That’s Politics…I Think

Hollow Masculinities in Boys State and Boys State

Boys State (2020) | Apple TV+
Apple TV+

“[Political] parties are likely to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

-George Washington, The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America
on His Declining the Presidency of the United States, 1796


“I’m playing this like a game. I would like very much to win. This is a very, very conservative group we have here. My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there, at all, so I chose to pick a new stance. That’s politics. I think.”

-Robert MacDougall, Boys State, 2018

. . .

Every year, tens of thousands of high school boys around the country participate in the American Legion Boys State program. Each state has their own version, but the basic program is always similar: a large number of 17-year-old boys spend a week building and running a mock state government from the ground up. They’re organized into cities and political parties, a state legislature and a police force, a press corps and a judiciary, a thousand spinning tops set twirling and left to ricochet off one another. Girls aren’t allowed. Testosterone fills the air. Push-up competitions are likely to break out at any moment.

In Boys State, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ political thriller of a documentary, the ambitious young boys of Texas Boys State’s 2018 incarnation jockey for power amid the controlled chaos of the week. In the film’s opening credits sequence, we are informed that numerous politicians are former Boys State citizens: Bill Clinton and Samuel Alito. Cory Booker and Rush Limbaugh. Dick Cheney. The message is clear: Boys State is for everyone on both sides of the aisle, as long as you’re ruthless.

The main characters of the documentary all believe themselves to be future politicians or other public servants, and the film follows along as they struggle to find a place for themselves in this strange, closed-off society by running for Governor, the most prestigious position in a Boys State. Or, more precisely, rather than just aiming to find a place for the young men they already are, we watch as they struggle to mold themselves into someone who can win the approval of his peers. The genius—whether intentional or incidental—of the Boys State governors race is that it’s constructed backwards: First you’re assigned to a party. Then you nominate your candidates and representatives. Then and only then do you determine your policy positions. Consequently, party loyalty rules all. 

The setup of the Boys State governors race, then—like politics itself, evidently—seems to require an essential hollowing-out of the self, an ability to abandon anything that makes you you in an effort to win. Rhetorical emptiness is valued. A willingness and ability to adopt the positions of your peers quickly and wholeheartedly is an absolute necessity. Charisma is a must.

If Boys State has a protagonist, it is Steven Garza, a progressive in a sea of conservatives who doesn’t want it to work that way. Unlike, say, his fellow citizen Rob MacDougall, who with his middle-parted fluffy hair looks for all the world like a high school bully straight out of an ‘80s teen film, Steven is a quieter kid, more purposeful. The film’s opening segment concludes with a stunning sequence where the boys are set free to begin gathering signatures on their nomination forms. Set to a throbbing, insistent drumbeat, Rob explodes into the chanting crowd, bounding from person to person, asking, “Will you endorse me? Will you endorse me?” Several boys lead the crowd in a rousing singalong of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and it takes Rob mere minutes to find 30 guys willing to sign his ballot form.

Through the chanting, macho crowd walks Steven, politely asking people if they’ve signed for anyone’s governor form yet. If Steven is going to win, he wants to first make sure it’s a position worth winning.

“But…what do you stand for?” asks documentary subject Ben Feinstein incredulously of a kid struggling to explain why he’s running for office before his party has adopted a platform. Ben wants to wait to see what the party he’s been assigned to believes in before he decides if he wants to lead it. Ben is the sort of kid who has a Ronald Reagan action figure, who printed out a copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to bring with him, and who says things like, “I don’t think of myself as ‘white.’ I’m Ben Feinstein: American.” (He is white.)

The candidate ponders for a moment and then answers: “Freedom.”

“You stand for ‘freedom?’” Ben scoffs as the other boy gives up and walks away. “That’s a bold policy.”

By the next morning, Ben has decided he no longer wants to be governor. Instead, he’ll run for Party Chair so he can help shape the platform into something he feels strongly about. And he has adopted “Feinstein for Freedom” as his campaign slogan. 

. . .

Who were you when you were 17? What did you like; what did you hate; what did you do? Who were your friends and how did you meet? What did you feel? What did you believe in? What did you want and how did you plan for it? How did you act? Who did you love? How did you know?

Who was I when I was 17? I can answer most of those questions. I know I liked writing and that I hated myself. I know my friends were the people I spent my days with and my nights thinking about. But what did I believe? How did I feel? Was that really me? Why don’t I recognize him? Why don’t I know?

I know what I did. When I was 17 I attended Keystone Boys State, the version of the program held every summer in Pennsylvania. It was the summer of 2007, the waning years of the George W. Bush administration, and if you’d asked me, I think I would have called myself a Republican. September 11th had rocked my news-conscious little mind, and for years afterward I clung to notions of flag and freedom to feel some sense of stability. By the time I was 17, I was disillusioned with Bush himself, mildly embarrassed that I had defended him so strongly when I was a child, but I still fundamentally thought of myself as right wing, because who dislikes the flag and freedom?

I went into Boys State that year having no idea what to expect. I knew we’d be participating in mock government exercises, and that there would be no girls. I was excited for both, because “Republican” or not, I do know one other thing about what I was like when I was 17: I know that I was in the closet.

. . .

There are three “Boys States” and it may be helpful to define them clearly moving forward, because each of the three feels differently about certain things. There’s “Boys State,” the program that Ben and his fellow documentary subjects Steven, René, and Rob are attending. There’s also “Boys State,” the fictional state where they “reside,” the “state” for which they are forming a government. And finally, there is Boys State, the documentary about both of the above Boys States.

In the Boys State program—although not in Boys State—they claim to value “bipartisanship.” Citizens are assigned to be either Federalists or Nationalists, and they are encouraged to come up with party platforms “based not on what Democrats believe, or Republicans believe, but what you believe.” The fact that “federalists” and “nationalists” were actual political parties does not enter into the calculation; these are hollow signifiers, waiting to be defined by the citizens who have been assigned to use them.

In Boys State, though, most of the lead characters of the documentary instead aim for nonpartisanship. René Otero becomes one of the lead subjects of the film by winning the Federalist Party chairmanship. He describes himself in talking head interviews as a leftist among conservatives who wants to win above all, who plans to win and keep power by adopting whatever his party tells him to adopt. René is a bit more effeminate than most of the guys at Boys State, wearing his glasses perched on the end of his nose like a schoolteacher. He’s an incredibly strong speaker. He’s also Black, whereas most of the Boys Staters are…not. “I’ve never seen so many white people,” he quips.

In his campaign speech, René compares his idea for party leadership to “a plane body—it has two wings, a left one and a right one. We’re not gonna pick one. We’re gonna stay in the middle, because we are not an intolerable party. We’re one that is palatable to all.”

René understands that, in order for the Federalists to win the governorship, they actually have to win over some Nationalists to their side, too, so he doesn’t want his party platform to go too far either direction. But like America, this kind of kowtowing to centrism in practice means ceding the status quo to the right.

Because as Boys State is well aware, even if Boys State and Boys State don’t necessarily see it, this is an incredibly conservative group. In speeches where the citizens propose party planks, the same issues crop up again and again—relaxing gun control. Stricter immigration laws. Outlawing abortion. A proposal to exile all Prius drivers to the state of Oklahoma, “because we hate them and we don’t want them here.” One citizen demurs from signing on to Steven’s nomination for governor because he wants to see where Steven stands on “the big issues,” like gay rights. This is, after all, Texas. When you empty traditional signifiers like party names and government positions of their traditionally-understood power relations, all that remains is power itself, pure unadulterated dominance rushing in to fill the void. Dominance over women, and weaker men, and anyone seen as the “other.”

But on the other hand, this is, after all, Texas, a state in reality more diverse than it is given credit for in the American imaginary. The Boys State camera knows to seek out the people in the crowd who look uncomfortable with the rampant displays of xenophobia and hypermasculinity, the boys who actually might think twice about the fact that there may be members among them who don’t conform to the heteronormativity most of the speakers freely espouse. After Ben wins Party Chair by giving a rousing campaign speech railing against a CodePink article that called America a racist and violent country, and after numerous candidates insist upon the rights of everyone in Boys State to carry firearms, we learn that Steven (who is Latinx) helped lead the March for Our Lives in Houston. After several speeches about how surely the party can agree on limiting illegal immigration, we learn that Steven’s mother was undocumented for years. And through it all, he just keeps trucking along, gathering signatures and winning people over to his side through his quiet determination.

The one thing they can all seem to agree on, then, is that their party must dominate, must crush the other party into submission. Because they are men, and the only way to prove you are a man is to prove that you can best those you see as weak. Even Steven tries it on for size. “We should combine Boys State and Girls State and just have Peoples State,” he tells another boy, who doesn’t seem to get it. Steven laughs uncomfortably and backs down almost at once. “I’m just memeing on you.”

. . .

“I believe everyone is stronger when everybody is disciplined, yet dangerous. Our masculinity shall not be infringed.”

“Barrett,” Boys State, 2018

“[A different mock government camp I attended] does have one big advantage over Boys State—they let us interact with real, live girls!”

Eric Langberg, email to the Director of KBS, 2008

“Mom, Dad, can you please turn down the radio? I have something I need to tell you.”

Eric Langberg, 2009

. . .

When I was young I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. I was chronically frustrated by the fact that my life was predetermined for me and was controlled by my parents, by my school, by society. I loved open-world games and I loved writing fantasy stories, stories where I could make my characters do anything I wanted. In Choose Your Own Adventure stories I found that I could reverse course, go back and choose any path I wanted, a path that would lead me to a completely different ending, radically changing my life by making one small decision.

But there’s something else I think I liked about Choose Your Own Adventure books, too. I was a kid who was constantly unsure of my sense of self. I knew I was Christian and I knew I was gay, and there didn’t seem to be a path through the world for me. So when I read a book where I was second-person placed into someone else’s life, I liked being told: You are this. You do that. It’s nice to have the freedom of choice, of infinite possibility; it’s also nice sometimes to be told who you are.

They advertise Boys State as a fully-customizable experience. There are a thousand boys having a thousand different experiences, which Boys State hints at but necessarily can’t fully explore, given the limitations of a two-hour movie. There are boys who go to Boys State and don’t run for office, choosing instead to start a laundry business, as some friends of mine at Keystone Boys State did. You can take a law class and be a lawyer for the week, helping your fellow citizens through disputes with the Boys State “police force;” and, sure, you can be a police officer if you want to, too.

I approached Boys State excited for all of the possible pathways. Who would I be there? What would I do? Would I assume the destiny I’d always been told I had within me, to be a leader? I’d probably run for office, right?

Instead, getting there and finding my closeted self surrounded by teenage boys jockeying for each other’s approval, I retreated into writing. I joined the newspaper team and spent my week reporting on the goings-on around camp, preferring to observe from the margins rather than joining the fray.

But, looking back, I don’t remember being afraid of the hetero-masculinity all around me. Quite the opposite. For the first time, I didn’t find it suffocating, because for the first time in my life I’d explicitly been told how to play along, how to be a part of that world that had always seemed foreign and inaccessible to me. Someone had literally handed me the rulebook. I was never a fashionable dresser, but now we had uniforms, so for the duration of the week, the broad-shouldered, muscled jock types and I wore the same things. In my real life I constantly policed the way I stood and the way I walked for fear that someone would be able to tell, but now, for the first time, I received explicit lessons on how to stand with my feet apart at shoulder-width, chin up and arms clasped behind my back to convey strength and power. I learned how to walk in formation. I studied my copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, realizing I could have a debate with these other boys without being intimidated because suddenly our conversations followed rules I could understand. I remember especially loving the morning routine of lining up with my city and shouting a hearty oo-rah at the flag, military-style; for the first time, I could blend in with the crowd, could carefully calibrate the timbre of my voice to exactly blend in with the boys around me. I was part of something.

. . .

Boys State features a few scenes that highlight how different the experience is for the people who aren’t running for office, and how the program’s construction of masculinity may differ from person to person. One particularly memorable sequence includes a parade of boys auditioning for the Boys State talent show and later performing for the program; some tap dance, others sing and play an instrument. One does something that looks like interpretive dance. All are applauded and cheered for; never are we given a glimpse into anyone snickering or mocking these boys.

It’s clear, then, that traditional concepts of masculinity are functioning somewhat differently in Boys State, and possibly in Boys State. Boys State constructs a duality at first where Rob and Ben are at first in opposition to René and Steven, where the white male-ness of the former duo looks at first likely to be the winning strategy against the other-ness of the others. (Sexuality does not explicitly enter into the conversation.) However, as the week progresses, the power shifts. As the primary heats up, Rob falters. Steven delivers a heartfelt speech defending his participation in The March for Our Lives, while Rob can’t quite commit to a speech where he wants to mention “dick-measuring.” Rob wants to back out and endorse Steven, but decides to attack him on gun ownership one last time. Quiet, determined Steven wins his party nomination handily.

And then we learn that Rob is actually pro-choice and has chosen to do what he thought the people wanted instead of standing by his principles. “I took the view, if they were all being loud and crazy, that’s what they wanted to be,” he says haltingly, sitting to one side of the long couch where Boys State sets its talking head interviews, in an empty room away from the crowded chaos of the week. “If I played to that, they’d love it. But thinking about it now, I think they actually…on the inside…wanted to be serious. And I didn’t think about that as a possibility.”

But Boys State can only help enforce the bi-(non)partisan Boys State facade for so long. After the primaries, the two parties go head-to-head. René and Steven, two self-identified progressives of color undercover as nonpartisans are now pitted against Ben and Eddy, the Federalist Party candidate who enters the story late in the film. Because both parties were intentionally emptied of left vs right-wing meaning at the beginning, and because the overwhelmingly conservative population of Boys State then determined their platforms, both parties are essentially running on the same anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, pro-gun rhetoric.

All that remains, then, are the personalities of the candidates, and consequently, how well they are able to win over the majority of the testosterone-drenched crowd. Steven is the quiet, determined one, the son of an undocumented immigrant, and he’s now up against a boisterous young man who says his best quality is his abs and that he understands the immigrant experience because his family came from Italy.

At the end of the film, Steven sits in a chair talking on the phone with his mother. “I’m not crying because I lost,” he tells her. “I’m crying because my city are assholes and they keep coming up to me and telling me how proud they are.”

. . .

I don’t remember considering any of these bigger questions when I was 17, which I find troubling. I remember being very aware of the heterosexuality of my peers, but I found that thrilling. I remember us debating immigration and gun rights, but I don’t remember feeling particularly uncomfortable with that. What is the point of a process like this if not to make the political personal? Why don’t I remember any of this occurring to me at the time?

I do know this was definitely not the case when I returned the next year as a counselor. I was a completely different person when I was 18, in the summer of 2008, months away from Barack Obama’s first election. I had taken AP Government and realized I was most definitely not a Republican. I had attended a different mock government camp, had helped volunteer for the Obama campaign, and was months away from coming out and having my first relationship.

That summer, on the other side of the camp’s organizational structure power divide, I saw what I did not see as a citizen. I remember being mortified by the straightness of it all, and I remember intentionally mentoring some of the kids I guessed were probably gay and were being teased by their peers. When I was the one enforcing the rulebook for masculinity, making sure my citizens stood the right way and marched the right way and shouted oo-rah the right way, I shrank from my duties. I led the newspaper program that summer, once again avoiding the electoral politics of it all save for the involvement it took to help teach my reporters how to put what they were seeing into words.

Watching Boys State now is a strange experience. I try to spot myself in the movie and am mostly unable. I wasn’t nearly as eloquent or as driven as René and Steven, nor conscious of the fact that I was giving up what I should have believed in, like Rob. But looking back on that customizable crucible of a week, I did learn a lot about myself. I learned how seductive it is to let yourself be swallowed up by the crowd, how good it feels to fall in line.

“At first, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a conservative indoctrination camp,’” says René early in the film. “Then, I was like, ‘Eh, no…’ This is literally what every liberal needs.”

I don’t know that I agree. Plenty of liberals are all too familiar with conservative talking points and don’t necessarily need to put themselves through a week of close-quarters debate about things like the humanity of immigrants. But as Boys State knows and as some Boys Staters learn, as reductive as it sounds, societies are made up of individuals. I still keep in touch with some people I went to Boys State with more than a decade ago, some genuinely good guys who liked me when I went along with the group and liked me still more when I found my voice and learned how to stand out. Thanks to Boys State, 2007 was one of the best summers of my life up to that point, and I liked being a counselor in 2008 even better; I’d be lying if I said my distance from the program and evolution on political matters has changed that.

So why then was I so shaken by the experience of watching this film?

Boys State seems to believe that, win or lose, the important thing is that people like René and Steven exist, people willing to buck the trend and stand up for what they believe in. That’s true, as far as it goes; René and Steven are admirable young men, and I found myself proud of the way they conducted themselves in the film. They are the best of what the Boys State program has to offer, the ultimate, shining example of what the program can teach, and I wish I had been more like them when I was their age.

Unfortunately, though, Boys State also reflects the reality that sometimes, that’s not enough. Boys State may celebrate them, but Boys State ultimately does not. It feels impossible to separate the film from the political moment in which it was produced and released—and, in fact, to do so would be to replicate the Boys State program’s project of hollowing out politics and replacing it with “politics.” It’s a genuinely unsettling experience to watch the power structures playing out in the news be replicated in a microcosm on screen; we see the boys in the film re-enacting the hollow, dominance-and-masculinity-above-all politics that currently have the country in a chokehold, their sense of self and of the correct way to behave completely shaped by the society around them, as mine was more than a decade ago.

There’s a canard on the left that we just need to wait for the current generation to die off, and then the young people will bring a progressive politics to power. But the younger generation learns its behavior from the old, and Boys State shows that they are receiving all the wrong messages. And it’s not necessarily the progressive ones who will win, because the system is not designed for that to happen—whether in Boys State, Boys State, or the country at large.

“It’s a morally questionable thing to lie in politics, it really is,” says Robert MacDougall, the candidate who “picked a new stance,” considering his own motives. “And there’s no real excuse for it. I wish people did it less, I really do. So I shouldn’t be contributing to that trend. I shouldn’t lie. I wish politicians would be more truthful, but getting here certainly gave me a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office.”

René Otero, on the other hand, wrote in The New York Times shortly after the release of the film that his takeaway from Boys State was that he now has no interest in electoral politics. “The electoral process makes people complacent,” he says. “It is not intended to accommodate those of us who are Black, or brown, or queer. To effectively represent my identities and communities is to be labeled ‘radical’ and unelectable.”

But René sees a power in that cynicism, and perhaps that’s the best takeaway from Boys State—something not necessarily visible in the text itself, but in the reaction to it. “Through my brand of civic engagement—marching in the streets, research, advocacy, education—I am marrying my cynicism with action,” René writes. “I believe that to love America is to be as cynical about our political system as necessary until real change is made, because faith in what worked in the past won’t get us through.”

The program depicted in Boys State won’t save us. But perhaps some of those who went through it, or those who saw themselves reflected in it, or even those who found themselves moved to action by the cynicism it engenders, will.