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A too-short doc on a 1950s therapy for boys

Author: rgcustomer from Canada
27 April 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is an interesting look at a group of boys experiencing weekly "activity group therapy", over about 15 months. The therapy seems to consist mainly of doing whatever they want, in small groups (maybe up to 8?) with almost no adult intervention, in a room with nothing in it except certain items that the therapists want the boys to have, like paint, but also hammers and saws and open flame. I imagine such things today would rack up very large liability insurance bills.

Focus is initially on three boys: withdrawn Henry, hyperactive Bob, and effeminate Albert. Bob makes fools of the therapists early on by going a bit Lord of the Flies, so he's voted off the island for a while, and they replace him with withdrawn & effeminate Jack.

Let's talk about Albert. The narrator shockingly says he's not a "real boy". I must say, I can't find any trace of feminine behaviour in him from his on-screen time. It's only what adults say about him that sounds feminine, and that's based on rigid gender stereotypes. But even if he were feminine or gay or both, today we recognize those are normal parts of gender and sexual identity.

What strikes me most about this film is the overall prejudice in favour of conformity -- the arrogant assumption that there is one ideal boy, and that any deviation from that ideal is negative, rather than just different. It's a terrible example for anyone to follow. For example, drawing road maps is hardly a sign of doom. It's a sign of attention to detail, a valuable and rare characteristic these days.

Also, the film lazily classifies the group's behaviours into phases that match the theory, rather than appropriately attributing these "phases" to obvious and significant changes in the group membership, and the naturally expected effects of being in roughly the same group of people every week for a year.

There's no doubt that Bob and Henry changed over time, in the direction the therapists wanted. It's less clear that Albert changed, as I never saw anything that needed changing in the first place, so how am I supposed to tell? The main change they actually tried to show was that he saws wood. Well so do I. I really wish we could hear from Albert today. At least it appears that this therapy is not the harmful and destructive sort of therapy that many LGBTI people were subjected to in the 20th century.

While this is interesting anecdotal evidence that "activity group therapy" may help many boys, it's not a complete picture. We're not shown how this is superior to other forms of therapy. We can't tell what its success rate is, or how that's defined. It's unclear whether sex-segregation is required, or how girls respond. It's unclear whether the adult figure is required to be in the room, or whether the presence of danger is required. I think similar results could be achieved for many boys simply by finding them appropriate friends, because that seems to be what is happening here -- manufacturing friendships.

So, while I find it interesting, and there is definitely something there, I don't like the bias and it's too unquestioning of its subject. I also think that (at least in the 50-minute version I saw) it is much too short.

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