I got to take part in some really interesting discussions the other day in my Interpersonal Relations class. A mother of a young boy exclaimed, and adamantly so, that her boy wasn’t allowed to sit on his cousin’s swing because it was pink, and if he was caught playing dolls or having a tea party with her, he got punished. I thought it was a bit extreme, but was genuinely curious about what prompted her to be so convinced that a little pink in her boy’s life was such a bad thing, so I asked.
“Because I don’t want to raise my boy to be gay.”
Our teacher chimed in, “I hate to break it to you, but you could dress your boy in a sparkly tutu or soldier camo and it wouldn’t affect his sexuality.”
“Well, maybe,” she retorted. “But if he plays with stuff like that it might make him a sissy, and he’ll have a hard time succeeding in life because people think men like that are weak.”
“Men like what?” I asked. “Who enjoy the color pink?”
“Not just that, but men who act like girls. Who talk about their feelings and cry and other ‘girly’ things.”
“What if your girl wanted to wear all blue and play sports with neighborhood boys? Would that be as upsetting to you?”
“I don’t have any girls, thank God, but if I did that wouldn’t matter to me. It’s ‘whatever’ if your girl is a tomboy…I’d actually prefer that because she’d probably get a lot further in the career world…but if your boy goes around playing with girls and liking dolls you get worried.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks that what this girl was saying sounded ridiculous initially, but after some pondering I realized she was sadly accurate. Despite all our advances and triumphs as a society, we still equate success with labels attributed being “male”–ie “tough,” “competitive,” “aggressive” –and labels attributed to being “female” as qualities that simply hold one back (“sensitive,” “emotional,” caring,”). To avoid gender-labeling altogether, let’s get crazy and call those “male” qualities “instrumental” qualities instead and the “female” ones “emotive” qualities. Doesn’t it seem like both sexes could benefit from possessing both instrumental and emotive characteristics? I know one of the reasons I love my husband so much is because he’s in touch with his emotions; he’ll fix the leaky faucet and repair a whole in the wall, and then tear up at Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (don’t get me started on how many boxes of tissues we go through watching that show). His ability to recognize his emotional states and comfort in expressing them makes him a great communicator, and someone who is easy to love and grow with.
I think back to the first day at school in one of my Sociology classes: we were going around saying what career path we’d like to follow after graduation. When we came to one particularly good-looking guy, he said he was studying child psychology and early childhood education because he’d like to be a stay-at-home dad someday, and maybe a kindergarten teacher later. He was immediately ridiculed by most people in the class…even the women…and I remember thinking how sad that was. No one bats an eye when a woman expresses a strong desire to be a stay-at-home mom. Perhaps he’ll find a woman who likes the idea of being able to continue working full-time after the birth of their children. She’ll bring home the bacon from a rewarding career that she loves and he’ll be living his dream of getting to spend more time nurturing and caring for his children. Why should there be anything wrong with this picture? He is by no means a “sissy” (anyone who works as a full-time parent knows exactly what I’m talking about) and his wife wouldn’t necessarily be some cold, emotionless ball-buster.
I suppose the most frustrating thing for me, as a woman, is that on some level this attitude seems to make being a woman less valuable. “I don’t have any girls, thank God…” Really? Why are you so thankful you weren’t burdened with any girls? And this mom is not alone in this thought process: I’d say most parents are genuinely happy with the idea of simply giving birth to a human baby. Boy, girl, whatever. But some parents display a strong interest in having a boy because they want something that will eventually take care of itself, be tough and less vulnerable, and fun to wrestle with. People who want girls list totally different reasons: they want something soft, quiet, and fun to dress. And when that boy comes, he better act like one or else. It’s okay if their little girl likes to play sports or wear blue, but “don’t get too outspoken or assertive, because then men will be intimidated by you and you won’t be able to find a husband” (this sounds absurd, but I’ve actually heard a mother give this advice to her daughter).
The craziest thing is this mentality is presented to us from the minute we exit the womb. Girls are wrapped in pink blankets at the hospital; dad passes out blue cigars at the birth of his son. Moms and dads throw their little boys high in the air while they cuddle their girls gently. Girls advance verbally faster than boys and every one attributes it to biology, but it’s been proven that parents talk to their girls more than boys from day one. For their girl parents call her blanket a “blanky,” a cat a “kitty,” a dog a “doggy.” When boys are learning the names for things, a blanket is “blanket,” a cat is “cat” and a dog is “dog.” Girls are usually taught to be less direct with their requests: “Maybe we could go see a movie?” where as boys are taught to state their desires directly: “Let’s go to a movie.” This is not to negate the fact that, yes, there are of course biological differences, both physically and mentally, in the way males and females are structured. But sometimes I wonder just how much of what we attribute to being “male” or “female” is truly biological or predominately socially ingrained.
At the other end of the spectrum there are parents who make their boys wear dresses and go by names like “Julie” or “Margaret” because they want their boys to be in touch with their “feminine side.” They believe this will help their sons know what it’s like to be a woman and will therefore teach them to respect women. I feel like this is just opening the floodgates for massive amounts of future psychotherapy. Just as it’s not a good idea to pigeonhole your child into the stereotypical gender ideals of their own sex, it’s probably not any more beneficial to force them to adhere to the stereotypical gender roles of the opposite sex. There is a lack of freedom in both options that keeps the child from growing, learning and reaching their full potential of being their true self…not some ideal that their parents buried into them. What if we taught both boys and girls from day one to practice both instrumental and emotive qualities that are beneficial for any one to possess: assertiveness, emotional awareness, strength, and sensitivity? Let’s be a little more rough-and-tumble with our girls and tell our boys it’s okay to cry when they get hurt. And at the end of the day, if your boy likes to play tea-party with his sister, despite being surrounded by army men and Tonka trucks, well, then that’s your wonderful boy feeling comfortable and free enough to do the things he really likes. Sit down and join in the party!