Swagger Author Lisa Bloom: Boys’ Achievement Gap A ‘Ticking Time Bomb’
3:15 pm, May 2nd | by Amy Tennery
But that’s what Lisa Bloom is here to do. The bestselling author of Think, a call-to-arms for girls in a tabloid-saturated culture, Bloom is now turning her attention to the guys in her new book Swagger: Ten Urgent Rules For Raising Boys In An Era Of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness And Thug Culture.
Bloom talked with The Jane Dough to explain why boys are falling behind – and why the achievement gap between men and women is a problem that crosses gender boundaries.
The Jane Dough: What inspired you to write this book? When did you start connecting the dots, so to speak, on the decline of boys’ academic success?
In fact, I didn’t intend to write about the dumbing down of our guys, at least not initially. I figured that would go over about as well as a Jane Austen reading in a strip club. I wrote my first book about my own team, we of the XX chromosomes, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World. There, I blast away at a culture that persistently rewards girls for looks over brains; detail our out-of-control female obsession with reality shows, celebrities, tabloids and the beauty industry. For females in 21st-century America, it’s the best of times (we are killing it in education, for example) and the worst of times (25 percent of young women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize . . . are you kidding me?).
I wrote an article, “How to Talk to Little Girls,” exhorting us to refrain from talking to young girls about how they look and instead encouraging us to engage their minds.[i] To my surprise and delight, “How to Talk to Little Girls” went viral and became Facebook’s 12th-most-shared article of 2011. [But] in the subsequent e-mails, tweets, and Facebook messages came: what about boys?
As the mother of both a daughter and a son, I could hardly ignore half the population. I began to research what’s going on with the male side of our country. And what I found shocked me and upended some of what I thought I knew.
I gloated a little in Think about how much better girls are now doing in school compared to boys, for instance. But now I see the error in that. Because the more I read the studies, the more I spoke to parents and teachers, the more I came to see that this educational achievement gap and especially our boys’ stunningly low reading proficiency is a painful, festering problem that follows boys as they grow into men, affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. I’d poured myself into my first book about how girls and women have gone off track. Now, I realized, I had to scrutinize the gritty problems facing our boys. And thus, Swagger was born.
TJD: After decades of women’s and girls’ under-representation in academia and the working world, why is it important for us to worry about the guys catching up?
Girls beating the boys in school: no problem. Boys graduating illiterate and without key life skills: big problem. Women getting jobs over men: no problem. High rates of unemployment for young men: big problem. These are the distinctions.
As a lifelong feminist, I am thrilled by our breathtaking progress, and especially how well girls are doing in school. But we can’t simply write off a generation of boys, and ignore their struggles, as this is happening.
TJD: What were you most surprised to discover while researching the gender “success gap” so to speak?
The figures on mass incarceration make my stomach lurch. We incarcerate four times as many Americans today as when I was a kid – 93 percent of whom are male, overwhelmingly illiterate, [and] young. Many of our sons behind bars are there for simple drug possession crimes. Some are incarcerated for failing to pay court fees they can’t afford. In Texas, kids — overwhelmingly boys — are issued “tickets” for simple misbehavior in school, and if they can’t pay the fines by age 18, they can go to jail. As a culture we’ve become so punitive towards boys who struggle in school.
TJD: In your book you outline a lot of things that are undermining boys’ success in school and work — everything from violent video games and music to the growing notion that reading is a “girl thing.” What are the biggest impediments, in your view?
Thug culture and its best friend, the “swagger” mentality. I devote several chapters to this because most parents are unaware that the majority of top selling rap and hip hop music — the most popular genres for our boys, the lyrics they memorize and repeat in their sleep — celebrate gun violence, punching your girlfriend, beating up gay men, and/or drug use. The biggest artists and the biggest music companies in the world peddle this evil, and our boys absorb it. I called the book “Swagger” because “swagger” is the number-one song lyric in the last decade, across all genres. Every boy I interviewed for the book knew what “swagger” means: an attitude of bravado, arrogance and faking it. One who swaggers does not ask for help. One who swaggers does not admit to having any feelings or vulnerabilities. A swaggerer does not respect women, or rules, or a difference of opinion. This attitude is killing our boys.
TJD: Not to make this all about girls — but hey, that’s our wheelhouse — how does this phenomenon affect girls and women?
Mass incarceration of boys and young men profoundly burdens women in inner city communities, where police drug sweeps result in high rates of arrests. The women left behind struggle to hold families together.
Other moms endure young men living at home long after they’d expected their sons to launch into the world as productive adults. America’s rate of young male unemployment – 18 percent — is the same as in Arab Spring countries. Jobless, antsy young men are ticking time bombs for all of us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.