An acquaintance recently asked me what project I’m currently working on. When I responded, “Masculinity,” she immediately said with horror, “Oh…but I don’t want boys to be like girls!” I was so taken aback that I didn’t even know how to respond. Like what does that even mean? Yes, of course, males and females are biologically different, and good thing…we need each other, beyond the fact that we’d be extinct without each other. But what exactly did she mean? I’ve been doing a lot of pondering about that.
I wanted my son and daughter to grow up to be who they truly are, to put their best selves and talents out into the world and to think for themselves, no matter who or what society is telling them they “should” be. I had them listening to Marlo Thomas’ album, “Free to Be You and Me.” which teaches kids that they can grow up to be whoever they want to be. One of the songs, “It’s Alright To Cry”, has a man with a deep voice singing that it is okay to cry, and that crying makes you feel better. The message is for both boys and girls, but it is especially aimed at boys; boys are taught from an early age that boys are not supposed to cry…that’s what girls do. The gender stereotype that crying is only for girls makes me want to cry, because crying and laughter are nature’s best medicines. A male counselor, who works with boys and men, gave me this example: “There is a group of boys playing on the playground, and one falls down and is REALLY hurting. He is in pain. But what is MORE terrifying to him is the fact that he feels a tear starting to roll down his cheek.” He goes on to say, “What would be ideal is if the hurting boy did cry, and all the boys gathered around him and hugged him, and they all started crying, and then they would all feel so much better.” So I said to the counselor, “But what if he’s the kingpin of the playground and he cries…wouldn’t he risk losing that status?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s the big risk.” I’ve repeated this story to many men, and all agree with the counselor (with fear in their eyes), because they know this story personally… they’ve lived it. I had a mother tell me about how her son would hide underneath their deck when he was crying, so that nobody would see him. My own son is very sensitive. That’s what makes him able to take in so wisely everything that is going on in the world around him. When he was a baby and a toddler, he cried every time I took him out of the house. I think he had this sense that it’s just not quite safe out there. He’s right.
Boys and girls, from the time they are born, receive messages about what they should wear, how they should behave, and what toys and games they should like. Do they also have differences that are innate? Peoples’ opinions seem to vary greatly, so let’s explore that question.
My husband and I took our kids to Disneyland when they were little, and my son wanted a hot pink Disney t-shirt. It was a really cool color. And if you look at the styles and colors of boys clothes compared to girls, they’re pretty dull. So, I bought him the shirt. He was young enough that I hoped nobody would make a fuss about a little boy wearing a pink shirt. It’s sad that I even have to think about that, but as a mother, you don’t want your kids to experience the pain of being ridiculed. In contrast, my daughter hates pink. People keep giving her pink trying to make her act more like a “girl.” Her grandmothers give her “girl” clothes…dresses, shoes… skin creams, makeup and purses, most of which go unused. I heard from another mother, with two sons, say that she also wishes she had a little girl so that she could dress her up in frilly dresses. Funny, because one of my daughter’s friends went through a phase where she always had to wear dresses. She was also constantly up in trees and covered in mud. Needless to say, her mother wisely put her in hand-me-down dresses from her cousins. In contrast, I read something about a mother whose young son saw his sister’s fingernails all painted in different colored bright polish. He thought that was really cool, and he wanted the same. His mother had no problem with that, but she was afraid of what would happen with the other boys when he went to school. So she gently and carefully negotiated with her son, and they decided he’d “try” just one finger to start with. The next day, he went to school with one bright blue fingernail. That afternoon, he came home from school extremely hurt and upset, because the boys at school had hassled him about it mercilessly.
Let’s take this exploration further. I made sure my son had a doll…not just stuffed animals…but a doll. After all, he may become a father someday. He didn’t like it. It was a baby boy Cabbage Patch doll, and now that I look at the doll, it is kind of creepy looking. But he sure loved his sister’s red Elmo. He’d take it all the time. Another mother told me that her young son’s best friend was a male Cabbage Patch doll. He would not go anywhere without it. My daughter didn’t play with dolls much, but she loved stuffed animals, and she liked playing with her Littlest Pet Shop. She was also always up in the trees, and typically muddy/dirty/wet. She recruited any kids she could find to play baseball and kickball…you name it. And she loved her skateboard. My son preferred to play inside…he didn’t like outdoor games, unless he could be in the driveway going round and round in his little car, or playing with Matchbox cars. Although, what he seemed to love about Matchbox cars was lining them up with perfect precision; if you moved one, he’d immediately move it right back into line. He also played with his Micro Machines and Legos. I have talked to some mothers who tell me that by age five, their sons were picking up sticks and turning them into guns. My son didn’t do that, but he was fascinated with Airsoft Guns at one point in time. (I was none too thrilled). I do not know if it was because of his friends, or if it was his own interest. What I do know is that he no longer likes guns. I did an unscientific study by asking friends on Facebook what their favorite toys/games were when they were kids. The females listed Barbie Dolls, baby dolls, jacks, hopscotch, paper dolls, Easy Bake Oven. But they also listed Hot Wheels (which belonged to their brothers), chemistry sets, erector sets, climbing trees, playing kickball, building forts, night games and playing hockey. The guys mostly listed Matchbox Cars, Hot Wheels, Legos, cap guns, outdoor games, building forts. Interestingly, both genders loved outdoor play of all kinds. I also had one man tell me that he REALLY wanted an Easy Bake Oven, but nobody would let him have one, because he was a boy. Now they make “gender neutral” Easy Bake Ovens, because there are other boys who want one, too.
Traditional gender stereotypes dictate that girls are well-behaved, docile, neat, clean, cautious….boys are active, athletic, brave, full of dirt and sweat. My son stayed in his crib, until we finally had to move him to a bed, because he got too big for the crib. It felt safe. We had to get our daughter out at age two, because she seemed to think it was a jungle gym. She started walking at 19 months, falling down constantly in the learning process. My son didn’t walk until he was closer to age 3, and then did it perfectly. He was always neat and clean. He didn’t need a bib. He didn’t spill or make a mess at all. He even insisted that the peanut butter on his toast could not go all the way to the edge, so that he wouldn’t get his fingers messy. My daughter was like a disaster area. She had the biggest, plastic bib you could get…the kind with long sleeves, and pockets in the front, that tied around the back. Her hands and face were always full of everything, as was the floor and her chair. When they played in the sandbox, she was right down there in it, getting dirty. He crouched down so that he wouldn’t be sitting in the sand. My daughter was an athlete in school, including college, and now coaches track and cross country at a college level. My son tried sports, but didn’t really like them much. It’s challenging for boys who don’t like traditional “male” sports. In fact, when we had him skip first grade, one of the questions the school administrators asked me before the decision to have him skip a grade was finalized was, “Is he good at sports?” If he was a girl, I know they wouldn’t have asked me that question (which is interesting, because now so many girls are excelling at all kinds of sports). He excelled at music and math. He now works professionally doing analytics. And he loves his bike and lifting.
So are boys and girls “wired” differently or not? There are two research studies that have been done with male and female monkeys, as described by Natalie Wolchover in her article, “Hormones Explain Why Girls Like Dolls & Boys Like Trucks,” (August 24, 2012). In both studies the monkeys were given a doll, toy pot, toy truck and a ball, and in both cases, the female monkeys chose the doll and the toy pot, and the male monkeys chose the truck and the ball. In her article, Wolchover states: “New and ongoing research suggests babies’ exposure to hormones while they are in the womb causes their toy preferences to emerge soon after birth. As for why evolution made this so, questions remain, but the toys may help boys and girls develop the skills they once needed to fulfill their ancient gender roles” [i.e.- hunters and gatherers]. She also talks about studies that show a link between the amount of male hormones and attraction to typical “boy” toys. She describes a study by Kim Wallen, a psychologist at Emory University, a researcher who studied the gender-specific toy preferences of young rhesus monkeys, who states that “…. the attraction to these objects [toys] occurs very early in life, before it’s likely to have been socialized.” In contrast, Wolchover also notes Wallen as being cautious about interpreting the data: “…we don’t know why people are attracted to specific things. Clearly children recognize that certain objects in their environment are appropriate for certain activities. They could be looking at a certain toy because it facilitates an activity they like.”
So the debate continues. Just how do stereotypical gender descriptions and expectations come to be? Who defines them? And back to my acquaintance’s frightened proclamation that she does not want boys to be like girls. What exactly does that mean? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Shelley Smith, Artistic Director