Mark McCormack spent six months researching teen boys in the U.K. What he found was a culture of acceptance that defied cultural expectations.
Consider the scene: Tom, a small, shy, openly gay high school student, sat at the back of the school bus on his own. He saw three of the most popular, athletic boys get on the bus, fresh from soccer practice. As they made their way down the aisle, they saw Tom alone and moved toward him.
What happened next?
Not what you’d expect. The boys, in fact, sat down to talk with Tom. “I didn’t really know him well,” one later told me. “I knew he was the gay kid at school, that’s all. … He was all on his own. I mean, I couldn’t just let him sit there alone. Nobody should have to sit alone.”
When I started researching the gendered behaviors of 16- to 18-year-old male students at Standard High in the U.K. in 2008, I expected to document the ways that homophobia and aggression continued to stratify young men into a competitive, damaging hierarchy. This is, after all, what decades of research has told us: boys and men use homophobia to “prove” their heterosexuality, and in doing so they simultaneously marginalize other men who are more feminine, or less popular than themselves. This then causes a stratification of men with the athletic heterosexual boys at the top and gays at the bottom. Because this so accurately described my own school experience, it was with some trepidation that I first entered Standard High, the co-educational high school where I spent six months collecting data.
However, on first entering the social area where students socialized in their free time, the difference from my own school experience was palpable. In that large open space, full of students eating lunch and socializing, I was immediately struck by the physical closeness of the male students, and the affection they had for each other. These young men weren’t just close to each other, they were gently touching—and they were doing this as a sign of platonic love.
I walked over to a group of students I had seen earlier in a P.E. class. These young men, congregated in the center of the common room, were different from the high school students of my day. Not only were they were fashion-conscious, wearing designer underwear that showed above their low-slung jeans, they also styled their hair and used moisturizers. But the difference was about more than just looks: they spoke and treated each other in softer, more inclusive ways. These boys greeted each other with hugs, sat on their friends’ laps and gave each other massages.
When I was a student in school, these actions would have resulted in these boys being called gay. They would most likely have been bullied for it. Yet at this school, these boys were some of the most popular male students. What was going on?
Popularity in Pro-Gay Schools
The key to understanding the change in masculine behaviors of the young men is their attitudes toward homosexuality. Quite simply, the heterosexual students at Standard High espoused pro-gay attitudes. This is something I document in detail in my forthcoming book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia. Here, I show that these boys, as well as male students in two other schools, intellectually supported gay rights and maintained friendships with openly gay peers. They did not use homophobic language and condemned the overt expression of homophobia. What I want to focus on in the rest of this essay, however, is how this inclusive school environment influences how popularity is determined.
I examined how popularity was constructed in this school because it was markedly different from what one might expect. Even though some boys were more popular than others, this popularity was not maintained through the harassment of peers or through risk-taking behaviors.
The “jock” was not king at Standard High. Boys ascribing to a wide range of masculine archetypes (including geek and emo) could be popular. These boys came from both privileged backgrounds and areas of socio-economic disadvantage; they included students of various ethnicities and boys of various athletic abilities. When I analyzed what made a boy popular, I found that it was dependent on the extent to which he maintained other characteristics. I identified four main categories of behavior that increased one’s popularity at Standard High: charisma, authenticity, emotional support, and social fluidity.
Just like with more traditional forms of masculinity, a boy’s popularity at Standard High is primarily maintained by entertaining his peers through high-octane behaviors. It is these “fun-loving” acts of extroversion that really catapult a boy to popularity. For example, one week in the common room entertainment was provided by boys using a skateboard. They performed tricks, trying to outperform their friends. The success of the trick, however, was less important than the exuberance with which it was performed. The most popular performances were the funniest and the most physical, and boys who could do this best received the most praise.
This idea of charisma raising popularity was also supported by interviews with students. For example, Alex, a quiet student who plays in a rock band, commented, “The bigger the character you are, the higher up you are.” But contrary to the charisma of aggressive and macho boys, students argued that charisma raised the spirits of all students. As Ian said, “Say it’s a wet and rainy day and everyone’s down, you can always rely on someone doing something, just to make everyone laugh again, and feel a bit better.”
It used to be the case that those boys who did not engage in extroverted behaviors were socially marginalized as nerdy or gay. However, at Standard High more introverted students can be popular if their behaviors are deemed to be part of “who you really are.” One of the popular students, Ian, said, “Take Sam, he’s a bit different. But I got to know him, and he’s really cool. I like his individuality.” As Jack said, “It’s ultimately about comfortability with yourself.” This was demonstrated through the clothes that the boys wore. That is, a wide variety of clothing styles were on display at Standard High, and while clothing was important, what mattered was not the style of clothes you wore, but that it “fit” with your personality.
3. Emotional support
One of the most heartening and perhaps surprising aspects of what constitutes popularity at Standard High was that the giving of emotional support was an ordinary and valued way of life for boys at this school. Indeed, boys spoke of their close friendship openly; as Matt said, “I love my friends, and I could rely on them if I needed to.”
I frequently observed this kind of support between male friends. However, boys also provided reassurance during public events as well. One example of this came during the election of “student officers.” Here, students had to give a speech as to why they should be elected to one of the various available positions. Each candidate had to give a three-minute speech in assembly, and each was applauded before and after they did so. However, Simon was rather awkward during his speech, and spoke rather hesitantly. Despite not being particularly popular, he was equally applauded by his peers. Furthermore, later walking past a group of the most popular students, Matt called out, “Well done, Simon,” and Ian added, “Yeah, it’s not easy to do.” There was no heckling, and the boys praised Simon’s willingness to take part.
4. Social Fluidity
The final element of popularity at Standard High complements both inclusivity and support. Here, social fluidity recognizes how boys befriend a broad range of peers. Contrary to what earlier research has shown, boys are not part of antagonistic cliques and value the ability to move between social groups at Standard High. Indeed, there are no real cliques at Standard High—just groups of friends. Alex described this well by saying, “When you enter the common room and your friends aren’t there, you can just talk to other people.”
The boys value this sociability, and this was most powerfully demonstrated by how they decided to celebrate the end of the school year. In the last week of the summer term, approximately two-thirds of the students organized a five-day holiday together to the same seaside resort. One of the key components of this trip was that everyone stayed together. As Matt said, “It’s important we go as a group, so we can all celebrate the end of the year together.” At Standard High, popularity is achieved by including peers, not excluding them.
What does this mean?
I started this essay by talking about the absence of homophobia in this school. I did so because attitudes toward homophobia are central in determining how young men act. In homophobic cultures, where homosexuality is stigmatized and gay people are marginalized, men will be aggressive and homophobic to prove that they themselves are heterosexual. As Professor Eric Anderson theorizes in his book Inclusive Masculinity, in settings where pro-gay attitudes are prevalent, men can engage in a whole host of behaviors that would have been unthinkable in a homophobic zeitgeist. One example of this is men kissing.
One of the key findings from my research on young men is that they are rapidly rejecting bullying and marginalization as ways of feeling good about themselves. Popularity is determined by how extrovert, authentic, and inclusive a boy is, not by how many other kids he can beat up. This isn’t to say that bullying has been eradicated, or that no boys will be or feel excluded, but it is to document a key change in the social dynamics of boys in this school.
Furthermore, I found a similar atmosphere at two other schools: one school with a religious ethos and one for working-class youth who had troubled educational experiences. Now, of course, it is quite possible that these behaviors are less prevalent in the U.S., where attitudes toward homosexuality are less inclusive. But homophobia is decreasing in America, and it is likely that it will influence boys’ behaviors in similar ways. Fundamentally, it is important to recognize that not all boys, and not all schools, are homophobic and violent. These boys reject homophobia, esteem inclusive behaviors, and promote emotional bonding. It is something we need to celebrate.
This article is based on a research project described in: McCormack, M. (2011). “Hierarchy without hegemony: Locating boys in an inclusive school setting.” Sociological Perspectives, 54(1), 83–101.
—Photo Sean Fujiyoshi