1957's "As Boys Grow..." is Creepy but in an Inclusive Way

Updated March 29, 2016 2:41pm PDT
Asboysgrow

Ellipses are terrifying. They’re that dumb little bubble that joyfully does the wave as the other person Facebook messages back to you, each little dot taunting you with a conniving, “Nyah, nyah, nyah!” 

They’re the tail end of a possible raise or promotion… just before your boss tells you that you don’t actually have good customer relationship skills and fires you. 

Sometimes people will just send you ellipses either by facial expression or through IM, and you’re left hanging on the precipice of doubt and the abyss of eternal anxiety. It’s the soap opera cliffhanger of real life communication, but without the several thousand dollar check or the weird lighting. 

The tactility of using an ellipsis on someone, then again, is really good for payback if someone you know owes you money or, if you happen to be in Naboo, a life debt. I have no idea why a vintage sex education video like As Boys Grow… would include an ellipsis. I guess because... growing up is terrible?

(You can watch "As Boys Grow..." here if you want to play along at home.)

The title card, including writing and directing credits to Hunter Ingalls and George Watson, respectively, overlays young boys outside, in the sun, being social–things that are, like correctly doing poppers by not sneezing on them at a club with a guy you didn’t realize was hitting on you until he explicitly propositioned you and sleeping with a teacher for a better grade, mostly foreign to someone that has spent a majority of his life cowering from the sun and the general idea of modern homosociality. 

Coach Jean Douglas congratulates his track running boys on doing a good job and points each one out to us, the audience, like how my mother points out each of her cats to the mailman every time he stops by at 4pm. 

Bill, going for the high jump, does not make the high jump. Mike throws a football as well as I would throw a football;it feels like a mostly random assortment of boys with no particular links besides “white and playing sports seemingly against their will”. The sports seem only connected in the fact that they can be played at any high school, but the degree to which they are emblematic of a particular brand of masculinity is sort of limited.

Contemporary ideals of heterosexual masculinity are often defined by contact sports like wrestling, boxing, football, and, in some respects, baseball (because phalluses?). Track and field is a bit of an outlier, despite its prevalence as an Olympic sport. But ideals of swiftness and speed, as well as the toned balance of musculature and nimbleness, can certainly be connected to hunting and gathering. 

Yet, leave it to white folks to find something “too aggressive” in a culture that promotes and perpetuates aggression in men, given the backlash to the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games. That kind of aggression was seen as Other, regardless of the fact that its supposed bestial nature was, in reality, not that different from almost every other sport that was not ping pong.

Yes, a lot of high school boys play football and run track, and perhaps that they’re endurance tests is indicative of the American Way. But so is eating McDonald’s for 30 days, right?

Now the province of many a porn cliché, Coach’s appearance in the locker room is kind of quaint. Little Pete, whose scrawniness is not of the aforementioned American Way, has sprained his ankle. Pete moans, “Why me?”. He has a scrawny frame, almost devoid of discernible muscle mass, whereas his peers look built and “sturdy” for their age.  

Coach explains that Mike has “developed earlier”, which is funny because I’m like 21 and I still don’t look like I’ve developed (was recently accused of being 16 at the movie theater when I went to see Carol, because apparently there are 16 year olds that want to see period melodrama weepies by queer filmmakers?). 

There’s a weird wrong-headedness about that construct that posits a biological norm that’s too scattered to really be considered a norm. It might be the word “develops” that’s part of the issue, given how messy and imprecise that word can be. 

Cue a solid 30 seconds of Pete asking, “Yeah, but why?”I bet he’d be fun in my Intro to Western Philosophy class.

“That Mike, he’s sure filling out,” Coach mentions after Mike makes a Mickey Mouse related slight against Pete. I know a lot of women who use the term "filling out"; it seems strange to see it used by and for a cis white male. When Coach mentions that the boys are 14 and 15, I feel very old and also very weird. 

Have I filled out yet? I still weigh, like, 115 lbs.

But the point of this video is to discuss puberty, which, now that I think of it, totally warrants such an ominous ellipsis. Shaving, growing into your body, casually telling your friend of your wet dream, getting mad that you didn’t buy the tickets for the opening night of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, getting kicked in the head by a drag queen as she does a flip, overdrafting your account because of your “toy collection”, being stood up by a Tinder date; it’s all a part of growing up. 

As one of the guys explains to their younger friend what a wet dream was, I noticed the omission of the phrase, “It usually happens at a film festival.”

In comparison to Boys Beware, homosocial relationships are defined by, as far as I can tell from this film specifically, a genderless homosociality. There is actually very little to suggest a toxicity, a gay panic, or anything else that’s explicitly negative. That may be partly to do with the vagueness of the relationships that are presented in the film, given that the only activities we see the boys participate in are school sports and fishing, but it’s a pleasant breather from some rampant fear mongering. 

Even discussion of sex and (presumably) sexuality exists without sirens. The bonds seem as sincere as they can be for a brief short.

I suppose it makes sense, because this is super basic biology. It’s in fact barely biology. The primary demographic is probably middle school brats, as the exposition dump exists to serve the most basic of audiences. It’s not necessarily a negative, but since the dramatic value is about as equal to an episode of How I Met Your Mother, it’s all rather straightforward. This seems rather surprising given that 1957 was the height of Eisenhower Era United States, right on the cusp of the Civil Rights Era, a little more than a decade before Stonewall, and compensating for war trauma with modern consumerism. 

Also definitive of that time period were the Red Scare, the ensuing incidents at the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Lavender Scare (which was a bit of an offshoot of the aforementioned iterations of McCarthyism). Despite all of this, the explicit politics of the era don’t rear their head in the short. It’s kind of impressive, and seems out of place (or at least as an anomaly) given the historical context of the era.

Though As Boys Grow… fails to mention that everyone in their teenage years are monsters, it is, one could argue, very quietly progressive. There isn’t the sex shame here, and masturbation is shrugged off as normal exploratory stuff. 

However, that an adult man is saying this in a locker room, and using phrases like “filling out”, might be questionable. Which is why I believe that sex education should be taught in public places, like at Forever 21 in the mall, or McDonald's.

I’m not quite sure why the coach explains the female reproductive system, when, you know, someone who has a uterus could do that. But, #maleprivilege. But, as they say, those who can’t teach, and those who cannot teach, teach gym.

Towards the end, it sort of finds itself in the normative, heterosexual, nuclear family kind of narrative of life, but the coach seems careful to say, “most guys just like female company”, which, to me, leaves some room for guys that do not fit within that group. 

I’m projecting, again.

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Kyle Turner (queer cis male monster, he/him) is a freelance writer, editor, and transcriber, and, if John Waters is to be believed, a good dancer. He began writing on the internet in 2007 with his blog The Movie Scene. Since then, he has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy.com , Flavorwire, TheBlackMaria.org, The Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.