A British import called The Dangerous Book for Boys has soared on American bestseller lists. Is it a new beacon for real boyhood—or a throwback to 1950s-style ideas of sex roles, "dangerous" in a different way than its title suggests?
The book, by English brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden—already a big hit in England and Australia—revels in retro, conjuring up a pre-computer, pre-videogame idyll of hunting, skipping stones, making paper airplanes and bows and arrows, and stories of battlefield heroics. Unlike some works in the "boys will be boys" genre, such as The Big Book of Boy Stuff which treats rude gags as the essence of boyness, The Dangerous Book... expects its readers to be gentlemen; it endorses good manners, cleanliness, and knowledge of Shakespeare, Latin phrases, and history. (The U.S. edition replaces culture-specific British material from royalty to cricket with American equivalents, but otherwise keeps the spirit of the book intact.) Many see it as a welcome antidote not only to the narrow and sedentary interests of the digital age but to the safety-obsessed, anti-competitive mindset of "politically correct" schooling and to feminist scorn for all things male.
But are initiative and adventure "male"? Some people who like the call to initiative, adventure, and outdoor fun have asked why the same fare could not have been packaged as "The Dangerous Book for Kids." Yet the gender-specific nature of the message, which includes a chapter on how to deal with the alien creatures known as girls, is quite deliberate. Indeed, The Dangerous Book... is being treated as something of a political manifesto—a repudiation of the idea that boys and girls are basically alike.
Thus, Rush Limbaugh has praised The Dangerous Book... in an rambling rant against "feminazis" ("How to make the best paper airplane in the world, just things that boys do ... for the last ten, 15 years, feminists have tried to wipe 'em out") and liberals intent on denying differences between the sexes: "Nobody can be better than anybody else, nobody can be different than anyone else." The Dangerous Book, Limbaugh suggested, was an answer to this madness.
Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The War Against Boys, offered a similar if far more coherent take in a New York Post column. Sommers praised the book as a "delightfully instructive anachronism" that "valorizes risk, adventure and manliness," a challenge to modern educators steeped in gender neutrality and a rediscovery of common sense about innate differences between boys and girls, supported by "neuroscientific evidence."
Interestingly, despite this portrayal of The Dangerous Book... as a culture-wars battlefield, it has not been the subject of any significant backlash. What feminist critiques of the book have appeared—including a cogent, balanced, and largely sympathetic review on the Feministe blog—have not disparaged the "boy" activities the book promotes but argued that girls should be included in the fun as well.
On blogs and Internet forums, readers complaining about the book's exclusionary message have been dismissed as angry feminist whiners; a standard rejoinder is that no one is stopping girls from reading it if they want. Yet my friend Dana, a graduate student who holds no brief for angry feminism or political correctness, shares the concerns about the gender-specific focus of The Dangerous Book. "I would have loved this book as a kid, and it really bugs me how people are saying 'this is such a great book for boys, and it's so wonderful that it's aimed at boys,'" she says. "Where is the book for girls who did stuff like make their own chain mail as kids, or cracked rocks with sledgehammers in the driveway both to see what was inside them and to see if you could get sparks?" Dana is not convinced by the argument that girls can read the book too, given that it is geared so explicitly to boys. Indeed, the message to girls seems to be either "This stuff is not for you" or "You can enjoy this cool stuff if you want to be like the boys."
Less attention has been paid to the boys who are not particularly into "boy things," who may be more interested in reading than in catching snails and may prefer art to stories of battles. The fact is that for both girls and boys, biologically based gender differences—which some feminists have been far too dogmatic in denying—are considerably attenuated by individual differences. Moreover, gender-neutral educators notwithstanding, social pressure to conform to "appropriate" norms and interests remains a reality.
Is The Dangerous Book... sexist? While it encourages respect for girls, it does seem to treat them more as "the weaker sex" than as equals. In one grating passage, boys are encouraged to carry a handkerchief, among other things, for "offering one to a girl when she cries." Boys are reminded not to make a girl feel stupid if she needs help, but nothing is said about the possibility of accepting help from a girl, or losing gracefully if bested by a girl at some "boy" activity.
Partly in response to queries about a companion volume for girls, HarperCollins is now bringing The Daring Book for Girls, scheduled for publication in November. There's nothing wrong with having separate books aimed at girls and boys, each with a somewhat different focus. The trouble with The Dangerous Book for Boys is not that it seeks to restore the old-fashioned charms of adventurous boyhood but that it's being treated as a restoration of old-fashioned wisdom about boys and girls. The "free to be you and me" message of 1970s feminism was often naïve in its assumption that all differences between the sexes were the result of social conditioning. But it also had a liberating message of celebrating individuality. And it would be a shame to throw out that baby with the bathwater, at a time when girls and boys have more options open to them than ever.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.