You run like a girl.
Grow a pair.
Boys will be boys.
Be a man.
Don’t be a pussy.
That’s so gay.
The use of gendered language is so commonplace in our culture that almost everyone, even small children, share a common understanding of what these words and phrases mean when used as an insult or to describe someone. The words girl, gay, woman and many others have become synonymous with being weak, stupid, scared, passive, unskilled, ineffective, untalented, unpleasant, overly sensitive, over-emotional, irrational, and generally bad. Anyone not identifying as a heterosexual male is cast in a secondary, marginalized role in our society that is constantly and continuously reinforced through our language, societal expectations and norms, employment practices and discrimination, rules, laws, the media and the way we relate to one another on a daily basis.This is wrong.
On Mother’s Day this year, a friend’s sons’ Taekwondo instructor posted this meme on the school’s Facebook page. When my friend complained, he honestly didn’t know why she found it offensive. She responded, “If anyone reading this doesn’t understand why this meme is fucked up… just replace “mother’s” with your own name. Like this: Your dad doesn’t do jiujitsu? Well happy Antonio’s Day to your dad!”
The meme is not funny. Why is being a mother or a woman an insult? Don’t women do Jiujitsu? Does being a mother in some way preclude you from being good at sports? Why would not doing a specific martial art make you less than? Also, he forgot the apostrophe in Mother’s.
Jokes like this one are not only not funny, they are often untrue, perpetuate stereotypes and further marginalize not only women and girls, but also men and boys.
Boys and men are expected to be and conditioned to be masculine – strong, aggressive, ruthless, rational, emotionally inexpressive, destructive, and even sexually promiscuous and violent. What’s more is that they are given a pass for harmful behaviors because that’s all we expect of them. Boys will be boys. Men and boys find themselves in a reality where not being masculine enough or not conforming to social norms around what it means to be a man results in shame and harm, even when the alternative is being a total dick (pun intended).
Considerable research has been done regarding children’s emotional development and the differences for girls and boys. When reviewing this research, I was surprised to learn that male infants are actually more emotionally reactive and expressive than females. They startle more easily, excite more quickly, are less tolerant of tension and frustration, are distressed more quickly and cry sooner and more often. However, from age two onward, boys start to become less expressive and less emotionally mature than girls. By middle of grade school, boys are less aware of their emotions, less expressive of their emotions and less empathic toward others and themselves.
Why? From infancy into adulthood, males and females are conditioned to experience and respond to emotions very differently. Emotional development is impacted by a variety of social and cultural factors and interactions.
- How do parents respond to their emotions? Do they rush to comfort a female child who is crying, while telling a male child to shake it off or be a man?
- How do peers respond when they cry or get angry?
- What games do they play? And with whom?
- How do other adults – teachers, coaches, etc.- respond to emotional expression.
- What do they learn from the media and observing people in their families and community about how they should feel and express emotions.
Gender roles are learned and when it comes to boys, we condition empathy and emotional expressiveness right out of them. Boys and girls learn from a young age through a variety of contexts, responses and inputs what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. They learn that boys are good at sports, rowdy and uncontrollable and girls need to be passive, proper and act like “ladies” (I am still not sure what that means). What results is a society based on a hierarchy where masculinity is good and femininity is bad. And if you are pretty much anything other than a white, cisgender, straight male, you are marginalized, whether you recognize it or not. And if you are a boy or man who doesn’t conform to these expectations? You suffer, too.
Last year when Always released their #likeagirl commercial, it was startling to see how this everyday sexism impacts girls’ own impressions of themselves and their capabilities.
I was recently reminded of this commercial when I went to sign my daughter up for co-ed soccer. The Director of the program told me that they didn’t typically put girls on teams with boys, because the boys are “too rough” and have a “higher skill level than girls.” I think I put the fear of Cthulhu in the Director that day when I challenged the idea that boys are rougher than girls – has he met my daughter? – and that girls aren’t as good as boys. If anything, this may be the case because fewer parents and coaches support and encourage their daughters in joining, training and competing in sports, than they do their sons.
What can be done?
We can stop doing this. We can work hard to recognize when we are treating people differently or expecting different things from people because of their gender. We can treat our children consistently and lovingly, regardless of their assigned gender or gender identity. We can support our children, friends, family and partners in doing what they love and being who they are. We can tell boys and men that it’s okay to feel and express emotion and tell girls and women that it’s okay to be loud, rowdy, tough, and even *gasp* slutty or vulgar. We can stop making gendered comments and jokes. We can stop laughing at them and start asking – “What do you mean by that?” As women and girls, we can be brave and challenge social norms. We can play sports, be leaders, challenge perceptions and shatter glass ceilings. Men can be brave, too and challenge the negative social norms around masculinity. They can proudly do things that we typically identify as “women’s work,” or feminine and can stand up to others when they bully or shame. We can raise our daughters to know they can be whatever they want to be and that being a girl, a woman, a mother, gay, lesbian or transgender doesn’t make us weak, it makes us strong.
Featured image and cute kid image credits: Steph, all rights reserved.
Like a Mother image credits: Amy Rawcliffe, all rights reserved.