BOYS WILL BE... MEN
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
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’.”
THE TESTOSTERONE FALLACY
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.
BOYS CAN’T DO ANYTHING
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.”