The Boys from St. Ambrose – Part 2

The harrowing conclusion of the The Girl from St. Agnes’ streamed on Showmax poses some troubling questions, especially if you are a teacher or parent of boys.

Part 2 of a two part series.

I managed to finish my viewing of this eight hour show by binge watching the final episodes in a desperate attempt to complete them over half term. A longer and more sinister female version of Spud, the series covers the aftermath of a suicide (or is it) at the troubled St Agnes school for girls.  And, as I feared it would, it led me exactly where I didn’t want to go.

Anyone watching the series who has not been to school would conclude the following:

Things that happen in schools

  • Murder
  • Multiple staff/pupil relationships
  • Whiskey drinking (pupils and staff)
  • Smoking (mostly staff)
  • Walking around between classes

Things that don’t happen in schools

  • Actual classes
  • Teaching
  • Learning
  • Prep
  • Marking

Poetic license means we can forgive this one sided portrayal of school life. Who wants to watch a series about teaching and learning? Slow motion marking set to music isn’t going to drive up the ratings (actually marking is always in slow motion).

Despite the skewed representation of extracurricular activities it would be unfair to say that the series is entirely unrealistic. The various behaviours of both staff and pupils arrayed on the screen can and do happen. However it is as if all issues experienced by all schools across all of the last few years have been crammed and condensed into a continuous 480 minute stream.

Racism, interfering board members, substance abuse, domestic abuse, sexual scandal, social media issues, matric balls, after parties and the big rugby match, it’s all there. Incidentally, if any of those bro’s from St. Ambrose or their rival ‘Cannons’ played like they did in the series they would be lucky to get a call up to the 6th team in most schools. The only thing we didn’t get were teachers hitting pupils, sans ‘Sans Souci’ if you like.

“There’s a lot of energy when men come together but without oversight, intervention and cooling it can heat up like an out of control nuclear reactor.”

As a teacher in a boy’s school what was unnerving for me was the constant presence of ‘toxic masculinity’ throughout the series. A background radiation that subtlety and almost invisibly makes its influence felt. A slow, poisonous build-up of thinking that both enables harmful behaviours and sanctions them.

A friend of mine says that masculinity is what happens when men gather together. It’s not surprising then that a particular type of hyper-masculinity can occur when boys, trying to prove they are men, are thrown together. Without the day to day leavening effects of women, males can get themselves into a testosterone death spiral. There’s a lot of energy when men come together but without oversight, intervention and cooling it can heat up like an out of control nuclear reactor.

A problem with extreme masculinity is that such a narrow view of a man’s role tends to mean a limiting and overly defined view of the female role as a counterpoint. In most cases this is likely to include girls as merely sexual or domestic objects. With this in mind, the actions of the St Ambrose boys at the after party are no surprise.

Photo: Patrick Toselli courtesy of Showmax

Jokes abound about a woman’s place being (in certain rooms) in the home, but the reality is far from a laughing matter. South Africa is still largely patriarchal, with femicide rates four times the global average and 20% of women having experienced physical violence (mostly domestic). The SA Medical Research Council has also found that 40% of men assault their partners daily.”

I was genuinely taken aback at the extreme negative reaction to Gillette’s advert, ‘The Best Men Can Be’ released earlier this year. This short film sensibly suggests that men could intervene when a woman is being sexually harassed or when boys are being bullied or fighting. And yet, given the outpouring of testosterone fueled hysteria (Testeria), you would have thought men were being asked to self-emasculate.

Such response underscores just how fragile men and boys can feel in their masculinity. As Monbiot argues, if ‘real men’, are tough and commanding, why does the faintest of rebukes spark such a ‘collective feint’?

Surely we don’t want so brittle an identity for our boys.

‘The ‘Girl from St Agnes’ holds up a mirror to shed light on such troubling aspects of ‘fearful masculinity’. There are far better ways for a boy to become a man than the restrictive mould laid out at St. Ambrose. Real strength is characterised by relationships and service. As teachers and parents working with boys let’s show them the best men can be.

Our boys deserve this and so do the girls at St Agnes.

For more on this issue read:

 ‘The Boys from St. Ambrose’ – Part 1

‘Roids’, Ritalin & ‘Rac’ – The three ‘R’s of boys’ in school

Why I’m reluctant feminist


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