Boys, Construction of

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Boys, Construction of

Boy is a gender assigned to most male children at or before birth. As early as two years old, boys have a sense of themselves as boys and have begun understanding other people in terms of sexual difference. By early adolescence, boys have often begun to emulate the masculine behavior of older boys and to identify themselves more as "guys" or, in the United Kingdom, "lads." Though the term boys is sometimes used to refer to teenagers and adult men, it is usually associated with physical and mental immaturity and thus, in reference to adults, is used either ironically or disdainfully.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the term boys was often used to evoke a group of men linked by a certain male camaraderie, as in "one of the boys," "boys will be boys," or the use of boys to refer to the armed forces. This usage has largely been replaced by the use of guys in the United States and lads in the United Kingdom, terms that encompass a wide age range and can connote participation in a male-oriented, masculine culture.

The common association between immaturity and boys sets up a power dynamic in which boys are subordinated to adult men. This power imbalance is implicit in the nineteenth-century American usage by whites of the term boy to refer to adult male slaves and by its British usage until the mid-twentieth century to refer to native men from the colonies.

Because this power dynamic places the gender boy opposite adult masculinity, boys occupy a somewhat feminized position, and much of young boys' gender negotiations in school revolve around establishing their difference from girls. These gender negotiations begin as early as preschool, by which time young children have already internalized a gender identity and have begun categorizing others as boy or girl. Boys often reject games and activities they associate with girl behaviors, and they very quickly form a community based on the exclusion of girls. They will similarly often refuse to allow girls to participate in games, such as soccer or baseball, that they consider to be the province of boys.


Many researchers have remarked on the degree to which the way boys construct and regulate their gender identities in school depends upon the assertion of power and masculine privilege, which has been noted as early as kindergarten and is directed both at other students and at teachers. Among themselves, boys tend to engage in a great deal of physical violence, usually couched as play fighting, including poking, slapping, hitting, and wrestling. Even routine physical contact, by the fifth grade, has shifted from touching and hugging to hand slapping, shoving, and poking. Though boys are less likely to physically fight girls, there is a well-documented pattern of sexual aggression, both verbal and physical, directed at girls. Girls, it appears, also learn early not to complain too loudly about such aggression. Though girls sometimes strike back at boys or band together to drive them from a common area, they only infrequently report the behavior to authority figures. The behavior is often chalked up to boyish antics (by both girls and adults), but girls in many cases have also learned that telling tales will earn no redress. Female teachers also receive sexually or physically aggressive comments, even from very young boys, which they often choose to ignore rather than engage. Though this phenomenon is fairly common, Barrie Thorne (1993) and others also caution against overgeneralizations about the level and type of boys' aggression. The most assertive and aggressive boys are also the ones who call the most attention to themselves as objects of study, and researchers who have focused on less visible students have found that boys negotiate and assert their masculinity and gender identities in a multiplicity of ways.


Although boys commonly interact with girls outside of school, girls and boys are inclined, when possible, to self-segregate in school. On playgrounds, boys tend to coalesce in larger, more visible groups. They generally control some 90 percent of the playground area and concentrate in outlying areas, such as sports fields, rather than areas close to the school building. They are usually more physically aggressive than girls, apparently more competitive, hierarchically organized, and often gravitate toward team sports during playtime. As Thorne comments, however, there is great variability in these patterns. Whereas the most popular and most visible boys tend to be sports-oriented and competitive, more marginal boys may form smaller friendship groups and participate in different playground activities; girls, moreover, may not be less competitive or hierarchical than boys, but rather express these things in terms (such as being nice) that appear more cooperative. Despite this variability in the mechanisms by which boys establish their gender identities, too much deviation from established norms is consistently policed: Boys who spend too much time with girls or who play girls' games are subject to accusations of effeminacy or homosexuality (wimps, sissies, queers, or fags).

Compared to girls, boys tend to interact very differently with authority. Rule transgression and the use of forbidden language is an important part of boys' play activities. Regulations are often flouted in more or less plain view of authority figures. Researchers have noted that boys tend to organize in quite large groups, rather than pairs or triplets, and that much of the thrill of rule breaking seems to stem from doing it in front of witnesses. These groups provide a level of anonymity that often enables individual boys to escape punishment for violating rules. Boys similarly experiment with sex and sexuality in such groups where the excitement of viewing illicit pornography or telling a dirty joke is enhanced by the presence and encouragement of witnesses.


As is the case with girls, researchers have found that the formation of gender identity in boys is as much a project in establishing heterosexuality as it is establishing gender. Whereas girls constitute their identities as heterosexual with consistent reference to what boys will find desirable, boys are more inclined to construct their genders in terms of homophobia and avoidance of the homosexual. Thus, improperly masculine behaviors are often deterred by charges of homosexuality, even when the accusers do not understand the sexual implications of epithets such as "queer" or "fag." As with girls, much of boys' gender construction is concerned with negotiating or maintaining the boundaries between boys and girls. These boundaries are often tested and reinscribed by coed games such as catch and kiss, cooties, and invasions of the girls' side of the playground. Interaction with girls is thus constructed as exciting, but also dangerous and possibly polluting (cooties, for example, usually originate with girls). The culture of boyfriends and girlfriends, which starts as early as kindergarten, is thus somewhat problematic for boys: Romantic contact and success with girls can be one method by which a boy asserts his masculinity, but it also bears the danger of contamination by femininity and possible teasing or ostracization by other boys.

Girls are sexualized early in childhood and tend to construct their genders and identities explicitly in relation to male desire. They initially understand heterosexual pairings in terms of romance, and they actively engage in pairing themselves and classmates in nominally boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. In contrast, boys usually first conceive of heterosexual pairings in terms of sexual bodies and activities, which conception is later modified to include romance and intimacy. (It is noteworthy, however, that for both girls and boys this initial contact with male-female relationships occurs in groups of the same sex, with heterosexual interest and desire being performed for a homosocial audience.) Unlike girls, however, boys largely negotiate gender identities as a homosocial group. For girls, male desire is a crucial aspect of the construction of gender identity, whereas boys establish masculinity and power primarily in relation to other boys. Girls are used as a controlling mechanism in this construction, but the gender identity of boys is created and performed first for other boys. Romantic relationships with girls are thus one option for establishing a heterosexual, masculine gender identity before a boy's peers, but it is not the only one.

see also Butch/Femme; Girls, Construction of.


Blaise, Mindy. 2005. Playing It Straight: Uncovering Gender Discourses in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York: Routledge.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Rebecca F. Plante, eds. 2004. Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehr, Susan, ed. 2001. Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: The Construction of Gender in Children's Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Renold, Emma. 2005. Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children's Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Thorne, Barrie. 1993. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

                                             Maureen Lauder