My parents never signed me up for Scouts. So, I’m always an outsider when groups of men have the “How close to Eagle Scout were you?” conversation. The object of this status game (as far as I can tell) is to have been closer than your opponent, or – in the event of a tie – to have had a cooler, more daring, or more significant project to have achieved the rank. I remember thinking (or better said: I remember correctly realizing) that the outfits were ugly. But I did like the idea of collecting the badges. Even before I studied masculinity academically, I also remember thinking that tying knots and pitching tents were sort of odd things to decide that all “real boys” ought to know.
The Boy Scouts has always been a movement about masculinity. From its beginnings, The Boy Scouts of America was understood as necessary as economic transformations caused men to play smaller roles in the raising of their sons. As families moved from farms to cities, many worried that young men would never learn to embody the manliness forged in the daily toil of rural life. American boys–so we were told–needed traditions restored that were thought to be responsible for turning their fathers and grandfathers into the men they became. So, the Scouts stepped in at a historical moment in which men were stepping out of family life, creating “masculine” social spaces in which men could help turn boys into men.
There’s a nostalgia that surrounds the group that can’t be ignored. The Boys Scouts are an organization that we like to think can do no harm. Sure they segregate boys and girls, but there are Girl Scouts too. Sure they’ve systematically denied access to non-heterosexual boys and Scoutmasters, but those cases were brought to court. And most recently, sure they participated in a cover-up of that concealed instances of child abuse and molestation, but… Well, we’re still waiting to hear how this “but” gets worked out.
Scouting manuals are a source of tremendous cultural nostalgia as well (see Kathleen Denny‘s work on Girl and Boy Scout handbooks here). The Scouts and Scoutmasters were drawn in a very particular style. You know the style: we still use it for “how-to” instructions when we depict people in them. White, heterosexual-appearing, middle- middle-upper class boys and men were drawn as well-groomed, of medium weight and build, casually interacting in ways that illustrated focused attention on a common goal. It’s potentially the case that few boys experienced Boy Scouts as it was depicted in those manuals, but the power of those stuffy old anesthetized images is palpable.
In fact, books in the style of old Scouting books have become all the rage again beginning with The Iggulden brothers’ The Dangerous Book for Boys (which Michael Kimmel and I reviewed here). British brother Conn and Hal were runners-up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, 2007 (they lost to Vladimir Putin!) for writing their book in the same style. The Dangerous Book for Boys spawned a series of books ostensibly written for boys, to reinvigorate a “boy culture” of old at the same time that video games, television, and inactivity are seen as progressively taking over more and more of children’s lives (a phenomenon our pediatrician refers to as “the creep”). So, around the same time, we saw For Boys Only, The Boys’ Book of Survival, and perhaps the most offensively entitled: The Boys’ Book: How to Be the Best at Everything. All of the books resurrect images in the style of old Scouting manuals in an attempt to reveal the power of these images (and the apparent ideals behind them) to a new generation of boys.
Artist Daryl Vocat drew a series of images in the same style that seeks to tell a different story about the Boys Scouts. Vocat’s drawings simultaneously pay homage to these old images while also challenging the reality of the interactions they depicted. He entitled the series, “A Boy’s Will” (2006). He relies on the same style of imagery early Scouting manuals used to “[reveal the] secret world behind the good intentions of the popular world-wide movement.” The composition has the unsettling effect of sanitizing some odd, dangerous, intimate, and erotic parts of Scouts–parts of that old “boy culture” that aren’t as commonly represented using that style of imagery.
Issues like violence between boys, boys playing pranks, the unsettling excitement associated with weapons for some young boys and the cavalier attitude some boys might have displayed toward them, the potential to use Scouting ideals and spaces as a platform for protest and reform, and the homoeroticism inherent in the degree of homosociality, cooperation, and social isolation of Scout camping trips and outings. Vocat describes his drawings in this way:
[T]his work explores a world where young boys create rituals, form bonds and explore dubious notions of morality. Adults are scorned and children assert their autonomy… Rather than being simply victims of neglect, these boys assert their outsider identities, investigate power dynamics, and lay claim to a culture of their own making… This work exposes the private world of young boys, and tags alongside as they fumble between expectation and desire. (here)
It’s a powerful set of images. I find them so interesting precisely because they challenge the cultural image of the “boy scout” and what boys and men do in Scout spaces.
What do you think?