One. The other day I went to McDonald’s with my eight-year-old son. We don’t go very often, but he likes the Happy Meal toys, and he was putting up with Christmas shopping.
While we were waiting in line, he went to check out the toy display: Train cars, tied to various popular children’s franchises. Hot Wheels, Jurassic World, Minions, Barbie. He decided which ones he hoped he’d get.
Before I could order, a woman came up to the counter to complain. She had two sons, and one of them had gotten the “girl toy.” She needed a “boy toy.” The clerks insisted that all the toys were the same, but the woman stood her ground. They brought the toy tray out, and she picked a different one.
This left me wondering how terrible the “girl toy” was. On the one hand, I wanted my son to get whatever toy he was hoping for, but I really wanted to see this “girl toy.”
He did get it. It was the Barbie train car. I asked him if he was okay with it or if he wanted a different toy, and he shrugged. “I’m okay with it,” he said. “I’m just glad to have a toy.”
This got me thinking again about the gender associations of even “free” fast food toys like these, and how it impacts representation. The “boy toy” was a Hot Wheels car on a loop-the-loop. Do girls get as upset when they get those as boys do over Barbie? And are parents as willing to go fix the problem?
My experience says no, that this is yet another example of how we teach boys to be entitled.
Two. Quick: Visualize “transvestite.”
Are you thinking of a man in a dress, or are you thinking of a woman in a suit? I’m willing to wager it’s the former. For one thing, there’s nothing particularly unusual about a woman wearing a suit. True, women’s suits are tailored differently, and the buttons are on the other side of the jacket, but for the most part, the concept of the suit is gender neutral.
In the not too distant past, Marlene Dietrich was considered scandalous when she dressed up in a tuxedo, but times have changed. Only a few decades later, Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams”-era look was cutting edge, not scandalous; these days, it would barely raise an eyebrow.
Eddie Izzard, on the other hand, is still considered a transvestite because he sometimes (not even always) wears dresses and other clothing intended for women. “I wear dresses,” he’s said. “They’re not women’s dresses. They’re my dresses. I buy them. If women wear trousers, they’re not cross-dressing.”
Here’s a thought experiment: Dave and Jill are a newlywed couple. They’re deeply in love. Jill notice they happen to wear the same size clothing, so when they’re apart, she wears his pajamas to sleep, to remind herself of him. And when they’re apart, he wears her nightgowns.
If you’re like me, you now have a different opinion of Dave than of Jill. When I thought of this example, I struggled with not thinking of Dave as being a transvestite. But Jill? She’s just romantic.
This is what comes of manhood being the cultural default, and if the shift in attitudes about women in men’s clothing is any indication, we’ve gotten worse over the last century, not better. A century ago, culture could hide behind the attitude that men should be men and women should be women: Now, women have more liberties, but men still have to be men.
Three. In the last few months, as accusations against a growing list of men starting with Harvey Weinstein continue to pour in, men have struggled with what to say. We’re so used to being centered, to being the default gender, to being the go-to for opinions, we can’t seem to sit on the sidelines and not interject ourselves into the discussion.
Minnie Driver recently took her fellow actor and former co-star Matt Damon to task for his attempt to soften the actions of Louis CK by creating different levels of assault and harassment. Damon, resisting conflating slap women on the butt with rape, pointed to Louis CK’s remorse, saying, “That’s the sign of somebody who—well, we can work with that.”
What “we”? Who is this “we” that is deciding which men have been exonerated?
This is typical male enculturation. This is male-centering. If Damon wants something to work with, I encourage him to join me and other men in breaking ourselves of the hubris that drives us to decide what women are willing to “work with.” We men have plenty to do, including holding other men responsible for errors. It is not up to us to exonerate people if we are not among those who were wronged.
This is typical male entitlement: We exist, we have a voice, and so we think it wise to use it whenever we choose.
When we teach girls that it’s okay to play with toys designed for boys and to dress in clothes designed for boys, but we teach boys that it’s wrong for them to wear dresses or play with “girl’s toys,” we erase girls from social relevance. Ultimately, it becomes easier for companies to just make what boys and men are willing to use, because girls and women will be willing to use them, too.
As I was writing this article, I showed my son an image of the twelve McDonald’s train cars and asked him which were “girl’s toys” and which were “boy’s toys.” He was confused, because we don’t normally talk like that and he’s not used to thinking of the world like that. Once I switched it to “toys girls would prefer,” “toys boys would prefer,” and “it doesn’t matter,” he could sort them out.
This shows some hope for the future: He is less sexist than I am, but I don’t know if that’s true of his entire cohort. I would like to think that the next generation of boys will be more capable of stepping beyond the culturally arbitrary gender norms that have been assigned to them.
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