The coronation of England’s new king will be steeped in tradition, but will break with convention in at least one way – at this weekend’s coronation, the boys in the choirs of Westminster Abbey and His Majesty’s Chapel Royal will be joined by girls.
This significant symbolic gesture acknowledges the current fault lines surrounding gender expression and the unfinished work of ending sex-based discrimination. King Charles III has long advocated for a more progressive monarchy. And he surely knows that the boy soprano tradition emerges from centuries-long exclusion: Boys’ unchanged treble voices provided the soprano notes in religious settings that prohibited girls and women from singing in public.
But it would also be a mistake to dismiss boys-only choirs as anachronistic symbols of exclusion in an era increasingly committed to eradicating gender-based exclusion. In fact, these boys-only groups can actually help singers who identify as boys learn a more expansive form of masculinity as they become men.
In my research for a book about what boy choirs can teach us about adolescence, masculinity, and gender in the 21st century, I’ve interviewed almost 70 boy choir directors and former boy choristers. Even with their different experiences and perspectives, they reiterate one common belief: that the social benefits of this single-gender institution can be transformative for boys on the cusp of adolescence.
Plenty of youngsters may be comfortable singing in mixed-gender settings. But many children who identify as boys still need the reassurance of an all-boy setting to sing in their unchanged treble voices – something that can otherwise seem effeminate, even emasculating, given the conventional expectations surrounding masculinity.
Even as they are steeped in centuries of history and tradition, boy sopranos do many things that can be recognized as gender non-conforming. For starters, they sing in a vocal range typically reserved for women and girls.
More importantly, singing requires them to show emotion in public, something that’s still uncommon for boys who learn early on that being masculine requires them to hide their feelings around others. Singing also involves words, often about joy, sadness, celebration, or grief. Boys-only choirs don’t need to tell boys explicitly that they’re learning a more inclusive form of masculinity; the all-boy composition of these groups communicates subtly and unconsciously that it’s okay for boys to do things that would otherwise be viewed as feminine.
This kind of expression is still rare among children who identify as boys; something made apparent last fall at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral when one chorister’s demonstrative performance went viral.
Although much of the world was enchanted with the young singer, the ensuing Twitter commentary also revealed our pervasive discomfort with boys who publicly show their feelings. One comment criticized the boy for being “far too expressive – he’s practically busting moves.” Others mocked him more subtly. “I know it’s all about the queen,” one person tweeted, “but the star of this funeral so far has been the overly dramatic redheaded choirboy who apparently has never brushed his hair.”
A growing chorus of studies documents how boys and men are poorly served by these constraining expectations of masculinity. By the time they reach adulthood, far too many men are adrift and lonely: As many as 15% say they don’t have any close friends (five times more than the same figure thirty years ago), and the portion of young men who say they would ask a friend for help during a difficult time has declined by half since 1990. Men are also more likely to die from suicide, even though they are less likely than women to self-report depression.
Amid such warnings about the emotional disconnection and social isolation associated with traditional masculinity, single-gender institutions could offer an unexpected tool for cultivating a more inclusive future, challenging the notion that progress necessarily means removing gendered barriers to all institutional memberships. (The Boy Scouts of America’s 2017 decision to accept girls is one recent example.) Most boys will never sing in a choir, of course, but boy choirs can still suggest a blueprint for how single-gender organizations can bring about a more expansive vision of masculinity.
It’s terrific that some of Britain’s girl choristers will participate in the coronation on Saturday. It’s well past time to make these opportunities available to girls, who have long been denied the training and prestige enjoyed by boy sopranos.
But the tradition of boys-only singing is one that should continue to exist, too. This ancient institution shows us some unexpected modern tools that might be part of a more inclusive future.
Rebekah Peeples is a sociologist and the Associate Dean of the College for Curriculum and Assessment at Princeton University. She’s currently finishing a book about boy choirs and boy sopranos. She also spent three years as the mother of a boy soprano who sang in a community boy choir in Philadelphia.