Boys will discover their own interpretations of their gender if they’re given the freedom to explore masculinity—and femininity—on their own, Soraya Chemaly writes.
As the new year approaches, I’d like to suggest a new holiday—National “Let Your Boy Be a Girl” Day—that lets boys off the hyper-masculinity hook, and allows them to be, well, girls, for a day.
Every other day of the year boys have to make sure they are not girls. Because if a boy acts like a girl the national press gets involved, the jihadists that weaponize their sons will crush us, and the rate of the sun’s gradual extinction will speed up exponentially.
Of course, girls get to act like boys everyday, so they don’t need a holiday. Boys have virtually no cross-gender empathy leeway in mainstream culture, whereas for girls it’s a necessity and almost a mandate. A girl’s imagination and life experience would be a pretty barren place if she didn’t learn from an early age how to empathize with being a boy. Just going to the movies, for example, would be virtually impossible given the overwhelming predominance of boys’ coming of age stories in our culture.
Just consider the following taken-for-granted ways that girls get to:
- Get totally pumped about going to movies. After all, girls and women going to the movies is a constant and repeated act of imagining being a boy or man, since more than 70 percent of movies made have a male lead and almost all movies but a handful fail the Bechdel Test. (Which, by the way, isn’t a “feminist movie” test, just a measure in story-telling of the presence of women who are characters in their own right.)
- Be athletic in ways they weren’t allowed to be just 30 yeas ago (and be aggressive about it). Despite the gains made by phenomenal women athletes, professional sports is still clearly a male dominated field in terms of audience, coverage, and money. Girls get to not only play sports, but also idolize almost exclusively male football, hockey, baseball and soccer heroes with the rare (i.e. Women’s World Cup) heroines thrown in.
- Cross-dress everyday if they want to.
- Grow their hair as long or as short as they want, or dye their hair, or decorate it in manifold, creative ways.
- Indulge in imaginative cross-gendered play. Girls love male superheroes, idolize boy book protagonists, and on Halloween can buy boy stuff from the most popular catalogs, in case they want to be just regular firefighters and not sexy firefighters.
- Ignore the weirdly out-dated, hyper-stereotyped Toys R Us aisles and explore a broad spectrum of toys, from Barbies to Legos and vacuums (’cause every girl wants one, right?) to remote-controlled rockets.
- Be, despite the oppression of pink (check this out), comparatively free from the color-coding we subject our children to. Girls can wear pretty much any color they want, although in general, a whole lot of people would sleep better if they just stuck to the warmer tones, pinks and reds.
Let’s reverse those examples by gender. Hmmmm. Not working for you, huh? I mean, really, boys wearing skirts everyday? Sissies. How about a gaggle of boys eagerly awaiting the next “girl movie,” let’s say a Wonder Woman blockbuster, wearing awesome gold wrist bands that repel bullets, kind of like the way girls wear Harry Potter glasses? I don’t think so.
Now admittedly, little girls regularly run into problems when they violate hard and fast gender rules and the adults and kindergarteners that enforce them, like the girl who loved her Star Wars lunchbox but was, after five days, shamed into wanting to abandon it for something pink. But at least she got a day of unadulterated fun before school started. Very few boys would even consider, for example, seriously taking a My Little Pony lunchbox to school. I know that lots of you are thinking, “What boy would ever want to do that?” And you’re exactly right, because by kindergarten they already have a sense of the real social penalties involved.
But, if we had an actual day devoted to boys acting like girls?
Well. That would solve a lot of problems for everyone. It would be a modern version of a medieval rich/poor role reversal Charivari, except gender-based and without the discordant pot clanking. So cool, huh?
On that day, boys could be liberated from the oppressive pressure to be so stridently masculine and be able to do “girly” things without the threat of ridicule, shame, or bullying, something that only the most supremely confident, devil-may-care, charismatic boys get to do the other 364 days of the year.
On a day devoted to breaking the boy code, a boy could do any number of fun and silly things, for example:
- Get a pedicure with his mom (the way a girl can go to a football game with her dad).
- Openly and visibly demonstrate compassion, like growing hair for Locks of Love without getting suspended from school.
- Dress up like a female cartoon character, without it being debated on the national news.
- Pretend to be a nurse (sorry, still 94.5 percent still women) or a teacher (79 percent of whom are women, to the detriment of boys and girls) when playing.
- Wear something that’s not blue, green, gray or brown or emblazoned with weapons, fire, or military and/or racing vehicles.
- Not be consumed with recess anxiety because he’s non-athletic and would rather play a quiet game.
- Carry a Dora the Explorer backpack without it being a recognized symbol of humiliation.
- Dye his hair or grow it long without, literally, risking being bullied to death.
- Cry, not keep a stiff upper lip, not brush it off.
- Do fun “girl” stuff—like, say, sewing, hair styling, having tea, or choreographing a playground dance.
Hard to swallow, I know. These are small, everyday things with big, lifelong personal and societal consequences.
Now, it wouldn’t be nice to deny girls the ability to participate entirely, so girls who internalize early-on that being perceived as “girly” is “bad” can do things like wear ribbons in their hair. In addition, Shiloh Jolie Pitt can shop for boy clothes and dress any way she likes, without it making the cover of every major sleazy gossip magazine in the world.
And, the best part?
Well, since it’s just one day, gender fascists won’t have to get their knickers tied up in knots worrying about the boys being … (shh) … gay. And the people who are psychically tortured by the horrors of a potentially feminized America can go see a 24-hour True Grit movie marathon and, when they’re done, grab a quick bite and pretend the day never happened. Fun for all!
Here’s the thing (I am officially removing my tongue from the side of my cheek): I know that we aren’t going to make a national holiday. That would be naïve and utopian of me, like living in Sweden. But, really? There’s not a limited supply of maleness or femaleness on the planet and although the definitions are symbiotic, they are not inversely proportional. There is not some white-bearded zero-sum-gender divine dude in the sky tallying up tutus and frogs.
It seems to me that the roots of compassion and goodness are in empathy and that we, as a culture, systematically go about discouraging boys from cultivating this exact trait. Every instance of the “feminine” in a boy doesn’t have to be a denigration of his masculinity. The opposite is already true for girls. In fact, it helps them thrive and explore many dimensions of who they want to be. This is also not about whether a child is gay or straight, bi or not. It’s about accepting a wider, more balanced definition of what it means to be human for everyone, a definition that includes and celebrates both male and female aspects of how to be. And, I know, children go through various stages of gender identity formation as they develop and mature. Part of this process, however, is determining as parents what the “acceptable” defining attributes of gender are for our children. The aren’t born knowing how to be. They learn gender as they go. Most of a child’s gender identification is based first on the behavior of the men and women around him or her and second on “norms” transmitted through stereotypes he or she absorbs through exposure to story, media, and entertainment.
Instead of unconsciously (or consciously) policing your son’s gendered behavior to more accurately reflect traditional ideas of masculinity, consider more seriously the possibility that he will best meet his potential by being given the freedom to explore what it means to be fully human instead of what it means to be a “man” in the way we’ve traditionally defined it.