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September 20, 2013

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Norwegian schoolboys becoming more girly—and that’s good, study says

Sept. 20, 2013
Courtesy of the KILDEN Information 
Centre for Gender Research in Norway
and World Science staff

Young grade-school boys in Nor­way talk about their feel­ings, hold hands and learn to dis­play kind­ness more ex­ten­sive­ly than past genera­t­ions of youths stu­died, new re­search sug­gests.

The changes come af­ter dec­ades of gen­der-e­qual­ity meas­ures in Nor­way, and with a new school ac­ti­vity called “pos­i­tive tou­ch­ing,” ac­cord­ing to a doc­tor­al the­sis by so­cial an­thro­po­l­o­gist Stian Overå. These meas­ures have led to change chil­dren’s up­bring­ings and un­der­stand­ing of gen­der, he said: “Com­pared with pre­vi­ous class­room re­search, I’ve found a change in how boys re­late to emo­tions.”

Overå re­cently de­fended the the­sis on gen­der in pri­ma­ry schools. For a year he fol­lowed two groups of stu­dents aged 6 to 12 in a mod­ern pri­ma­ry school in a sub­urb of Os­lo. “Be­ing per­son­al and talk­ing about feel­ings was not prob­lem­at­ic or fem­i­nine in their eyes. It was al­most an ide­al. And it was more im­por­tant to be kind than to be strong,” Overå said.

De­spite all that, he said, an­ti-gay prej­u­dices per­sisted, so that boys stren­u­ously avoided com­ing across as “gay.” And the new atti­tudes seem not to have elimin­ated van­ity or a deep con­cern with build­ing pub­lic images not ne­ces­sar­ily in line with real­ity.

The study was part of an um­brella pro­ject at the Oslo-based Cen­tre for Gen­der Re­search, en­titled “New gen­ders, other de­mands? The chil­dren of gen­der equal­ity in the school and fam­ily.”

Much of what Overå found was known from pre­vi­ous re­search, he said—gen­der-stereotyped be­hav­ior, such as girls who pre­fer to play in pairs and be best friends and boys who play in larg­er groups and have hi­er­ar­chies with clear lead­ers. But the boys Overå stud­ied be­haved dif­fer­ently than those de­scribed in pre­vi­ous stud­ies, he ar­gued. “Sev­eral new Nor­dic stud­ies have had si­m­i­lar find­ings. Gen­der used to be root­ed in tra­di­tion. To­day it is more flu­id.”

Overå said boys aged 6 to 8 had the most re­laxed at­ti­tude to­wards feel­ings and tou­ch­ing. These boys had “pos­i­tive tou­ch­ing” as a daily school ac­ti­vity, in which the stu­dents learn­ed to tou­ch each oth­er. The ob­jec­tive was to cre­ate a sense of be­long­ing to a group where eve­ry­one can tou­ch and stroke each oth­er re­gard­less of wheth­er they know each oth­er and re­gard­less of gen­der.

“The pupils liked it a lot. It was not strained in any way,” said Overå. “The youngest boys could scratch each oth­er’s backs and hold hands dur­ing re­cess.”

When Overå de­scribed “pos­i­tive tou­ch­ing” for a group of re­search­ers at the Uni­vers­ity of California-Berkeley, they were flab­ber­gasted, he said, but for Nor­dic coun­tries it’s noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary. “I think the changes I’ve ob­served are con­nect­ed with Nor­dic ide­als of gen­der equal­ity and meas­ures that are in­tro­duced as early as pre-school.”

While di­rect ef­fects of “pos­i­tive tou­ch­ing” may have fad­ed away af­ter the ac­ti­vity ended, a more gen­er­al at­ti­tude of kind­ness and con­sid­erateness per­sisted, ac­cord­ing to Overå. Old­er boys, aged 9 to 12, had a less re­laxed at­ti­tude to­wards bodily con­tac­t—and were on guard against be­ing called “gay”—yet both young­er and old­er boys were con­sid­erate to­wards each oth­er.

He de­scribed the groups of boys as friend­ly, in­clu­sive and good-na­tured, with no prob­lem talk­ing about their feel­ings. Oth­er stud­ies had found boys’ in­ter­ac­tions as char­ac­ter­ized by rough at­ti­tudes, ag­gres­sive­ness and rule-breaking. 

“Boys are not ag­gres­sive or emo­tion­ally in­com­pe­tent. That is not my ex­pe­ri­ence. In many situa­t­ions the boys talked openly and thought­fully about girls they had crushes on, dif­fi­cul­ties at home, and anx­i­e­ty and ex­pecta­t­ions about the fu­ture,” said Overå. “When one boy opened up, the oth­ers tried to sup­port him and shared si­m­i­lar sto­ries about fear or vul­ner­a­bil­ity.”

There was a lot of play fight­ing and oth­er phys­i­cal tests of strength, but this was mainly done at the be­gin­ning of the school year, be­fore hi­er­ar­chies were es­tab­lished, he said. “The boys or­gan­ize them­selves in a hi­er­ar­chy with a clear peck­ing or­der and role dif­fer­entia­t­ion with re­gard to lead­ership. Some would in­ter­pret this as a sign of ag­gres­sion. I per­ceived it more as a game and a friendly form of con­tac­t,” said Overå.

Phys­i­cal strength, ex­cel­ling in sports and wear­ing fash­ion­a­ble clothes could win pop­u­lar­ity points. But the most im­por­tant fac­tor for se­cur­ing a high po­si­tion in the boys’ hi­er­ar­chy was be­ing a nice guy—some­one who is kind, fun­ny, ex­tro­verted and re­laxed with a “good per­son­al­ity.”

A boy’s po­si­tion in the peck­ing or­der de­ter­mines how much lat­i­tude he has, such as how phys­ic­ally in­ti­mate or fash­ion­a­ble he can be with­out be­ing called “gay”— fear of which “works like kryp­tonite on the boys’ at­tempt to con­struct their mas­culin­ity,” said Overå. Two of the “coolest” boys, for ex­am­ple, wore eye­lin­er be­cause it did­n’t threat­en their mas­culin­ity, but a less pop­u­lar boy would run in­to prob­lems do­ing the same. 

On the oth­er hand, boys who ne­glected their ap­pear­ance risked be­ing called child­ish, bor­ing or a nerd. And their hair was ex­pected to be styled. Make­up be­ing mostly off-lim­its, “hair be­comes a sa­cred do­main,” said Overå. “It’s not new in it­self that boys are con­cerned about their bod­ies and ap­pear­ance. What is new is the ex­tent of their con­cern. They talk about it a lot. And there is a great deal of un­seen work in­volved.”

The boys’ role mod­els were more “met­ro­sex­ual types,” such as soc­cer stars Cris­tiano Ronaldo and Da­vid Beck­ham, rath­er than tra­di­tionally mas­culine guys, he added. But boys were none­the­less fo­cused on em­u­lat­ing the stars’ ath­let­i­cism and phy­sique rath­er than just their fash­ion.

“For young peo­ple to­day it’s le­git­i­mate to try out new mas­culine ex­pres­sions in­spired by met­ro­sex­ual idols like Ronaldo and Da­vid Beck­ham, who have their own lines of hair prod­ucts and box­er shorts. This is dif­fer­ent com­pared to 20 years ago when the role mod­els were more tra­di­tionally mas­culine,” said Overå.

It was al­so im­por­tant for boys, about 15 per­cent of whom had a na­tive lan­guage other than Nor­we­gian, not to make their con­cern with ap­pear­ance ob­vi­ous, he said. Sim­i­lar­ly, they tried to get good grades with­out seem­ing to put a lot of work in­to it. “It was an ide­al to suc­ceed in an ef­fort­less kind of way,” said Overå.

“The boys did a great deal of un­seen work, both with re­gard to their ap­pear­ance and to their school­work. Many of them worked a lot at home, but claimed be­fore a test, for ex­am­ple, that they had only stud­ied for five min­utes. They had to hide how much it meant to them to do well and look good, and how much ef­fort they put in­to it.”


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Young grade-school boys in Norway talk about their feelings, hold hands and seem to absorb values of kindness and consideration more fully than past generations, a study has found. The changes after decades of gender-equality measures in Norway, and with a new school activity called “positive touching,” according to a doctoral thesis by social anthropologist Stian Overå. These measures have led to change children’s upbringings and understanding of gender, he said: “Compared with previous classroom research, I’ve found a change in how boys relate to emotions.” Overå recently defended the thesis on gender in primary schools. For a year he followed two groups of students aged 6 to 12 in a modern primary school in a suburb of Oslo. “Being personal and talking about feelings was not problematic or feminine in their eyes. It was almost an ideal. And it was more important to be kind than to be strong,” Overå said. Despite all that, he said, anti-gay prejudices persisted in the classroom, so that boys strenuously avoided coming across as “gay.” Much of what Overå found was known from previous research, he said—gender-stereotyped behavior, such as girls who prefer to play in pairs and be best friends and boys who play in larger groups and have hierarchies with clear leaders. But the boys Overå studied behaved differently than those described in previous studies, he argued. “Several new Nordic studies have had similar findings. Gender used to be rooted in tradition. Today it is more fluid.” Overå said boys aged 6 to 8 had the most relaxed attitude towards feelings and touching. These boys had “positive touching” as a daily school activity, in which the students learned to touch each other. The objective was to create a sense of belonging to a group where everyone can touch and stroke each other regardless of whether they know each other and regardless of gender. “The pupils liked it a lot. It was not strained in any way,” said Overå. “The youngest boys could scratch each other’s backs and hold hands during recess.” When Overå described “positive touching” for a group of researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, they were flabbergasted, he said, but for Nordic countries it’s nothing extraordinary. “I think the changes I’ve observed are connected with Nordic ideals of gender equality and measures that are introduced as early as pre-school.” While direct effects of “positive touching” may have faded away after the activity ended, a more general attitude of kindness and considerateness persisted, according to Overå. Older boys, aged 9 to 12, had a less relaxed attitude towards bodily contact—and were on guard against being called “gay”—yet both younger and older boys were considerate towards each other. He described the groups of boys as friendly, inclusive and good-natured, with no problem talking about their feelings. Other studies had found boys’ interactions as characterized by rough attitudes, aggressiveness and rule-breaking. “Boys are not aggressive or emotionally incompetent. That is not my experience. In many situations the boys talked openly and thoughtfully about girls they had crushes on, difficulties at home, and anxiety and expectations about the future,” said Overå. “When one boy opened up, the others tried to support him and shared similar stories about fear or vulnerability.” There was a lot of play fighting and other physical tests of strength, but this was mainly done at the beginning of the school year, before hierarchies were established, he said. “The boys organize themselves in a hierarchy with a clear pecking order and role differentiation with regard to leadership. Some would interpret this as a sign of aggression. I perceived it more as a game and a friendly form of contact,” said Overå. Physical strength, excelling in sports and wearing fashionable clothes could win popularity points. But the most important factor for securing a high position in the boys’ hierarchy was being a nice guy—someone who is kind, funny, extroverted and relaxed with a “good personality.” A boy’s position in the pecking order determines how much latitude he has, such as how physically intimate or fashionable he can be without being called “gay”— fear of which “works like kryptonite on the boys’ attempt to construct their masculinity,” said Overå. Two of the “coolest” boys, for example, wore eyeliner because it didn’t threaten their masculinity, but a less popular boy would run into problems doing the same. On the other hand, boys who neglected their appearance risked being called childish, boring or a nerd. And their hair was expected to be styled. Makeup being mostly off-limits, “hair becomes a sacred domain,” said Overå. “It’s not new in itself that boys are concerned about their bodies and appearance. What is new is the extent of their concern. They talk about it a lot. And there is a great deal of unseen work involved.” The boys’ role models were more “metrosexual types,” such as soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham, rather than traditionally masculine guys, he added. But boys were nonetheless focused on emulating the stars’ athleticism and physique rather than just their fashion. “For young people today it’s legitimate to try out new masculine expressions inspired by metrosexual idols like Ronaldo and David Beckham, who have their own lines of hair products and boxer shorts. This is different compared to 20 years ago when the role models were more traditionally masculine,” said Overå. It was also important for boys, about 15 percent of whome had a native language other than Norwegian, not to make their concern with appearance obvious, he said. Similarly, they tried to get good grades without seeming to put a lot of work into it. “It was an ideal to succeed in an effortless kind of way,” said Overå. “The boys did a great deal of unseen work, both with regard to their appearance and to their schoolwork. Many of them worked a lot at home, but claimed before a test, for example, that they had only studied for five minutes. They had to hide how much it meant to them to do well and look good, and how much effort they put into it.”