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The Boy Crisis: A Case Study in the Politics of Representation


In the late 1990s, less than a decade after feminist scholars directed attention towards girls’ educational disadvantage, public discourse in the United States began to comprise claims that boys are victims of educational inequality. Commentators argued that boys rather than girls are disadvantaged in schools. In this thesis I examine how two arguments construct boys’ “disadvantaged” status in schools and the impact of such constructions on definitions of and efforts for educational equality. I approach discourse as constitutive and political. I treat arguments about boys’ academic status as “gender projects,” ideological projects that construct gender dynamics in particular ways. Gender projects give particular meanings to gender, which shape understandings of equality and thereby ideas of how resources should be distributed. Further, gender projects compete to become dominant and therefore employ widespread meanings, beliefs and values to appeal to a broader audience. I employ Toulmin’s model of argumentation to analyze these gender projects, which allows me to examine how each argument’s components appeal to such widespread meanings, beliefs and values.

I identify the neoconservative gender project, which conceives of gender as biologically determined, and liberal gender project, which conceives of gender as primarily socialized. I find that neoconservative and liberal boy advocates’ different conceptions of gender contribute to different visions of gender relations. Neoconservative boy advocates maintain that boys and girls cannot and should not be the same, whereas liberal boy advocates maintain that boys have the same emotional needs as girls and should be socialized in ways that honor such needs. I critically analyze these gender projects in the context of contemporary sociological theories of gender as fluid, multiple and intersectional, and find that both articulations of gender center white, middle-class, heterosexual masculinity. They also articulate masculinity as necessarily dominant. In doing so, they appeal to widespread beliefs in gender essentialism, values of freedom and equality, and meanings of educational equality as equity. This shows that ideological projects can and do employ progressive values and meanings (equity) along with other widespread beliefs (gender essentialism) and values (freedom) in ways that, if translated into concerted action, may ultimately dismantle progressive achievements.

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