Gender isn’t going anywhere, Rebecca Cohen writes, but that doesn’t mean we should keep forcing it on boys and men.
A few years ago I was spending time with my sister and her family, when something quite disturbing to my anti-sexist sensibilities occurred. It started when my 4-year-old niece began playing with the princess costume trunk she’d just received for her birthday. She was eager to show it off. As she entertained the whole family by parading around in ruffled pink skirts and sparkly tiaras, her little brother, then only two, attempted to join in. He picked up a sheer, shimmery purple garment and began to put it on. My brother-in-law’s reaction was immediate. “No!” he admonished. “That’s not for you!” My nephew’s disappointment was obvious. His dad quickly produced a boy’s dress-up set. “Here,” he told his son, “You can dress up in these.” The set contained a fireman outfit, a policeman outfit, and a doctor outfit. My nephew didn’t care for those. He wanted to do what his big sister was doing. But he was not allowed.
I know my brother-in-law meant no harm. But what he did was sexist.
Could you imagine if the reverse took place? Imagine a little girl trying to dress up as a police officer or doctor, and being told, “That’s not for you. You have to put on this princess outfit …” Actually, I’m sure that does happen sometimes. But I would be appalled to see a parent actively limiting the imaginative play of a girl like that. And it doesn’t suddenly become more acceptable when the genders are reversed.
Yet gender policing of boys goes on all the time, in the home, in the schoolyard, in the classroom, in the media. While girls are increasingly receiving the message that they should shrug off outdated gender expectations, boys are still heavily pressured to conform to a very specific, prescribed idea of masculinity. Undoubtedly, there are positive traits associated with masculinity: assertiveness, independence, ambition, competence. But the heavy pressure on boys to shape themselves in accordance with certain masculine ideals can also be confining, and very harmful.
We’ve all experienced or witnessed children on a playground teasing a boy for crying. The message that emotional expression is unacceptable in males is a pervasive and damaging one. I once saw a woman on the subway tell her five-year-old son, who was in tears, “Men don’t cry.” Her answer to her son’s emotional distress was, basically, to invalidate it. Crying is a natural emotional reaction that all people experience, yet boys and men are shamed for openly communicating their feelings. Then later in life they may be criticized for being uncommunicative. That’s what I call a no-win situation for the male sex.
Shame is perhaps the most popular tool society uses to socialize children into gender-appropriate behaviors. Boys are routinely teased and bullied for acting in ways that are considered to be un-manly. Boys who prefer not to participate in activities designated as “male” face ridicule and even physical violence.
Not only is this bullying emotionally and physically harmful, but it also restricts boys’ self-expression and their opportunities. On the one hand, girls are often encouraged (or at least not strongly discouraged) to explore traditional “boy” activities like sports, playing with building blocks or construction sets, camping, even hunting. Meanwhile, heavy social pressure prevents boys from participating in traditionally “girly” activities. Cooking and baking, arts and crafts, theater and fashion are largely considered un-masculine activities. Our culture actively steers boys away from them. Yet any of those interests could not only be fun for boys, but actually lead to a lucrative and creatively fulfilling career for a man. I wonder how many boys never discovered their talent for, say, baking pastries, because nobody ever thought to buy them an Easy Bake Oven when they were young.
Now, I can hear the objection already: My son doesn’t want an Easy Bake Oven. He’d scoff if I bought him that! But my point is that girls and boys aren’t born with the innate belief that cooking isn’t fun if you happen to have a penis. Powerful social pressures train us to associate specific attitudes, behaviors or activities with one gender or the other. And boys especially understand that nonconformity to gender expectations is unacceptable. We even have special words specifically for it: wimp, sissy, wussy, pansy, and others too vulgar to mention. So it’s no wonder that boys are eager to reject “girl” toys. They absorb these lessons from the people (and media) around them until prescribed gender roles have been completely internalized. The alternative is to risk consequences to their self-esteem, their status among their peers, and even their very safety.
Rigid ideas about what constitutes masculinity also have a significant negative impact on grown men. Gender stereotypes hold that women are the superior caregivers, that somehow men are less nurturing and compassionate than women. This sexist attitude is a tremendous insult to men, and it has a tangible negative impact on men’s lives. It puts fathers at a disadvantage in custody disputes. It means that few employers offer paid paternity leave, even though they do offer paid maternity leave. And when paternity leave is offered, men often don’t take the opportunity. How could staying at home to care for and bond with a newborn child be regarded as un-manly? Yet our culture still largely considers caring for your own baby to be a feminine role. The perception that men can’t be quality caregivers is partly responsible for the tremendous shortage of male nurses and teachers. I strongly believe the dearth of male teachers has a powerfully negative impact on the education of young boys. Furthermore, in this recession, traditionally masculine jobs in sectors like manufacturing are on the decline, while the health care and education sectors are predicted to add jobs in the coming years. The lingering perception that men are not caring and nurturing prevents men from taking full advantage of the available employment opportunities in those traditionally female-dominated fields.
Sexism strongly pressures men to live up to an ideal of masculinity that is fundamentally outdated. In the classic gender role model, men are the wage earners, providing for their families. In fact I would even say this idea of being a good provider is essential to our culture’s notion of masculinity. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a good provider for your family—there’s scarcely a more admirable ambition. The problem is that, for men, the definition of “good provider” can be rather narrow. It means being a high wage earner. Men’s self-esteem, their sense of their own value, becomes tied too closely with their earning ability. Men who earn less than other men may feel inadequate. Men who earn less than their partners can often feel emasculated. Men who stay at home while their partners work are still stigmatized in our culture. In an economy with shrinking job opportunities in traditionally male professions, fewer men are able to provide for their families the way old-fashioned gender expectations have dictated that they should. Their other contributions—caring for children, managing the household, performing domestic duties traditionally assigned to women—are real and meaningful. Men who aren’t the family’s primary wage earner do still provide for their families. They may nevertheless feel that they’ve failed in that endeavor because of outdated and inflexible ideas about what constitutes masculinity.
It’s not surprising, then, that many men experience psychological stress due to their perception of their own failure to live up to gender norms. Ironically, it’s those very gender norms which prevent many men from seeking professional help for that psychological stress. One of the masculine traits which men are socialized into adopting is unfailing stoicism. Traditional masculinity requires men to be capable, independent problem-solvers. Dependence upon others is regarded as a feminine trait. Men are statistically more reluctant to seek needed healthcare help. They’re less likely to visit a doctor, and more likely to die of certain preventable diseases. The rate of death by suicide among men is four times that of women, in part because men who are suffering psychologically are less inclined to seek professional help.
Pressure to adopt an image of masculine bravado also encourages sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, drunk driving, and a host of other dangerous risk-taking behaviors.
Our instinct might be to say: That’s just how men are. Men want to have lots of sex. They are risk-takers. They want to be strong and powerful. They have an impulse toward independence. That’s who they simply are, and it’s wrong to tell them not to be themselves.
The truth is, it’s not possible to know which gender-associated traits, if any, are innate. And it shouldn’t matter anyway. Psychologists have long recognized that when it comes to gender identity (the extent to which we identify with either masculine or feminine qualities), there is more variation within each gender group than there is between the two groups. We could probably pinpoint a set of characteristics and say that they are typical of boys. But it’s a short path from “typical” to “normal.” And it follows that boys who don’t fit the normal mode are therefore abnormal. They’re different, which means weird, and inevitably wrong. When we begin labeling attitudes and behaviors as “male” or “masculine,” we begin limiting who and what men and boys are allowed to be and do.
I’m not advocating the obliteration of gender altogether. That would be a pointless aim anyway. An academic might say that gender is a social construct, but that same person doesn’t wake up each morning and decide which gender to perform that day. However it happens, gender is deeply inscribed in our brains, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
At the same time, overly prescriptive ideas about gender restrict men and boys, limit their options and put undue psychological strain on them. As a society, we must not let preconceived notions about what gender should look like limit who we allow our boys and men to be.
—Photo Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr