Puerile boys and tween girls?

I was excited recently to discover Natalia Cecire’s writings about puerility and boyhood. Working on tween music and media, it is an ongoing question how much tween only means girls. (It clearly does, but to what extent remains open, especially because childhood itself is so often feminized, and to the extent that tween is always first and foremost a marketing category, it’s definitely the case that tween media companies are working hard to bring boys into the mix — e.g.). It’s easy to collapse tween into girlhood, but there’s a risk of the whole analysis becoming limited to gender (which I think can sometimes be true of girlhood studies itself), when age is a really important factor. And there’s definitely something about the development of children’s consumer culture over the last half-century that, while certainly focused on girls, has implications for children more broadly.

So, Cecire doesn’t frame it in these terms, but for me peurility is strikingly useful for thinking about why boys don’t seem to fit very well into the category “tween,” and I think it has a lot to do with why the category is called that in the first place. Be-tween foregrounds the tension between childhood and adolescence that girls of a certain age deal with. As Cook and Kaiser (paywall) point out, that tension is reflected in the actual products produced for tweens — girls’ clothing that tries to strike a balance between aspirations to adolescence and the demand that girls as children not be sexy. That tension is a real thing that many kids and adults experience and think about, and I think that explains why the term “tween” has so successfully moved from being a professional marketing term to enter common usage.

But that betweenness is so intensely focused on sexuality (as, again, Cook and Kaiser detail pretty thoroughly in their analysis of the clothing industry). The problem that tween solves is that girls’ and women’s sexuality is so fraught, which is so clearly on display when tween celebrities like Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears struggle mightily to transition their public image from child to adult — the controversies are always and only about their sexuality. (Seriously, Miley smoking pot got nowhere near the attention that the nude-but-covered Vanity Fair photos did, or the pole-dance at the Teen Choice Awards did.)

So this is only half-baked, and it’s really just a placeholder for thinking more carefully about it in the future, but puerility seems to help boys massage that transition from child to adolescent in a way that girls don’t have access to. When I write about this stuff I usually use Sutton-Smith’s “phantasmagoria” and McGillis’s “Coprophilia”[1] to describe kids’ gross-out humor, bathroom jokes, sexual innuendo, etc. But the better word is “puerile.” For younger kids that stuff is moderately gendered, of course, but girls as well as boys practice and enjoy it.

But something like “propriety” kicks in at some point for teenage girls, as part, I think, of the demands that they police their sexuality (that’s what propriety means, right?), and propriety clearly excludes all that gross-out humor and stuff. All that stuff never leaves boys’ culture though! Comedies like the Hangover, or Wedding Crashers, that teenage boys and young men flock to in theaters, are full of the same sorts of silly, gross, ridiculous humor as boys’ cartoons. (I have not read it yet, but I suspect that Halberstam on Dude Where’s My Car would be compatible with this — again, lots of placeholders.) One of the criticisms leveled at Bridesmaids was that the puerile humor of diarrhea and sandwich sex was masculine, so rather than finally having a comedy written by, starring and for women audiences, you get the same old puerile non-romcom humor that movie comedies always have. (The link is to the Spectator because its anti-feminist perspective is exactly the one that’s relevant here.)

But what’s more, precisely because the gross-out humor of puerility is so concerned with genitals, puerility ends up being this thing that (straight) boys can embed their sexuality in. So while girls are supposed to be asexual children and then, all of a sudden, sexual but proper women, with any grey area being grounds for huge freakouts and moral panic, boys get to work in the comfortable field of puerility for their whole lives. Puerility seems to provide a sort of scaffold for boys, from childhood to adulthood, where they can build on what they already know. And that means, I think, that there are fewer moments when they or their parents find themselves thinking about being “between” anything, which means that there’s less utility in media and consumer products that are addressing the particular desires of “tweens.”

Unlike Sutton-Smith’s phantasmagoria, which I’ve been using, puerility, at least to my ear, really highlights the tropes that are shared between boys’ culture and men’s culture. And because puerility is something that’s easy to recognize in men’s culture, it highlights the ways that men are freed to be childish.

Clearly, this is far from perfect. Cuteness is this interesting growing theme in public culture, which suggests an increasing availabity of girlishness for grown women. But I think the thing about puerility is that it doesn’t preempt sexuality, whereas girlishness might. (The magic pixie dream girl, for instance, is an object of male desire but isn’t supposed to express her own sexual desires, right?) And then, of course, tropes of girlishness get smacked down quickly, because, as the Jezebel piece points out, maturity matters for women precisely as defense against criticisms from men.

[1] McGillis, Roderick. 2003. “Coprophilia for Kids: The Culture of Grossness.” In Youth Cultures: Texts, Images, and Identities, edited by Kerry Mallan and Sharyn Pearce, pp. 183–96. Westport, CT: Praeger.