SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: BOYHOOD CULTURE
This is the second chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
A culture of boyhood, as a distinct and separate phase in human life, has been recognised throughout the long history of western civilisation, and doubtless in many other cultures besides, boyhood as a separate state between childhood and what we now call adolescence. Anthropologically speaking, the single defining attribute of that phase in growth was that the boy was brought out from among the society of women and entered the society of men, a transition accompanied by various rituals and trials of courage. This was as true of matriarchal tribal systems as patriarchal ones. The division of the sexes before puberty was, among other things, a mechanism for preventing incest and early sexual intercourse. But primarily it was to enable boys to learn the ways of manhood from men, and girls to learn the secrets of womanhood from women. Mixed-sex education would have seemed a self-evident nonsense to the vast majority of our ancestors.
But we’re dealing here with twentieth century culture. For many, the rigid separation of the genders before puberty continued through single-sex schooling, for others it did not, but the general recognition of boyhood as a distinct and fondly-remembered space, before the tyranny of the loins took over, remained strong, and celebrated in all aspects of popular culture. Whether we look at the television commercials of the early 1960s, the boys’ comics of the 1940s, or the scamp operas which were such a popular feature of early silent cinema, the defining qualities of boyhood needed no explanation. The phrase ‘boys will be boys’ would be meaningless without a bedrock of widely understood attributes. The first British film of that name appeared, by the way, in 1904.
For reasons embedded in the patriarchal history of western civilisation, there has never been a correspondingly strong and well-defined culture of girlhood. Before the twentieth century at any rate, girls remained, in a practical sense, small children until they approached marriageable age, and were kept far more rigorously under lock and key than their brothers, for the blunt reason that a daughter who lost her virginity was ‘damaged goods’, a son who jettisoned his was merely ‘answering the call of nature’. The cinema has to some extent redressed that gender imbalance from the outset — Daisy’s Adventures in the Land of the Chrysanthemums (also from 1904) is a title that should not be lost to posterity. Small girls charmed audiences while small boys made them chortle — yet for every film about a girl and her horse, there have been five about a boy and his horse, for every Heidi or Alice there have been five Tom Sawyers and Treasure Islands. Boyhood culture is simply a deeper and richer vein in cinema, just as it has been in literature. Some may resent that this is so, others not, but that it is so lies beyond fruitful dispute. By focusing on boys in films one does not discount girls arbitrarily. One is simply concentrating somewhere else for the moment. Let us do so without further apology. The politics of gender equivalence do not require the male sex to abandon any discussion of its separate heritage and psycho-social needs.