It's not just the red tops: An image in the Guardian before results day
Yesterday saw the publication of this year’s A Level results and along with them the inevitable rash of Front Page Leaping Blondes ™.
The fact that newspaper photographers are so skilled at seeking out A Level and GCSE students who are also pretty, middle-class girls, is now such a cliché that articles like this one are published about it almost as often as the pictures themselves.
These articles tend to argue that FPLBs ™ are another example of our society’s objectification of women – girls prized for their looks not their brains.
There’s obviously some truth to this – where are all the less attractive girls? And for that matter, where are all the black and Asian girls? Don’t they do well in exams too?
Where have the boys gone?
But this is a selective analysis both of who’s missing from the front pages on results day and why it’s a problem. The primary omission isn’t unattractive girls, or girls from minority backgrounds. It’s boys.
And it’s also boys who really are missing out on educational achievement. In January this year UCAS reported that there were now a third more girls applying for university than boys, leading the head of the organisation to state that boys are becoming "a disadvantaged group".
Now the year's results are in, this gap has reportedly widened even further.
What does it say then, if "a disadvantaged group" is consistently left out of the images that show who is and can be successful? Results day pictures that only show pretty girls may objectify women, but they also tell boys academic success isn't for them in the first place.
Photo: Duncan Hull
And this comes in context of other images of young men that are pervasive. A 2009 media analysis of news reports found depictions of teenage boys were overwhelmingly negative -- with young men most likely to be portrayed in a positive light if they had died.
‘Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat’
But all of this, including the pictures of FPLBs ™, may in fact be a manifestation of something boys have already been told from a very young age indeed.
A 2010 study of boys in primary schools – with the sinister title of ‘Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat’ -- suggested that under-performance among boys in most national exams could be linked to adult’s lower expectations of them.
Bonny Hartley, the study’s lead author, told the Daily Mail: “By seven or eight years old, children of both genders believe that boys are less focused, able, and successful than girls – and think that adults endorse this stereotype. There are signs that these expectations have the potential to become self-fulfilling in influencing children’s actual conduct and achievement.”
'Reading not seen as masculine'
Her study found that girls as young as four think they are cleverer, try harder and are better behaved than equivalent boys. By the age of seven and eight, boys agreed with them.
The study was reflected in the findings of a 2012 report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy, which found reading was not seen as a “masculine thing” by boys – leaving them lagging behind girls from the age of four. It found boys are held back by a “number of gender stereotypes which seem to kick in early”.
None of this should come as much of a surprise. It is now widely accepted that if you consistently have low expectations of a certain group, those expectations tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The puzzling thing is why this awareness is so rarely applied to underachievement among boys.
By all means be concerned about the objectification of female students in today’s newspapers. But you should also be just as concerned about the boys who aren’t there at all.
By Dan Bell
Do you think leaving boys out of images of academic success is a problem? What impact do you think negative portrayals of young men may have on their educational achievement? Or do you think we should be more concerned about the objectification of female students in these pictures? Tell us what you think in a tweet or a comment.
Also on insideMAN: