Girls can do any­thing, right – but what about boys? Is it OK for them to wear dresses or play with dolls? In the era of #Me­Too, the way we raise our boys is com­ing un­der in­creased scru­tiny, with many striv­ing for change, while others fight to pro­tect the

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY -

When Laura* emerged from the drama of labour and saw she had given birth to a baby boy, she was dev­as­tated.

“It feels aw­ful to ac­knowl­edge but in that mo­ment when I knew I was meant to be filled with awe and wonder, I just felt my stom­ach drop and felt in­cred­i­bly sad. I knew it wasn’t some­thing I could say out loud so I tried to push it aside. It was prob­a­bly a week or two later that I was able to name the grief I was feel­ing.”

When the Christchurch mother be­came preg­nant with her sec­ond child, she knew there was a 50 per cent chance it would be a boy. But she had con­vinced her­self it would be an­other girl. She was “in such de­nial” that she only dis­cussed names for a boy with her wife two nights be­fore the birth.

Laura was wor­ried she and her wife would not be equipped to raise a boy – an idea she now re­alises stems from in­ter­nalised ho­mo­pho­bia.

“I wor­ried that we would have to do things dif­fer­ently to what we had with our daugh­ter. That there was some ‘other way’ of rais­ing boys and that I sim­ply wasn’t equipped to do this. I think this was in part linked to stereo­typ­i­cal ideas around boys be­ing ‘bois­ter­ous’, ‘rough and tum­ble’ and like this was the kind of par­ent­ing we needed to do.”

As Laura was strug­gling to come to terms with her fears, stereo­typ­i­cal com­ments abounded.

When she in­tro­duced her son to fam­ily and friends, some­one com­mented that he was “such a boy”.

“I re­mem­ber driv­ing home think­ing, what the hell does that even mean? He was a six-day-old tiny hu­man in a car seat.”

Vis­i­tors mar­velled at his long eye­lashes: “Gor­geous eye­lashes are wasted on boys”.

Gen­der stereo­types were noth­ing new. Laura had felt con­fi­dent fight­ing them with her daugh­ter, but it seemed more prob­lem­atic with her son. “Like I will be stop­ping him from ‘be­ing a boy’.”


Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Psy­chol­ogy se­nior lec­turer Pani Farvid gets fired up on the phone telling me such gen­der stereo­types are not based on sound sci­ence.

The “fal­lacy” that men and women are hard­wired dif­fer­ently from birth – men are fu­elled by testos­terone, men are from Mars, boys will be boys... – has been per­pet­u­ated through “pop psy­chol­ogy”.

“We know from re­search that it’s just not true. Forty years of psy­cho­log­i­cal anal­y­sis has found that, over­whelm­ingly, men and women are more sim­i­lar than they are dif­fer­ent.”

The Y chro­mo­some only dic­tates the re­pro­duc­tive sys­tem – whether we get pe­nis or not, Farvid says.

Aus­tralian psy­chol­o­gist Cordelia Fine rub­bishes the idea of fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women in her 2017 book Testos­terone Rex, which won the pres­ti­gious Royal So­ci­ety prize for sci­ence book of the year.

Testos­terone does have an ef­fect on brains, bod­ies and be­hav­iour (men are more hairy, have deeper voices and tend to be taller), she writes, but it isn’t “the po­tent, hor­monal essence of com­pet­i­tive, risk-tak­ing mas­culin­ity” we as­sume it to be.


These days most par­ents would agree that girls can do any­thing, in­clud­ing wear­ing blue pants, play­ing with trucks and be­ing good at maths.

“If we chal­lenge mas­culin­ity, men will die less and get hurt less.”

But boys still can’t do any­thing. They risk at best ridicule and at worst be­ing told off when they cry, play with dolls, wear pink – or, shock hor­ror, a dress.

The Gen­der At­ti­tudes Sur­vey, re­leased ear­lier this year, found that ideas around tra­di­tional gen­der roles are still en­trenched, al­beit con­tra­dic­tory.

Just over half of the 1251 Ki­wis sur­veyed thought boys should be able to play with dolls, for ex­am­ple, while one in five peo­ple felt it was more im­por­tant for a man to be in a po­si­tion of power.

So, while most of us believe women should hold po­si­tions of power, we still believe in cul­ti­vat­ing male rulers and fe­male nur­tur­ers.

Farvid says be­hav­iours and traits as­so­ci­ated with mas­culin­ity are per­ceived to in­crease a per­son’s sta­tus while stereo­typed fem­i­nine con­duct – be­ing pas­sive, nur­tur­ing, quiet, gen­tle – re­duces it.

“If a man does fem­i­nine things, he is trad­ing down. If a woman does mas­cu­line things, she is trad­ing up.”

Farvid urges par­ents to ques­tion their “old-fash­ioned” be­liefs around gen­der.

Im­pos­ing a nar­row ideal of mas­culin­ity on boys makes them shut down their feel­ings, with anger the only so­cially ac­cept­able emo­tion for boys and men, she says.

This means men liv­ing with anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion are less likely to seek help, and men are more likely to take their own lives.

“Men are the silent suf­fer­ers of mas­culin­ity,” says Farvid. “If we chal­lenge prob­lem­atic mas­culin­ity, men will suf­fer less, die less and get hurt less.”

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