He's not refusing to be a man. What to do, what to do.
October 26, 2009 6:32 PM   Subscribe

difficult gift shopping filter: Help me find books, toys, comics, music, etc that provide a broad, varying, and largely non-traditional view of masculinity for my little brother, who is absolutely nothing like me or anyone else in our family. More details than necessary inside!

My twelve-year-old brother is the only boy in his immediate family. He has two sisters, two mothers, two former foster-mothers who are still part of his life, a biological grandmother, and an occasionally-present-but-mostly-absent biological mother. Bio-dad is not in the picture; adoptive uncles are in the American midwest, thousands of miles away and across a border. As far as friends and non-family-influences go, he lives in a very small town which some might classify as "hick" - if it's anything like how it was when I was growing up there (many years ago now - there is an eleven-year age gap between me and my brother), the vast majority of his peers are the children of dyed-in-the-wool rednecks, and well on the way to becoming dyed-in-the-wool rednecks themselves.

All the women in his life are very strong feminists, which is great in that (unlike his redneck-to-be peers) he respects women, but not so great in that he doesn't really have a lot of male role models to look up to, and as such, he tends to latch on to popular representations of masculinity and emulate them with great zeal.

He plays soccer, football, and hockey. He's in the boy scouts. He wants to join the military when he grows up. He's very nationalistic. He eats meat (I was raised vegetarian in that same household). I thought I had become the black sheep of the family by eschewing university to become an activist and artist, but this kid has me beat for that position by going in the exact opposite direction.

I'm not super-concerned - my mother, while supportive of his interests, is terrified that he'll get hurt playing violent sports and/or turn into some kind of adolescent fascist, but I figure it's probably just a phase, as he tries to figure out what his identity is as a guy in a very female-oriented environment. Nevertheless, in doing my (early-ass, I know) Christmas shopping, it occurred to me that it might help to present him with some alternate expressions and interpretations of masculinity - feminine boys, pacifist boys, queer boys, disabled boys, boys opposed to sexism, racism, etc as, well, boys. Boys who don't act like the boys and men on TV and in most mainstream comic books and novels. Men who take the expression of their masculinity beyond that of your average mainstream rock band.

Twelve years old is too young for Propagandhi's Less Talk, More Rock and too old for children's books with simple messages like Free To Be You And Me. As a kid, I systematically sought out and (figuratively) devoured books, movies and comics that featured heroines who were strong, firm in their convictions, capable, and cast off traditional womens' roles - what are some similar works of fiction, but for boys? Where is the Le Tigre of the adolescent boys' world? Where is the sequel to The Practical Princess - a book called The Prince Who Was Secure in His Masculinity, Comfortable With His Sexuality, And Empowered His Subjects By Treating Them All With Dignity?

Show me the way, Hive Mind. Help me help a twelve year old boy in a small town help himself.

Apologies if this ran a bit long. I am pedantic.
posted by ellehumour to Human Relations (36 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe Robert Bly's Iron John: A Book About Men? I've always wanted to read it myself. It may be a bit old for him, though.
posted by kitcat at 6:48 PM on October 26, 2009

You should check out the Last Herald-Mage by Mercedes Lackey. Volume 1 is called Magic's Pawn, Volume 2 is called Magic's Promise.

My daughter read some of the other series set in this world (with female protagonists) and really loved them - read them over and over. This series has a male protagonist coming of age.

The review says, "Vanyel's disdain for swordsmanship earns him an unexpected exile--at the High Court of Valdemar under the guardianship of his stern and implacable Aunt Savil, one of the legendary Herald-Mages. A young man's painful discovery of his own immense talents and his true nature form the core of this richly detailed fantasy."

By the way, while Vanyel becomes the most powerful herald-mage in the history of his world, he also discovers he is gay. (As well as having a very close, telepathic with his intelligent horse-like companion.)
posted by metahawk at 6:50 PM on October 26, 2009

What sort of music does he like? Would he be interested in listening to some old-school stuff? Bowie? Lou Reed?
posted by gaspode at 6:53 PM on October 26, 2009

I loved the misfits when I was in seventh grade.
posted by kylej at 6:58 PM on October 26, 2009

Which was only four years ago...so it should still be relevant.
posted by kylej at 7:03 PM on October 26, 2009

This thread may give you some good ideas. GuysRead.com may have additional suggestions.

I may catch some flak for this, but try "Eragon" by Christopher Paolini. Yes, it borrows rather heavily from other tales (*cough,* "Star Wars"), but in its favor is that it was written by a teenage boy, and is about a teenage boy who wrestles with his understanding of family, honor, a strong female character, finding a father figure--all while taking care of and nurturing something precious and secret. FWIW, the second book was just all right and I couldn't make it through the third volume, but "Eragon" itself was fine.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:05 PM on October 26, 2009

This is going to be one of those annoying answers that questions the premise of the question rather than answering it, but I still think it's worth considering: Do you really think books/music etc. will really have any effect on him, especially compared to the strong influence of the small town. I also wonder whether being less stereotypically masculine would good for him in that traditional environment (even if it would be good for others).

I would love to be wrong about this, but I suspect that the reason why there's no "Le Tigre of the adolescent boys' world" is that for boys, unlike for girls, subverting gender roles is not seen as a cool and positive (outside the small community of people who are into that sort of thing). This is true even in the liberal urban USA, so I assume it would be especially true in the town where he lives. If boys do it, they usually do it when they're older than your brother, when they don't need to worry about what other people think anymore. And they do it because they think it's right, rather than because it's cool (probably not the motivation of Le Tigre fans).

Anyway, good luck. I've been trying to think of something, and I'll post again if I do.
posted by k. at 7:05 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd strongly recommend the Nickelodeon TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is an action/adventure series set in an Asian-influenced fantasy world. It has varied male role models (the main character is a vegetarian monk), but at the same time it doesn't downplay the female characters (who get some extremely badass moments). It also has worthwhile messages about putting aside societal pressures and forging your own path in life, and some amazing fight scenes that would probably be very appealing to someone your brother's age.

Plus, it's a damn good watch with great storytelling - there's a reason why the show has loads of fans outside its target demographic.
posted by fearthehat at 7:06 PM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'd really avoid anything too heavy-handed. Kids can tell when they're being given a gift with expectations attached pretty easily, and I think it's important to remember that he could grow up to be a hockey playing member of the military and still be a feminist. So I think you're on the right track to expose him to a variety of male role models, but don't assume that if he goes for some of the more traditionally male pursuits that he needs to be talked out of them. My little brother was a boy scout, planned for a while to join the military, and the closest he's come to anything even vaguely feminine in his personal style is the one year he grew his hair down past his ears in high school. Yet he's one of the strongest believers I know in the equality of women, and he's doing a bang-up job raising his step-daughter. I know you said it's more your mom's worry than yours, so I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but it's important to remember that kids are testing out a lot of identities at that age, and rather than being disappointed when he wants to do something like join the military it might be a great opportunity to ask him what interests him about it and for family members to talk about their own points of view.

Anyway, tldr; how about buying him something fun like the first couple seasons of Red Dwarf on DVD? It's an all male cast during those two seasons, and there's even an episode where one of the men gets pregnant in a parallel universe, but it's FUNNY and any lessons that get learned are so well disguised that he may not even realize he's learning them.
posted by MsMolly at 7:18 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Part of me thinks you could do worse than introduce him to Fugazi and Minor Threat, and Ian MacKaye's body of work in general, and make him into a little straightedge kid, but there's always the risk of breeding militance in there.

Could you settle on Bad Religion, maybe, as an intermediate point between whatever the hell he listens to now and Propagandhi/ Minor Threat/ etc.? BR's work is anti-authoritarian and atheist, rejects violence against women, and promotes a rational approach to the world. If nothing else, it'll give him a leg up on the SATs in a few years. Stranger Than Fiction would probably work fine as an introduction, as it hits all the high points of the BR ethos and is insanely catchy as an album.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:20 PM on October 26, 2009

My first thought was The Last Starfighter, by Alan Dean Foster. A bit dated by now (the video games are so 80s) but my recollection is that the main character is very masculine without being ridiculously macho about it. The movie was a lot of fun, and the book is actually the screenplay so it's pretty easy-reading.
posted by DrGail at 7:25 PM on October 26, 2009

I don't have any media suggestions (although music and comedy are full of non-stereotypical male role models).... I think the best influence would just be you. Have a relationship with the kid, challenge him (nicely) when he says dreadful things, and get him to college.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:26 PM on October 26, 2009

P.S. Also have a look at Guys Write for Guys Read. The essays might give him a starting point for *thinking* about being a guy, rather than simply being one.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:26 PM on October 26, 2009

I wouldn't focus so much on subverting masculinity, as much as portrayals of men who are traditionally masculine but not COMPLETELY defined by it. For example, I'd recommend the Dresden Files books; Harry is a pretty normal guy with hetero impulses and such, but is also a modern-day magician involved in interesting mysteries and battles.

I guarantee there are a lot of books, tv shows and movies out there with masculine, relatable heroes who aren't purely focused on chasing and mistreating women. I really think this will reach your brother much better than works that cast men in a light completely out of his comfort zone.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 7:27 PM on October 26, 2009

Here's one: maybe he's read it already, or maybe he doesn't read this kind of thing, but the two main characters of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass etc.) are a not-all-that-manly boy and a very tough girl that I think are around his age. It can get a bit preachy, especially in the third book, but it has a liberal message and it's still a good story.
posted by k. at 7:27 PM on October 26, 2009

how about 'Y, the last man?" he might identify with the lead.
posted by genmonster at 7:35 PM on October 26, 2009

He sounds like a well-rounded kid with a lot of good things going for him. But I do understand your idea; and it's still far easier to find great male role models in popular culture than it is female ones, while keeping it non-preachy.

Is he showing any inclinations towards geekiness? What does he think about sci-fi? Because really, if you're looking for characters that stick to their convictions, do really cool, interesting things, tackle the complications of life, and represent humanity more than just men, look no further than Star Trek, or Babylon 5 (though B5 is probably a bit too convoluted and slow for a 12 year old's attention span, I know it was for me).

There's also Stargate SG-1, which has the bonus of being about secret Air Force operations and has tons of accurate military terminology mixed in. Daniel Jackson is a nerdy anthropologist and linguist who grows into a pretty complicated badass manly man while preserving some serious respect for women and still loving knowledge above all else. Samantha Carter is probably the strongest (semi)realistic female role model on television to date. And Teal'c, the token alien mystic super strong guy, turns out to be very funny and passionate and loving, while at the same time shooting big guns and saving the day. It's episodic for the most part, has tons of great humor and explosions and weird alien stuff (I hear 12 year old boys and myself like those sorts of things,) and is a completed series with a bunch of tv movies mixed in.

If he's into reading books, I can't recommend books by John Green highly enough. He's a young adult author who writes primarily about strange awkward teenage boys coming of age or finding out about who they really are. They are extremely thoughtful books with loads of humor and compelling teenage characters.
posted by Mizu at 7:42 PM on October 26, 2009

The last airbender is awesome. Most of the dudes are badass but so are the chicks. Honestly if you like fantasy at all you should probably check it out yourself ;)

I also think the Sword of Truth series, while being more or less an average level of mysogynistic for a popular fantasy series (one of the main characters is an awesome chick, and men cannot have her powers, but still, big non-sleazy romance element throughout), would probably appeal to a 12 year old kid who is interested in "popular" things as well as more dorky things (ie, boy scouts). Wheel of Time gets great reviews by every nerd but me, but it never really appealed to me, YMMV.
posted by shownomercy at 7:42 PM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: I would love to be wrong about this, but I suspect that the reason why there's no "Le Tigre of the adolescent boys' world" is that for boys, unlike for girls, subverting gender roles is not seen as a cool and positive (outside the small community of people who are into that sort of thing)

Backlash for subverting gender roles, in my experience, is not limited to one specific gender. I caught hell for it as a kid - but I'm still glad I had access to cultural things that encouraged me, made me feel better about the questioning I was already doing, and generally helped me feel less alone in a shitty small town. He's an intelligent and sensitive kid with a non-traditional family. Something tells me it's best to at least not actively encourage him to box himself in.

I'm not trying to brainwash the kid into joining my army of radical queers or whatever (I swear!) and I'm not trying to get him to do stuff because it's "cool". I don't even want to encourage him to stop playing soccer (though it would be nice if he grew up to have career ambitions beyond the Canadian Armed Forces, I won't lie). I just want to him to be aware of the fact that there's more than one way to be male. I honestly don't think it's healthy to have no men in his life that he can look up to and want to emulate except for the guys he sees in deodorant commercials, and his super-competitive soccer coach who makes him feel bad when he doesn't score. I'm not in the town, so I can't actually introduce him to any guys who he might be able to talk to and connect with, but I can send books and CDs and stuff.

If he doesn't like whatever I send, no harm, no foul. It's a gift - it wouldn't be a gift if he were obligated to like it or to immediately become a vegan and sew a "US OUTTA IRAQ" patch onto his jacket or whatever. But if he does like it, and it broadens his views of men a little, and makes him feel a little more free, that's awesome. And if he comes out as gay while still in junior high and gets beaten up for it, I'm willing to bet he's not going to be going "Oh, if only my big sister hadn't sent me that Bad Religion CD and those fantasy novels by Mercedes Lackey! WHY, ELLEHUMOUR, WHY?"
posted by ellehumour at 7:56 PM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: ANYWAY.

The fantasy suggestions are great, but he tends to get bored with fantasy novels quickly. He prefers science fiction, and stories that are fairly fast-paced.

He may like Avatar: The Last Airbender just because it's so much goddamn fun. That's a great suggestion. Thank you for all the links! I had no idea there was so much great stuff for guys out there.
posted by ellehumour at 8:07 PM on October 26, 2009

This may sound off-the-wall, and I don't know where you live, but try calling the Head of Children's Services at the Jefferson County Public Library in Arvada, Colorado, where I used to live. I had a similar (but different) issue with my nephew, and she was extremely helpful. For that matter you could try your own public library, but I know she'd help you out. Their number is Arvada Library 303-235-5275. She's gave my sister a wealth of suggestions and not just stuff limited to what they had in the library.
posted by lolo341 at 8:11 PM on October 26, 2009

I'm with K. I'm not sure books along the lines of what you're asking for would do any good.

You're right that in such a heavily feminized environment, your brother is probably reaching for ideas of what it is to be a man in this world. The women in his life can't tell him this. I repeat - because it is so very important - The women in his life can't tell him this. It's hard, I know. I think it's difficult and scary for anyone who loves a child to realize that we can't give them certain things and that they must go into the dangerous, flawed world to find what they need.

Let him struggle with what it mean to be a man. He has to. In the next decade+ he will probably cycle through many permutations of man-ness until he settles into an identity that he's comfortable with - as you rightly noted.

This process has to be his own. At 12 he is old enough to sniff a rat at 10 miles. The rat (sorry, bad metaphor, I know) in this case would be the adults in his life who would tell him how he should think, what he should believe, and who he should become.

A big part of adolescence is gaining some sovereignty over these realms. Even though it may look like he's trading the values of his family for the values of his friends/peers/mainstream culture, there is still a huge internal battle being fought and the stakes for him are monumental.

If he senses an agenda behind your gifts, he might reject them - and the message you're trying to convey - outright. So I would say to sister, moms, auties, grandma etc., try to resist the impulse, however subtle or overt, to impose your/you're families' idea of enlightened masculinity on to him. Let him figure it out.

He will naturally try to seek out actual men in his life who can direct and guide him. Put your energies into making sure that he is surrounded by good men to choose from - teachers, friends, coaches etc.

It sounds like you are a loving, kind and conscientious family. Have faith that the values your family lives every day will stay with him. His family will show him how to be a decent person in a way no book can.
posted by space_cookie at 8:17 PM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Can you suggest to his mothers that he might benefit from a Big Brother?
posted by Joleta at 8:37 PM on October 26, 2009

Has he read Ender's Game?
posted by ChuraChura at 9:05 PM on October 26, 2009

I'm having trouble figuring out why the fact that he eats meat, plays "violent" sports (God help us, football), is in the Boy Scouts, and wants to enter the military makes him in any danger of turning into an adolescent fascist. I mean, did you ever think that those places are great for meeting other male role models, and they might not all be a bunch of tobacco-chewing, sports-playing, gun-shooting meatheads?

If this is something you're seriously concerned about, then keep an eye out for men who meet your "Enlightened Male" definition in the sports teams/etc he's a part of and privately ask them to pay a little extra attention to the kid. Or consider finding him a Big Brother, though nobody can guarantee that'll meet your criteria.

The Art of Manliness is a pretty great website that walks that excellent line between celebrating "traditional" views of masculinity (rargh fighting man strong!) as well as "enlightened" views (it's OK to cry). I'd browse through it and pick some ideas from there, maybe the book--it advocates a masculinity that would not get him beat up on the playground but also ensure that he's kind to puppies, girlfriends, and isn't terrified of gay men.
posted by Anonymous at 9:11 PM on October 26, 2009

My husband, who grew up in a situation very similar to what your brother is in, agrees with space_cookie, schroedinger, and k. If you attempt to push these alternate views on him, he'll likely push back by withdrawing. There's nothing wrong with being a Traditional Manly Man if growing up in a hick town - and likely cause more problems if he doesn't.

I came into the thread expecting that your brother was leaning away from the traditional male roles and that you wanted to give him other portrayals to encourage his growth. However, if he's like any 11 year old I know, he'll develop in whatever direction he chooses, regardless (and sometimes in spite of!) his family's pressures.

Since he's into sports, a great male role model for him now would be any coach worth his salt. If his coach is uber-aggressive to an unsportsmanlike level as you implied, then that is not helpful. School-associated coaches are often excellent in this role.

You might also try to get him involved in any Big Brothers, Big Sisters program in the area. The more positive male role models that you have some say in bringing in, the less likely he is to fall in with ones you violently disagree with.

Have faith in him to develop himself. He may not turn out the way you want him to, but it's his life even if you think you can do it better.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:37 PM on October 26, 2009

nthing kylej. I got into punk rock around 12. It saved me from becoming a complete piece of shit. It taught me that marginalized people are important. The music is loud, fast, makes you feel "tough", and (sometimes) emphasizes social equality.

There are other ways to be masculine without thinking that traditionally marginalized groups suck, and i think that the punk rock of the 80's really emphasized that. Dudes like Rollins from Black Flag, or even Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, show that you can be a masculine dude and still support feminist ideas.

I know you don't want to be that guy that indirectly convinced his 12-year old brother to get a mohawk with that devil-worshipping punk rock music, but punk rock is good, and I don't think it can hurt an already overconfident young person. Besides, all the graphic lyrics in punk rock are waaaaaay tamer than what he's listening to, trust me. Some Pop-hip hop contains some really comically degrading lyrics (souljja boy, etc. Who the hell really supermans ho's? I still posit that this is a completely fake concept)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 11:51 PM on October 26, 2009

Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series would be a great choice. The main character is disabled, hardly a prime example of stereotypical manhood at the beginning, but a true hero. The series also has some incredibly strong female characters and some interesting politics.

"Young Miles" is a current edition that combines the first three Miles books - it would be a great gift, and there are more to explore from there.
posted by mmoncur at 11:55 PM on October 26, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
posted by goo at 3:55 AM on October 27, 2009

I just dropped in to throw another vote at Avatar: The Last Airbender... the main character is exactly his age, it's incredibly cool, and the fact that a film based on the series will be coming out next year means that the timing is great.
posted by taz at 4:53 AM on October 27, 2009

I love "Y, The Last Man" and "Watchmen," but I think both are probably a little too heavy and graphic for a 12 year old. They've got some very dark, depressing imagery and concepts. It'd be a better fit at 15 or 16.

I think you should reconsider the 'mainstream comic books' stance. Spiderman in particular has a lot of themes he could relate to. Peter Parker is a kid being raised by his (tough as nails) aunt, and he's just trying to be a normal guy but live honorably. He's also not a traditionally masculine character; he's kind of puny and prefers science and photojournalism to sports. The Ultimate Spider-Man series by Brian M. Bendis is a great place to start. The writing is excellent and they hit on some deep themes about the pressure to fit in and being true to yourself...it's really not just "let's beat up the bad guys!" Violence has very real and serious consequences in these books, it's not portrayed as easy or fun.

(my comic book geek husband would be so proud of me right now...)
posted by castlebravo at 7:59 AM on October 27, 2009

Do you have any images of men -- that you think are good examples -- that you can present? Nobel winners, Medal Of Honor recipients, Doctors Without Borders heros, whatever?

The Stephen Ambrose book "Comrades" was a gift to me from my best friend. It's a slim book from near the end of the author's life, and he reflects on male relaitonships and the better Men he's known.

The James Herriot series that starts with the book "All Creatures Great and Small" present a rural veterinarian in northern England in the 40s/50 or thereabouts. But the man is single and then a husband and father, a friend to his drunken colleague, a caring animal doctor, a man at home both in town and on the farm, and a guy who sticks his hands places I fear even to look. not a bad example, iof your kid can get over the weird accents. :7)

Some of the older series of English Nopoleonic naval books -- Hornblower, Bolitho, etc. -- feature awesome battles scenes and also thoughtful exchanges between the hyper-masculine lead and a more bookish companion. (See also "Master & Commander" and the others from O'Brien.) They are so alien from current experience that they may as well be scifi. :7)

And has he read the Hitchhiker's Guide books? That Ford Prefect is no traditional superman.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:05 AM on October 27, 2009

Response by poster: @Schroedinger - um, I'm pretty sure I said I wasn't that concerned about budding fascism? That I'm pretty sure it's ultimately harmless? And that I said in the comments that I can't introduce him to any men because I live across the country from them.

I don't mind people questioning the premise of my question - honestly, you guys are giving me lots to think about and that's great. I have no idea what it's like to be an adolescent boy, obviously, which is why I'm asking questions. But if you could read the question before questioning the premise of it, and not put words in my mouth like "all manly men into sports and stuff are tobacco-chewing meatheads" that's be awesome.
posted by ellehumour at 9:42 AM on October 27, 2009

To Ellehumor. Sorry. Point Taken.

Going back to one of your previous comment. Doing things, giving him things to make his world bigger is a great, important thing to do. Providing him with a rich well to draw on as he goes about this business of figuring himself out can only help in the long run. Broad contact with worlds outside his own with will almost certainly include exposure to different kinds of men and boys.

That said, a school librarian can probably give you an list of titles for kids his age and older. They're often walking bibliographies on children's/young adult literature.
posted by space_cookie at 11:16 AM on October 27, 2009

As I kid I admired stories about men such as Shackleton, or the Apollo 13 crew. I'm not sure these qualify as non-traditional, except that they're not off to war, death or glory types and the important element was always about getting your crew home safely. South is a tough read, but Caroline Alexander's The Endurance would have made a fantastic gift for my 12 year old self. Lost Moon would be great too.
posted by IanMorr at 3:07 PM on October 27, 2009

I don't have specific suggestions, but I can't help but think that there must be examples of hockey players, soccer players, football players, military men, etc., who are upstanding guys. Maybe a librarian would be able to direct you to books by/about some of them being into the things your brother is into, and also being well-rounded individual men.

This suggestion is way too old for him, but things like the documentary The Fog of War paints a really introspective and apologetic picture of Robert McNamara and his involvement in the Vietnam War. If it were at a 12-year-old level, it would connect his military interests with a lot of ethics questions. It's not anti-war, but it really questions the decisions they made now that they can reevaluate them with hindsight. I think there's something interesting about a man like McNamara examining the mistakes they made without posturing or excuses.

All the fantasy/comic book suggestions are great, but if your brother isn't into that, it's not going to help. Hook into what he is interested in.
posted by heatherann at 6:10 AM on October 28, 2009

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