, autonomy, mastery, technological skill, group solidarity, adventure and considerable amounts of toughness in mind and body” (as cited in Donaldson, 1993, p. 644). Hegemonic masculinity provides the nebulous and tenuous answer to the question, “what does it mean to be a man?” The posture of hegemonic masculinity is often enacted in an attempt of self-protection.

Jefferson (as cited in Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 842) explains that “boys and men choose these discursive positions that help them ward off anxiety and avoid feelings of powerlessness.” Although other masculinities exist, hegemonic masculinity is the “dominant and dominating forms of masculinity which claim the highest status and the greatest influence and authority,” and which serve as “the standard-bearer of what it means to be a ‘real’ man or boy” (Kenway & Fitzclarence, 1997, p.

119-120). Dalley-Trim (2007) asserts that “hegemonic masculinity is the form of masculine identity frequently aspired to by many boys, and that comes to dominate classroom sites” (p. 201). On many high-performing campuses, the most salient and desirable masculinity enacted is that of the “golden boy,” who is well-liked by teachers, peers, and the opposite sex; confident; he is athletic;and academically successful. Connell (1996) explains this masculinity as that enacted by “a small number of highly influential boys [who] are admired by many others who cannot reproduce their performance” (p. 209). These are the boys everyone knows on campus. The mention of these boys’ names will evoke warm gushing about their positive qualities. They are popular and well known. As Connell points out, “hegemonic masculinity is highly visible” (p. 209).

A type of hegemonic masculinity which has been put forth in the discourse on underachievement in studies of boys’ anti-school identities is the concept of “laddishness” (Connell, 1989; Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998; Jackson, 2002;

Kessler, Ashenden, Connell & Dowsett, 1985; Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Willis, 1997). Laddishness is a generally disruptive masculinity enacted in resistance to the perceived “feminine” nature of schoolwork. “Central to ‘laddishness’ is the ‘uncool to work’ pupil discourse, which means to be cool and popular students must generally avoid overt academic work” (Jackson, 2006, p. xix). It is characterized as disruptive, homophobic, and sexist, the type of behavior that is at times written off or excused with a “boys will be boys” remark, but within the classroom can be very unproductive. Laddishness is often considered the dominant masculinity enacted in present classrooms, and it requires boys to renounce anything “feminine” — which includes schoolwork — and to place their social status with peers above all else in importance. A fear of being seen as “homosexual” — in their view, synonymous with feminine — often pervades the laddish culture in classrooms (Jackson, 2003). Although laddishness is 185 McGILL JOURNAL OF EDUCATION • VOL. 49 NO 1 WINTER 2014 Alicia Walker often discussed in conjunction with underachievement, it’s important to recognize that the terms are not synonymous (Jackson, 2006). Often conflated with hegemonic masculinity, it is theorized that laddishness is an enactment of a form or type of hegemonic masculinity; however, neither is laddishness synonymous with hegemonic masculinity (Jackson, 2006).


Lyng (2009) elucidates the multiple student styles available to students on a campus. Her yearlong study in two Norwegian junior highs found that the student styles available to boys on campus included “macho boy, golden boy, geek, and nerd” (p. 464). These presentations of self (Goffman, 1959) were identities enacted by students in part in response to the social dynamics of their campus. As Reicher (2004) explains, “we can define ourselves either in terms of what makes us unique compared to other individuals (personal identity) or in terms of our membership in social groups (social identity)” (p. 928).

At school, students choose from “pre-existing, symbolic categories” for their “public identities that are recognized and accepted by peers” (Barber, Eccles & Stone, 2001, p. 431). Thus, our own self-concept and our public self or social role are contingent upon the available social identities, from which we choose an identity or we construct an “othered” identity in contrast to them (Brown, Mory & Kinney, 1994).


Collective case studies permitted the researcher to develop a full picture of the quiet, non-disruptive underperformer, about whom we know little. This qualitative collective case study included data collected through a combination of interviews, observation, and data review. This paper utilizes only part of a much larger several year study looking at what attitudes, values, and beliefs may exist to hinder students’ achievement in one setting and promote it in another. To capture data for the larger study, interviews and focus groups with students, teachers, administrators, and superintendents of multiple districts, surveys, observation, and document review were employed. One hundred teachers, twenty central office personnel, fifty campus administrators, and fifteen superintendents were interviewed either individually or in focus groups for the larger project. Interview questions for the students included in this paper were developed to more fully investigate the phenomenon of underachievement among boys on high-performing campuses.


A combination of participant observation, individual interviews, and data review were used to gather data for the study discussed here. Participant observation involves researchers methodically experiencing and intentionally recording 186 REVUE DES SCIENCES DE L’ÉDUCATION DE McGILL • VOL. 49 NO 1 HIVER 2014 Opting Out as an Exercise in Masculinity in detail the many facets of a situation while continuously analyzing their observations for both meaning and personal assumptions. The observation data used in this study were collected in academic settings. The students were observed in academic classes, elective classes, the cafeteria, the school library, the gymnasium, and the school corridors as students passed between classes over the course of an academic school year. The researcher was also privy to the teachers’ lounge, and teacher and administrator discussions regarding academic concerns. Ninety-minute semi-structured interviews designed to investigate the manner in which the young men interpreted aspects of their school experience were conducted with twenty sophomore and junior year high schools males, who were regarded by their teachers as underperforming.

Interviewing the participants enabled a picture of the young men’s perceptions to emerge. Each boys’ transcripts were identified by a self-selected pseudonym.


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