A British import called The Dangerous Book for Boys has been soaring on the American bestseller lists. The book, by the English brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, revels in retro, conjuring up a pre-computer idyll of hunting, skipping stones, making paper airplanes, and heartening tales of battlefield heroics.
The Dangerous Book also expects its readers to be gentlemen; it endorses good manners, cleanliness, and knowledge of Shakespeare and Latin. 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 mind-set of "politically correct" schooling and to feminist scorn for all things male.
But are initiative and adventure "male"? Some people have asked why the same fare could not have been packaged as The Dangerous Book for Kids. The Dangerous Book is even being treated as something of a political manifesto, a repudiation of the idea that boys and girls are basically alike.
Rush Limbaugh has praised it in a rambling rant against "feminazis" who insist that "nobody can be better than anybody else, nobody can be different than anyone else." The book explains, he said, "how to make the best paper airplane in the world, just things that boys do…for the last 10, 15 years, feminists have tried to wipe 'em out." Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, offered a similar, if 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."
Despite this portrayal of The Dangerous Book as a culture-wars battlefield, it has not prompted any significant backlash. The gender-specific message of the book, which includes a chapter on how to deal with the alien creatures known as girls, is deliberate. But what feminist critiques of the book have appeared don't disparage the "boy" activities the book promotes, but instead argue that girls should be included in the fun as well.
On blogs and other Internet forums, readers complaining about the book's exclusionary message have been dismissed as angry feminist whiners. Yet my friend Dana, who holds no brief for angry feminism or political correctness, notes that "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.' 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?" The message the book's exclusionary title gives 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."
There is also the question of boys who are not particularly into "boy things," who may be more interested in reading than in catching snails and may prefer drawing pictures to stories of battles. For both girls and boys, biologically based gender differences—which do exist—are attenuated by individual differences. And social pressure to conform to "appropriate" norms and interests remains a reality.
Is The Dangerous Book sexist, then? While it encourages respect for girls, it does treat them more as "the weaker sex" than as equals. In one grating passage, boys are encouraged to carry a handkerchief for, among other reasons, "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 accepting help from a girl, or losing gracefully if bested by one at some "boy" activity.
HarperCollins has now announced 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 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 naive in its assumption that all differences between the sexes came from social conditioning. But it also had a liberating message of celebrating individuality. It would be a shame to throw out that baby with the bathwater, particularly at a time when girls and boys alike have more options than ever.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (Free Press).