Maybe Christina Hoff Sommers was a little right

My first reaction to “war against boys” rhetoric is to roll my eyes a bit–somehow, the war on boys doesn’t seem to be eroding male privilege overall in America. But, since–as you may have heard–we have a 4-yr-old boy, I do pay attention to such arguments a little bit more closely than I once did.

For example, this nugget in the new issue of Parents made me want to start slapping people (probably due to an excess of violent movies while growing up):

Boys who watch violent TV shows or movies (like Star Wars, Spider-Man, and Power Rangers) between ages 2 and 5 are more likely to be antisocial or aggressive at ages 7 to 10, according to a new study in Pediatrics.

I’ll let pass right by the obvious point that the three movies named aren’t equivalently violent, and the equally obvious opportunity to sneer at the vagueness of “watch” (under what circumstances? how often?) or the fascinatingly powerful causal mechanism implied here. (NB: I’m not necessarily indicting the research itself, which I’m too lazy busy to look up, and which I’m sure was voiced with at least some more nuance.) No, the point I’m after is coming up:

Surprisingly, violent programming had no effect on girls’ behavior patterns, possibly because the “violent” shows that girls chose to watch had more hostile language and threatening behavior than physical violence.

WTF? I love how the girls’ shows’ violence is bracketed in scare quotes. But, more seriously, anyone who thinks that the language of 7-10 y.o. girls isn’t “antisocial” or “aggressive” either needs to spend more time with 7-10 year old girls (or their former victims), or needs to re-think their definitions of aggression.

A pointed out that, in her experience, the only way this could be true–i.e., that violent programming has “no effect” on girls–is that girls in that age group are already maximally antisocial and aggressive, as necessary training for high school. (And she was popular in high school!)

I read the paragraph aloud to The Little Man: His take: “Violence *is* great. But you won’t let me watch Spider-Man, and the Power Rangers seem silly, so I’ll probably be ok. It’s just Star Wars. Star Wars can’t hurt. Plus, I’ll be 5 in May. Did you hear Mom’s thinking about buying me camo for my room?” So that’s nice.

Update: This picture from the Lego Store in Chicago seems relevant.

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6 Responses to Maybe Christina Hoff Sommers was a little right

  1. Alex says:

    Now I wish I had saved the link for this, but alas; There was a study done regarding “The Sims” (Quick note, has academia decided on a grammatically correct way to refer to a game, I.E. Quotes, underline, Italics? I Digress.) and this study had young prepubescent boys and girls play the game for a certain amount of time, and then measure what the kids did in the games. Surprisingly, boys seemed most interesting in indulging the fantasy of the world; they attempted to make a stable house, with moderately happy inhabitants. Once their needs where met, they attempted to build on their success- find mates for their characters, advance their houses, etc. The Girls, on the other hand, where G* damned horrifying; they used it as a sort of torture chamber, setting up various scenario’s that would force their sims to respond in disgusting or otherwise immoral acts. For instance, build a pool, then delete all the ladders, making them drown. take out all the bathrooms in the house, all the doors, and all the windows. Have them keep making babies, but not be able to feed it. It was like a thousand Little Ms. Hitler’s playing with dollhouses.

    Also, I give a very visceral response when someone takes an anti-star wars stance. The feeling is not unlike when I have to ‘debate’ certain topics (creationism, Copyright law, education..). The fact that I have made these subjects fairly equal in my head is either great or…. sad.

  2. rachel says:

    This is really special. I like how the content of the piece is the conditioning enacted on the viewing child,but girls are apparently subject to less conditioning because of the movies they “chose’ to watch. And yet the piece can’t go so far as to suggest that girl have already been conditioned (by things like the terribly gendered toys advertised in Parents magazine) to manifest antisocial behavior in less physical ways than boys (I assume this anyway based on my encounters with Parents magazine).

  3. jbj says:

    @Alex-the-Churchmouse: I thought the Star Wars angle would call you out . . . . (And you should’ve saved the link in!)

    @Rachel: Thanks for this supplement–I certainly didn’t want to imply that the piece’s treatment of girls is ideology-free. Then again, girls *are* made of sugar and spice and everything nice, so they’re probably immune to social conditioning.

  4. Alex says:


    I mean, yeah, If you ended each post with an obscure Star wars reference, I’d pretty much be forced into commenting.

  5. Heather says:

    Sommers gave a talk at CCSU a few years ago. I was especially annoyed by her claim that attempts to reign in “natural” male instincts through various programs to prevent violence, bullying, and sexual harrassment are turning boys into sissies. This was before Columbine, though, so maybe she’s changed her tune.

  6. jbj says:

    Right: Every time I hear her argument in full, it drives me crazy, and I think that she’s missing some important perspective.

    But there are these little points that crop up again and again–I do think that, on the ground, a nontrivial # of teachers and parents confuse boisterousness with aggression/acting out/something else. (Or, to put it a slightly different way, the laudable goal of preventing violence, bullying, etc. can, at the margins, tip into something else.)

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