Constructing the 'Literate Boy': Analysing Masculinities on Websites Created in Response to the Boys' Literacy 'Crisis'.

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Author: Sarah McDonald
Date: Aug. 2019
From: English in Australia(Vol. 54, Issue 2)
Publisher: Australian Association for the Teaching of English
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,495 words

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Boys have long been positioned as marginalised participants in the education system, where categorical notions of boys as failing and girls as achieving persist. These ideas have played out strongly in western societies in the areas of literacy and reading, with a convergence of boys and literacy 'crises'. While it has been documented that some boys underperform in reading ability when compared to some girls, essentialist notions of gender fail to consider the way achievement is not simply based on sex. Drawing on Bourdieu's concept of habitus, specifically a literate habitus (Carrington & Luke, 1997), this article analyses two websites created to promote reading for middle-school boys. It considers how these sites contribute to and perpetuate constructions of hegemonic masculinities. Focusing on the websites as promoting 'boy-friendly' literacy interventions, the text-based analysis considers the ways particular constructions of masculinity are represented and why this may be problematic in terms of our work with middle-school boys.

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This research examines how websites created to promote reading for middle-school boys (11-14 years old) contribute to and perpetuate constructions of a hegemonic masculinity. Historical and current gendered debates concerning the 'literacy wars' (Snyder, 2008) have been played out across education in the West. In exploring how the authors of the websites represent middle-school boys' masculinities, I focus on how conceptions of middle-school boyhood are perpetuated through the promotion of specific interventions into boys' literacy. The article adopts an innovative approach to text-based analysis, drawing on Bourdieu's (1984) concept of identity formation as habitus in order to examine the ways literacy may be enacted relationally to understandings of masculinities. I use Carrington and Luke's (1997) concept of a literate habitus to capture the way literacy practices take on multiple forms of cultural capital and symbolic significance in wider society, and use Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough, 2015; Gee, 2015) to situate the websites in a social context of 'common-sense' theories and shared knowledge in order to analyse specific language use. It is important here to acknowledge how Bourdieu's tools have been widely critiqued for a problematic binary and implicitly stable framing of gender (Adkins, 2004; Mottier, 2002). However, there is scope to use habitus as a conceptual tool for understanding the way some interventions normalise gendered ways of being. In the second half of the paper, analysis moves toward a critique of the two websites' common themes, and the implications these have for understandings of masculinity.

Before I present the research and main findings, it is important to highlight my positionality as both an educator and researcher. As an English teacher, I was involved in 'constructing a world of gender relations' (Connell, 1995, p. 86) and, like many English teachers, I often chose classroom texts which were designed to engage boys. In using search engines to discover new class novels and later to search for information on the boys' literacy crisis, I became aware of the various websites that had been created to provide information to educators and parents on engaging boys in reading--specifically, the reading of novels. As I viewed these public resources, I became concerned with the assumptions about boys and masculinities which underpinned these sites as well as the understandings that may be generated and perpetuated. Thomson (2002) argues that some boys and girls do fall behind when it comes to literacy and reading, but that to focus solely on gender is simplistic. She suggests that, instead, 'more nuanced, gender- and class-aware, situated interventions might be more productive' (p. 176). It is within this context that the research explores the way websites created to promote reading for middle-school boys engage with and perpetuate hegemonic constructions of masculinity.

Masculinity and boys' literacy interventions

In the 'literacy crisis', interventions within schools are often underpinned by essentialist ideas and theories of categorical sex differences (Gill & Tranter, 2014). Mills and Keddie (2010) add that the 'dominance of neo-liberal discourses in education has also impacted upon the ways in which boys are often now viewed as a problem for school' (p. 407), and that while there is a diversity of boys, 'all such boys are liable to be subject to homogenising discourses which construct all such boys as the same' (p. 407). Furthermore, Mills and Keddie (2010) state,

Projects have tended to homogenise boys' interests and learning styles 
along stereotypical gender binary lines reflecting more broadly what 
Lingard (2003) has referred to as a 'recuperative masculinity politics' 
where there is a focus on recapturing a sense of masculinity lost in 
the now 'overly' feminised spaces of the school and beyond, (p. 408)

Theories underpinned by 'recuperative masculinity politics' are problematic because they are based on the premise that gender is fixed and irrevocably tied to sex (Gill & Tranter, 2014), with masculinity discussed as a single state of being rather than acknowledging the existence of a diversity of masculinities which can be performed by both males and females (Connell, 1995).

As well as this, research on masculinity points to a lack of focus in many schools on encouraging young men to develop a broader definition about what it means to be male. There exists longstanding research that has documented how a narrow and often problematic version of masculinity is promoted, both explicitly and implicitly (Epstein, Elwood, Hey, & Maw, 1998; Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998; Martino & Palotta-Chiarolli, 2003; Weaver-Hightower, 2003).

In Australia, the Boys: Getting it Right policy report (House of Representatives, 2002) advocated for an increased focus on the learning styles of boys, suggesting a change to schooling and literacy practices to meet their needs. Contemporary approaches to promoting reading in middle-school boys have often focused on presenting literacy as more masculine (Martino, 2008). Booth (2002) and Millard (1997) suggest boys learn to associate literacy with females from a young age, resulting in either rejection as 'a feminised activity' (Booth 2002, p. 20), or a reluctance to admit to an enjoyment of reading if they believe it will affect their ability to fit in with their peers. Suggested literacy interventions tend to shift the 'blame for boys' schooling underperformance away from boys' (Mills & Keddie, 2010, p. 410) and onto female teachers and feminine ways of teaching. For example, popular parenting experts, such as Steve Biddulph (2010), often suggest that male students fare better with male teachers. Of course, teachers play an important role in the classroom, but greater attention should be paid to the resources that teachers, both male and female, are using in their practice. The ease with which teachers and parents can access web-based resources, and the potential impact of these resources on pedagogic approaches used in contemporary classrooms and homes warrants the close analysis of such resources.

Connell (1995) argues that gender is the main determinant of our collective fate, intersecting with both class and race. Bourdieu (1984) would further contend that culture plays a central role. Gender as a social construct presupposes that gender in our society is based on reproduction and bodies, but not on our biological being (Connell, 1995). In this way, gender is a determining social structure, where humans are categorised into parts, with gender as a starting point. Gender determinants form our identity, discourse and culture, and state, community, workplace and school (Connell, 1995). It is how we understand ourselves as beings, and as performers in the world, or as Gee (2015) would contend, as more or less 'right'. It begins at birth and is pervasive across all fields. Connell (1995) argues for the existence of hegemony within this social structure, where 'at any given time, one form of masculinity rather than others is culturally exalted' (p. 76). Therefore, hegemonic masculinities and marginalised masculinities are not fixed character types but are 'configurations of practice generated in particular situations in a changing structure of relationships' (Connell, 1995, p. 81). Carrington and Luke (1997) suggest that within a Bourdieusian analysis, it is important to tease out which masculinity is hegemonic within any one site. Connell's theory of hegemonic masculinity (1995) can be used to explain how individuals and groups will discard practices which are not valued within the context of the construction of hegemonic masculinity, when they are not deemed to create access to social power. Based on this argument, it becomes clear how the idea of authoritative understandings of self are crucial to narrative formations, and why it is difficult to contest the way education has taken up masculinity relationally to reading.

A literate habitus

Bourdieu's notion of habitus has been used to explore classed and gendered experiences of schooling (Archer, Halsall & Hollingworth, 2007; Bowers-Brown, 2015; McLeod, 2000; Stahl, 2014). More specifically, it has been mobilised to explore literacy and literate practices (Albright & Luke, 2010; Carrington & Luke, 1997; Comber 2005; Grenfell et al., 2013; Luke 1992, 1995; Luke & Carrington, 2003). A Bourdieusian approach recognises that an individual's choices can be restricted by social structures--in other words, by the lived experience of and movement through various and particular social fields (Bourdieu, 1984; 1991). The way that individuals move through these social fields will depend on both their accumulations of capital and crucially, whether that capital is recognised as such by others in authority. Carrington and Luke (1997) define literacy as a social practice and the literate person as a social construct and argue that literate practices reflect cultural and social capital and thus contribute to the development of an individual's habitus and subsequent life trajectory. They refer to this process as the creation across fields of a literate habitus. Invoking literate habitus as a key component of a broader framing of education as cultural capital gives scope for understanding the ways in which literacy takes on a symbolic significance within wider society, acting as an indicator of status and depending on authoritative recognition within particular fields. As Carrington and Luke (1997) suggest, 'In the public gaze, literacy is frequently defined as a neutral, identifiable package of skills, or alternatively, as a set of moral traits or features, the acquisition of which are seen to ensure social access and success' (p. 97). Carrington and Luke further (1997) contend that there is danger in unproblematically equating certain types of literacy practice, such as reading and school-acquired literacy, with forms of cultural capital. They speak to the 'literacy myth', suggesting common linkages of early knowledge and understanding of reading to increased self-esteem and school achievement as causal (Carrington & Luke, 1997). These deficit assumptions--Carrington and Luke (1997) refer to them as 'folk-theories'--work toward defining access and participation to social and institutional fields, where only certain types of literacies are valued. So, in understanding habitus as the internalisation of life experiences which form an individual disposition, and a way of perceiving and participating in the world, we can see how the way in which individuals incorporate and discard different literacy practices can create a particular literate being or 'literate habitus' (Carrington & Luke, 1997). In building from this concept, it can be argued that a literate habitus, like other forms of habitus (Bourdieu, 2001), can be gendered.

While not specifically referring to a gendered literate habitus, Rowan, Knobel, Bigum and Lankshear (2002) show how disengagement from traditional literacy classrooms and practice may be the consequences of 'narrative and restrictive' understandings of masculinities for some boys (p. 4). Martino (2008) suggests that a framework for understanding masculinity should involve 'challenging social expectations about what it means to be male and understanding how these expectations impact on boys' participation in schooling' (para. 5). As students move through various social fields, one of which is literacy in school, multiple literate and identity practices are required (Carrington & Luke, 1997). Arguably, these practices are incorporated into their habitus and enacted in their life path within the specific fields where they are needed, depending on their value within those fields.

Exploring the habitus that is implied by the websites chosen for analysis offers an understanding of the way 'common-sense' and gendered interventions normalise ways of being. This research conceptualises the two websites--which are available in the public domain and have been created, or feature pages within the site, with the primary aim of promoting reading in middle-school boys--as part of the social field of literacy, where the websites are indicative of a social practice because they are created, continually updated and rely on social engagement in order to function. Furthermore, Bourdieu's key theories of habitus, capital and field offer a lens through which to view a specific type of text-based gender construction as constituting a particular kind of habitus.


The two websites 'Ideas for Getting Boys into Reading' (James Moloney) and 'Guys Read' were chosen for analysis because their content is predominantly about boys and reading, and they appear on the first page of web searches using the Google search engine. The following key search phrases were used: 'boys and books', 'books for middle school boys', 'boys and reading', 'getting boys to read', 'middle school boys and reading'. The analysis focuses firstly on the way masculinities are constituted in the texts, and, secondly, explores the way these constructions may reinforce or challenge particular aspects of literate habitus.

The first layer of analysis takes place using Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) (Gee, 2015; Fairclough, 2015). By placing the websites within a context of 'common-sense theories' and 'shared knowledge' (Gee, 2015), analysis of the specific language used shows how the consumers of the websites are positioned to respond. It is important here to note that CDA has been critiqued for being either too broad or not broad enough so that analysis becomes decontextualised (Rogers & Schaenen, 2014). However, Rogers and Schaenen (2014) argue that because multiple contexts will have the potential to exist within any one domain, the 'analysis itself creates a context with its own history of discourse practices' (p. 124). Furthermore, texts can have a variety of meanings depending on the historical and political life experiences, and ways of knowing, of both author and reader. In light of this, I am aware that I position the reader to view the findings I present through my particular lens. I come to this research understanding that my interpretation is 'partial and governed by the discourse of my time and place' (Britzman, 2000, p. 32). While intending to be faithful to what I see represented in the data, it is with an understanding that 'one's historical realities, identities, and experiences shape what one sees and doesn't see' (Brisolara, 2014, p. 24).

Bourdieu's theory offers a lens for viewing normalised social structures that work to maintain the status-quo within and across social fields. Reay (2004) argues for the use of habitus as a conceptual tool, as 'a means of viewing structure as occurring within small-scale interactions and activity within large scale settings' (p. 440). In this way, habitus is used conceptually as a way of interrogating the websites rather than as an explanation for why the websites exist. I use Bourdieu's tools of habitus, cultural capital and field to explore the potential ways that the websites illustrate understandings of masculinities--specifically a masculine literate habitus--as well as the way they invite consumers to take up particular positions. In using this approach, emerging themes are identified with an emphasis on language while also describing, interpreting and explaining how the websites created to promote reading for middle-school boys are constructed within a specific political time and context. By using Bourdieu's tools of habitus, capital and field as a tool for understanding, I view the websites as sites to be examined for how they represent identity, particularly concerning the masculine literate middle-school boy.

Guys Read--John Scieszka

Jon Scieszka is an American children's author. His website, Guys Read, is presented to the audience as a 'web-based literacy program for boys' (Scieszka, 2016). It is evident through multiple references on the website, where words like 'boys' and 'guys' are used interchangeably, that the consistent use of the word 'guys' refers to middle-school boys. For example,

Welcome to Guys Read, a web-based literacy program for boys founded by 
author and First National Ambassador of Young People's Literature Jon 
Our mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers;
And please help guys out by recommending more of your guy-favorites; 

The denotative language use of the word 'guys' in this instance suggests that the term is understood as a casual reference to boys and is typical of the conversational style used on the website. There is a familiarity which aims to connect with the audience on a personal level, and while initially it may suggest that the intended audience is middle-school boys, there are clues to suggest the audience is made up of parents and teachers of middle-school boys. The use of the words 'our mission is to help boys' speaks to adults who will guide them, positioning the boys as passive and adults as the active audience. The short sentence is also a literary technique used to persuade, by making a statement of apparent 'truth' that is difficult to contest. The inclusive pronoun 'our' at the beginning of the sentence is an appeal to the audience; it calls to them to be part of the solution through their visit to the website, while the word 'mission' has connotations of the types of books suggested as those middle-school boys will enjoy.

The combination of white background with bright red and blue font colours and the use of stars in title banners evokes the American flag and positions the audience to draw on normalised understandings of an 'all-American boy' on Jon Scieszka's website. The main image on the top of the page changes each time the page is reloaded. The majority of the images feature boys playing sports or in urban settings--two images feature books, but boys are noticeably absent from these. The only images featuring males are the sports images, where the boys are physical and active in their involvement. The image featured in Figure 1 is of boys doing tricks on skateboards. This image reinforces essentialist ideas linking traditional masculinity with sport and risk-taking behaviour (Wadham, Pudsey & Boyd, 2007). Furthermore, socially normalised constructions of boys serve to constitute a particular kind of learner habitus (Bourdieu 1984) which is gendered, where incorporating a particular view of the world into ways of being and participating in the world renders specific actions necessary in order to signal membership in that world (Bourdieu, 1984). In considering both the audience and purpose of the text, it is interesting that none of the rotating images feature 'guys read'-ing.

A particular type of gender construction (Connell, 1995) is visible on Scieszka's site, which is underpinned by a socially normalised idea that boys struggle with--and do not enjoy--reading because they are physically born that way. Scieszka's predominant message is that all boys are 'naturally' inclined away from reading, speaking to Mills and Keddie's (2010) gender justice argument that homogenising discourses construct all boys as problematic. This narrative is 'thickened' (Wortham, 2004) relationally to identity when Scieszka selectively uses research showing 'that boys are having trouble reading, and that boys are getting worse at reading'. Scieszka offers further suggestions: 'Some of the reasons are biological. Some of the reasons are sociological.' The effect of the short sentences in this quote is powerful. The sentences are presented as statements of fact and signal completion which, in turn, is reinforced when there are no immediate links to the research Scieszka is referencing. His statements are presented as 'common-sense' claims that are not open for questioning. Scieszka furthers these claims with a discussion on a separate webpage about why boys might be 'having trouble' with ideas that are sex-role oriented and common-sense notions presented as fact. On these pages, the term biologically denotes a narrative supported by biological essentialism (Wadham, Pudsy & Boyd, 2007), where all boys are portrayed as having been born with particular attributes in relation to reading. Scieszka's narrative, coupled with the initial assertion that 'some reasons are sociological', underlines his own beliefs that boys are biologically born with a particular deficit when it comes to literacy, while also pointing to sex-role socialisation as a strategy. For example, Scieszka claims that 'boys are slower to develop than girls and often struggle with reading and writing skills early on' while the 'action-oriented, competitive learning style of many boys works against them learning to read and write'. Wadham, Pudsey and Boyd (2007) assert an essentialist view of gender and education as dominant and socially normalised, making it difficult to contest in the context of Scieszka's website. Operationalising habitus, we see how there is an emphasis on 'the enduring influence of a range of contexts, familial, peer group, institutional and class culture, and their subtle, often indirect, but still pervasive influence on choices' (Reay, David, & Ball, 2005, p. 27). Therefore, if boys, and those in charge of educating boys, believe they are born with a biological resistance to reading, then for some boys a rejection of reading becomes necessary in order to signal one's identity and membership as a boy.

Scieszka suggests middle-school boys are not motivated to read because the books offered are not appealing, stating that part of his intention is to 'help boys become readers by helping them find texts they want to read'. The insinuation here is that finding a book a middle-school boy would want to read is a difficult task, furthering a narrative where boys are being marginalised by not having access to books that will appeal to them. Scieszka promotes agency for boys to choose their own books through the use of 'Guys Read' branded bookmarks, book plates, and book and spine labels which can be downloaded and printed from his site (Figure 2).

The labels are to be used to give middle-school boys the opportunity to physically mark books in the school library they enjoy reading, signposting this information for other boys. These labels illustrate an authoritative recognition (Bourdieu 1984) within the field of boys' literacy: Scieszka indicates that boys will pick up and read a certain book if they are positioned to view that book as approved of by another boy. The presence of the label gives middle-school boys the authority to read the book through a cycle of acknowledging and accepting some books as being specifically intended for boys. This 'authorial voice' is difficult to destabilise and is continually reinforced because someone in authority, another middle-school boy, reinforces it.

Ideas for Getting Boys into Reading--James Moloney

James Moloney is an Australian author. The specific page for analysis within his website has been constructed to share his thoughts on how to get boys to read more. This page is titled, 'Ideas for Getting Boys into Reading', and is based on his book, which is currently out of print, Boys and Books: Building a Culture of Reading Around Our Boys (2002).

While the overall presentation of the website may be described as dated due to the large chunks of text, few images and links to other pages, the texts listed in a bibliography on a separate page include Moloney's most recent publications, suggesting the website is up to date. The single image on the page is the front cover of Moloney's book (see Figure 3). It features a cartoon of a boy sitting on a couch with a remote control, suggesting he is watching television. Behind him is a book with the words 'Adults Only' emblazoned on the cover. A male stands behind the book and there is a speech bubble attributed to him which says, 'I'm going out for a while. Whatever you do, DON'T READ THIS BOOK.' This highlights an emerging theme of subversion--in this case, it is on the part of both father and child, where the boy is being 'tricked' to engage with reading by a male role model.

Moloney builds a picture of a specific type of middle-school male habitus using persuasive literary techniques. To begin with, he acknowledges differences between the reading habits of middle-school boys, differentiating between boys who are 'willing readers' and those who are 'reluctant readers'. Following this, boys are essentialised as one group who, Moloney insists, need to see themselves represented in the books they read. Moloney suggests that often boys 'are lost when the story does not go where they want it to go which is in a direction close to their own personal experience', invoking a literate habitus which is structured by an unwillingness to move outside of what is normalised and known. Multiple references on the website to representation, personal experience and phrases like 'want it to go' form a narrative where boys need to feel in control of and represented by a text if it is to engage them. This narrative speaks to the emerging masculinity of Moloney's site, which he refers to as 'boyishness'.

Moloney describes boyishness as an understanding by middle-school boys of what it is that makes up the 'quintessential boy'. Underpinning this is Moloney's belief about middle-school boys' self-image, where they see themselves as, or strive to be, a quintessential boy. Boyishness is presented as fun, messy, boisterous, and entailing a kind of harmless naughtiness and 'madcap mayhem'. Use of the word 'mayhem' takes on significance in further descriptions of boys as subversive of authority, where 'boys love poking fun at others, especially adults'. In this way, it appears that subversive forms of harassment constitute 'fun' within the narrative of boyishness. There are long descriptions of boys as naturally wanting to subvert authority, as well as descriptions of the way society continually attempts to control boys:

Boys continually find themselves told to behave, to be tidier and less 
boisterous so books where the characters triumphantly break out of 
these restrictions are greatly prized.

Boys have an image of themselves as anarchic beings bringing chaos to 
stultifying order, even when they are the gentlest and more amenable 
lambs you would hope to have in the house.

Moloney juxtaposes this image with the claim that boys have a strong sense of right and wrong, describing them as 'oddly true to a sense of justice and right'. Moloney contends that he may appear to be 'defending oafish behaviour' in the way he describes boys, but tempers this by explaining how, in describing boyishness, he is referring to 'that innocuous immaturity best described by the old expression, "frogs and snails and puppy dog tails'". Here, Moloney is referencing the traditional 'boys will be boys' understanding of gender as binary and fixed.

Moloney's website suggests that middle-school boys will prefer an action novel because 'boys enjoy books which place action ahead of emotion and where what the characters do is more important than what the characters think or feel'. Moloney goes on to compare this preference with some adults' preferences for detective or thriller genres, making the point that if we can accept that adults may have preferences for particular genres, then we should accept the same for middle-school boys. However, Moloney's claims that all boys prefer action novels is problematic. It essentialises boys' reading habits and centres a particular type of masculinity. It marginalises boy readers who enjoy different types of books, particularly ones where emotion might come before action.

Moloney suggests that books about sport are gateways into reading for middle-school boys. The assumption here is that middle-school boys play and therefore want to read about sport, positioning those who do not as on the outside of a boyish masculinity, in turn constructing a particular type of learner habitus which is masculinised. It speaks to normalised ideas of adolescence where sport is presented as a naturally occurring interest for boys (Lesko, 2005). Further contributing to the boyishness narrative, there is a repetition on Moloney's site of words such as 'gross', 'dirty' and 'creepy' to describe books middle-school boys do enjoy that are not related to sport. As a result of this language, Moloney paints a picture of middle-school boys as also 'gross' and 'disgusting' when adults are not around, furthering his renderings of middle-school boys as subversive. It sets up the potential for a particular gendered literate habitus for some middle-school boys who will make choices about reading with an understanding of what is and is not culturally acceptable. Yet in society, we see a variety of boys with different interests.


Like many text types, the websites can be viewed as a dialogue which relies upon both an author and an audience to produce meaning. The audience acts as active participants in navigating the websites, in that they make choices about various pages and links to visit as part of their experience. I recognise that the keywords used to arrive at the sites--boys, books, middle-school, reading--signal assumptions being made by the audience of the websites where beliefs about the reading abilities of boys, as well as the types of books boys enjoy, are homogenised and underpinned by categorical differences between middle-school girls and boys (Gill & Tranter, 2014). Furthermore, in conducting the searches in the first place, the audience is expecting information that will support their views rather than challenge them, rendering the understandings underpinning the websites, along with the understandings brought to the sites by the audience, as a shared knowledge (Gee, 2015) and discourse. This 'shared knowledge' speaks to the idea that the authors of the websites produce meaning while at the same time relying on the common understandings of the audience (Hodge & Kress, 1988). The authors expect their audience to draw upon and make 'intertextual and historical links with prior texts or text types within their experience' (Fairclough, 1995, p. 78).

The websites have similar thematic elements, contributing to a particular kind of narrative around middle-school boys and their reading skills. The dominant masculinity illustrated across the websites follows a naturalised and often incontestable understanding of middle-school boys as messy, adventurous, courageous and harmlessly naughty. Through these texts, middle-school boys are essentialised, and rendered dominant, controlling, competitive and subversive. They are situated as being unwilling to engage with texts that do not present middle-school boys with an image of themselves.

The overwhelming and explicit assertion of the authors of the websites is that all boys are marginalised participants in the field of reading because they are not given agency in choosing books or offered books which appeal to them. A restrictive narrative is created (Rowan, Knobel, Bigum & Lankshear, 2002) around middle-school boys which may be used to understand, and carve out, their place in reading discourse. Rowan et al. (2002) argue that for some boys, these narrow understandings of masculinities in relation to reading create an alienation from traditional literacy classrooms and practices. They set up some boys as 'other' if their reading practices do not fit within the narrative. Determinist theories, and an implicit shared knowledge about masculinity, underpin the websites, where Moloney and Scieszka contribute to, and render notions of, a particular hegemonic masculinity within a discourse of boys and reading. So while they purport to turn boys into lifelong readers, by attributing these masculine identities to middle-school boys as 'right' within the field, they contribute to what Zipin (2009) refers to as 'culturally inherited ways of knowing' (p. 317): while the audience of the websites is not middle-school boys, the authors contribute to the learner habitus middle-school boys are subjected to through an authoritative discourse around masculinity which has been constructed and accepted by society. In contributing to a discourse in which hegemonic masculinity is rendered fundamentally opposed to reading, an opposition to reading signifies identification with particular gender configurations.

The aim of this paper was to examine the ways two websites created to promote reading for middle-school boys contribute to and perpetuate constructions of a hegemonic masculinity. The theoretical framework is informed primarily by the theories of Bourdieu and CDA, where I have appropriated habitus and field as a conceptual tool for understanding how the social world speaks to the potential production and reproduction of particular kinds of learner habitus. By invoking Carrington & Luke's concept of literate habitus (1997), I have attempted to explain the way in which a gendered literate habitus is potentially reinforced through the language and images of the websites.


The authors of the websites considered in this paper do not address the many reasons why reading is problematic for some middle-school boys, such as socioeconomic status, which remains the most significant indicator of reading achievement (OECD, 2011). It could be that some middle-school boys are disadvantaged precisely by reading interventions which focus on a single version of masculinity as a starting point. In thinking about the ways in which middle-school boys may work to construct their identities, we can see how being repeatedly presented with an image of a boy who performs a 'boy-ish' hegemonic masculinity potentially perpetuates this image as 'right'. The implication here is that an authority is created within the field of reading, and middle-school boys are positioned to accept this narrative, or parts of it. This presents an obstacle for some middle-school boys who may be inclined away from reading in order to signal their membership within particular gender constructions. Furthermore, hegemonic masculinities necessitate marginalised masculinities, and in this case, middle-school boys who do not fit within the 'boy-ish' masculinity presented on the websites are discarded. The websites are two examples of a larger authoritative understanding of the boys' literacy crisis, suggesting that a rethinking of the boys' literacy crisis is needed. We need to see the intersectionality of the problem, where education is far more complex than gender binaries and is complicated by combinations of class, race and gender. The needs of all students should be at the centre of discussions about educational provisions--not only the needs of those who fit within very specific and dominant gender ideologies. The path forward necessitates an illumination of the harm of dominant gender structures, in order to begin deconstructing gender relationally to reading.


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Sarah McDonald, University of South Australia

Sarah McDonald is the Vice-President of the South Australian English Teachers' Association. She is an experienced English teacher, and is a tutor in English and Literacy at Flinders University. Sarah is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia researching the intersectionality of gender and social class in higher education.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A613867264