Boy Power?

Why should a feminist theologian be concerned about adolescent boys? As one who has enjoyed, researched, and written about adolescent girls and their religious lives for nearly two decades, I am frequently asked, “What about the boys?”

For a long time my answer to this question has been this: most of the existing research and writing on adolescence is actually already about boys (the writers just don’t claim that). My work focuses on girls because we need to be paying attention to the particularity of girls–their lives, their experiences, and the ways their diverse performance of gender identities impacts the world. In Girl Talk, God Talk , that’s what I do–using interviews with a group of girls, I tell the story of the connections and disjunctions between adolescent girlhood, faith, and everyday life.

Still the question remains: What about the boys? And, why should a feminist theologian be concerned with them? I can’t speak for all feminist theologians, but this feminist theologian also happens to be the mother of two adolescent boys.  I care intensely about how gender identity opens and/or constricts my sons’ lives, because I want them to flourish as human beings–and their particular way of being human beings is through their performances of boy gender identities. But beyond my personal parenting interests in the wellbeing of my own sons, as a feminist theologian I need to be concerned with boys because (a) boys are part of the creation God made, loves, and redeems, and (b) the well-being of girls is related to the gender identities of boys.  The failure to pay attention to boyhood truncates the ability to attend well to girls and girlhood. As Nancy Choderow astutely observed way back in 1978, reality will not change for women and girls until mothers (and fathers, I would add) begin to raise their sons differently. As Chief Seattle of the Dumawash Confederacy famously said, “Everything is connected.”

Viewing adolescent males and boyhood through the lens of feminist theologies, I am attentive to the ways Christian tradition privileges male narratives, experiences, and power, often to the detriment of women. That must be deconstructed, not only for its negative impact on girls but also for what unjust power relations and privilege does to the humanity of boys. Feminist theologians must care about boys  as well as girls, because we want to participate in God’s transformation toward the flourishing of all, even as we may give special and corrective attention to girls and women in that work.

There is some good work on adolescent boys out there. The good stuff focuses both positively and critically on boys’ gendered experiences amid changing social realities. And then there is some writing that I call “backlash boy literature.” The backlash stuff whines about how everyone has been paying too much attention to girls lately, asserting that boys are the real victims/marginal ones in contested gender spaces. What’s clear to me is that attention to how gender shapes the lives of teens is important for both girls and boys, and is a good focus for feminist theological reflection.