Consider the scene: Tom, a small, shy, openly gay high school student, sat at the back of the school bus on his own. He saw three of the most popular, athletic boys get on the bus, fresh from soccer practice. As they made their way down the aisle, they saw Tom alone and moved toward him.
What happened next?
Not what you’d expect. The boys, in fact, sat down to talk with Tom. “I didn’t really know him well,” one later told me. “I knew he was the gay kid at school, that’s all. … He was all on his own. I mean, I couldn’t just let him sit there alone. Nobody should have to sit alone.”
Having documented in earlier posts that masculinity is changing among British male youth, I now examine how popularity is constructed in one of the high schools where I collected data—Standard High. This is because it was markedly different from what one might expect. Even though some boys were more popular than others, this popularity was not maintained through the harassment of peers or through risk-taking behaviors.
The “jock” was not king at Standard High. Boys ascribing to a wide range of masculine archetypes (including geek and emo) could be popular. These boys came from both privileged backgrounds and areas of socio-economic disadvantage; they included students of various ethnicities and boys of various athletic abilities. When I analyzed what made a boy popular, I found that it was dependent on the extent to which he maintained other characteristics. I identified four main categories of behavior that increased one’s popularity at Standard High: charisma, authenticity, emotional support, and social fluidity.
Just like with more traditional forms of masculinity, a boy’s popularity at Standard High is primarily maintained by entertaining his peers through high-octane behaviors. It is these “fun-loving” acts of extroversion that really catapult a boy to popularity. For example, one week in the common room entertainment was provided by boys using a skateboard. They performed tricks, trying to outperform their friends. The success of the trick, however, was less important than the exuberance with which it was performed. The most popular performances were the funniest and the most physical, and boys who could do this best received the most praise.
This idea of charisma raising popularity was also supported by interviews with students. For example, Alex, a quiet student who plays in a rock band, commented, “The bigger the character you are, the higher up you are.” But contrary to the charisma of aggressive and macho boys, students argued that charisma raised the spirits of all students. As Ian said, “Say it’s a wet and rainy day and everyone’s down, you can always rely on someone doing something, just to make everyone laugh again, and feel a bit better.”
It used to be the case that those boys who did not engage in extroverted behaviors were socially marginalized as nerdy or gay. However, at Standard High more introverted students can be popular if their behaviors are deemed to be part of “who you really are.” One of the popular students, Ian, said, “Take Sam, he’s a bit different. But I got to know him, and he’s really cool. I like his individuality.” As Jack said, “It’s ultimately about comfortability with yourself.” This was demonstrated through the clothes that the boys wore. That is, a wide variety of clothing styles were on display at Standard High, and while clothing was important, what mattered was not the style of clothes you wore, but that it “fit” with your personality.
3. Emotional support
One of the most heartening and perhaps surprising aspects of what constitutes popularity at Standard High was that the giving of emotional support was an ordinary and valued way of life for boys at this school. Indeed, boys spoke of their close friendship openly; as Matt said, “I love my friends, and I could rely on them if I needed to.”
I frequently observed this kind of support between male friends. However, boys also provided reassurance during public events as well. One example of this came during the election of “student officers.” Here, students had to give a speech as to why they should be elected to one of the various available positions. Each candidate had to give a three-minute speech in assembly, and each was applauded before and after they did so. However, Simon was rather awkward during his speech, and spoke rather hesitantly. Despite not being particularly popular, he was equally applauded by his peers. Furthermore, later walking past a group of the most popular students, Matt called out, “Well done, Simon,” and Ian added, “Yeah, it’s not easy to do.” There was no heckling, and the boys praised Simon’s willingness to take part.
4. Social Fluidity
The final element of popularity at Standard High complements both inclusivity and support. Here, social fluidity recognizes how boys befriend a broad range of peers. Contrary to what earlier research has shown, boys are not part of antagonistic cliques and value the ability to move between social groups at Standard High. Indeed, there are no real cliques at Standard High—just groups of friends. Alex described this well by saying, “When you enter the common room and your friends aren’t there, you can just talk to other people.”
The boys value this sociability, and this was most powerfully demonstrated by how they decided to celebrate the end of the school year. In the last week of the summer term, approximately two-thirds of the students organized a five-day holiday together to the same seaside resort. One of the key components of this trip was that everyone stayed together. As Matt said, “It’s important we go as a group, so we can all celebrate the end of the year together.” At Standard High, popularity is achieved by including peers, not excluding them.
One of the key findings from my research on young men is that they are rapidly rejecting bullying and marginalization as ways of feeling good about themselves. Popularity is determined by how extrovert, authentic, and inclusive a boy is, not by how many other kids he can beat up. This isn’t to say that bullying has been eradicated, or that no boys will be or feel excluded, but it is to document a key change in the social dynamics of boys in this school.
Furthermore, I found a similar atmosphere at two other schools: one school with a religious ethos and one for working-class youth who had troubled educational experiences. Now, of course, it is quite possible that these behaviors are less prevalent in the U.S., where attitudes toward homosexuality are less inclusive. But homophobia is decreasing in America, and it is likely that it will influence boys’ behaviors in similar ways. Fundamentally, it is vital to recognize that there are many different ways of doing masculinity, and that some of these are gentle, open and inclusive.