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Excerpt from Ontario Boys: Masculinity and the Idea of Boyhood in Postwar Ontario, 1945-1960 by Christopher J. Greig

From the Introduction: Approaching Boyhood in Postwar Ontario

“The world is so full of boys.”
Leamington Post and News, 28 August 1947

“Today we find that the social, economic and political climate generates intense fears, gnawing anxieties in millions of people.”
– Dr. Julius Schreiber, Globe and Mail, 28 March 1949

As these observations suggest, in country town as in burgeoning metropolis, among local commentators and highly trained professionals alike, the early post–Second World War years saw Ontarians much preoccupied with the nature and potential of boyhood. Ontario Boys explores these public discourses during the so-called Baby Boom years, from roughly 1945 to 1960. In the aftermath of a second world war little more than a generation after the first, during which a nation still reeling from the Great Depression had again mustered its forces to contribute mightily on home front and on battlefield, it is no surprise that many Canadians should have longed to return to “the normal”—the familiar, in its every sense. Yet much of the Reconstruction program, as the Mackenzie King Liberal government called its postwar plan, was an attempt to recover what two world wars and a prolonged economic depression had changed irrevocably. Among these changes were reconfigurations of gender and familial roles, with their necessary socio-cultural implications.1

During these opening decades of what was seen to be a “new age”—variously the Atomic Age, the Cold War, even the TV Age—a population dealing with “gnawing anxieties,” as Dr. Julius Schreiber aptly described them in the Globe and Mail in 1949, looked to “reconstruct&rduqo; itself by means of its best hope: children and youth. Canadians confronted a profoundly gendered insecurity, instability, and anxiety brought about by Depression era and wartime disruptions in marital, family, and labour relations, rapid postwar economic changes, mass migration from countryside to city as well as renewed overseas immigration, the emergence of the Cold War, and the looming threat of atomic annihilation. Shaped by these historic developments, and motivated by an understandable desire for normality, stability, and security, public defenders of the traditional gender hierarchy resisted shifts in the roles and relations that underpinned it.2 In their ongoing quest to head “back to normalcy,” an assortment of public intellectuals, political leaders, psychologists, physicians, youth workers, and educators, along with concerned social commentators, projected their gendered fears about the postwar future onto discussions of boyhood development. Despite the shifts wrought by depression and war, Canadian society remained fundamentally patriarchal: “The world,” a small-town newspaper columnist noted affectionately, was, after all, “so full of boys.”” And these boys became the focus of future-oriented postwar discourses whereby heteronormative definitions of masculinity were reasserted to define an appropriately “masculine” character formation for Ontario boys.3

Under the conditions of the postwar period, social commentators routinely produced public narratives that normalized boys who demonstrated a particular “ideal” of masculinity. In the decade and a half immediately following the Second World War, the “new” version of boyhood was one that harkened back, in this rapidly changing, expanding, modern urban-industrial environment, to a traditional historic form, or at least one that had been nostalgically rendered as the “norm” before the transformations of the early twentieth century. This ideal stressed teamwork, selflessness, eagerness, honesty, fearlessness, and emotional toughness. While such traits had long typified ideal boyhood, in a postwar world where, in the view of many observers, democracy was under constant threat by communist forces, and the ongoing struggle was that between freedom and tyranny, the need for all boys to develop and internalize such traits gained in importance as a vital foundation of modern democratic nationhood.