At two year’s old, Penni F’s son happily enthuses over both fairies and trucks. But, she worries, what happens when pressure to be a ‘real man’ kicks in?
I have a toddler, a two-year-old boy. Like ‘most boys’, he likes running around and making loud noises, playing with trucks and watching Bob the Builder and Fireman Sam on the television. He likes riding his rocking horse so enthusiastically that he flies over the top of its head. He likes throwing things, hitting things with sticks, bouncing on the sofa, and generally doing whatever any sane and sensible parent would rather he didn’t.
He also likes pink. He loves fairies, and will spend ages poring over a book of fairies that his best friend (a girl) is completely left cold by. If he sees anyone crying, he wants to go and hug them. I can’t leave the house without him picking “a pretty flower for you, Mummy”. His hair is longer than people expect on a boy (and blond and curly, too). He always insists on taking large numbers of cuddly toys (“friends”) to bed with him, and when he wakes in the morning, he comes in and offers me one – “Would Mummy like a friend?”
Often I take my son out in his favourite bright pink top (with a flower on it), and when I’m complimented on my “beautiful little girl”, I explain that he’s a boy. I see the strangers’ faces change, and I feel guilty about allowing my boy to dress in clothes he likes, to have his hair a length that he likes. I can almost read their minds: “Oh, poor child. I expect his mother really wanted a girl…” Actually, I find my child delightful just as he is, and I am thrilled that he’s a boy. If he were a girl, I’d probably be equally thrilled, albeit less likely to feel bad about dressing her boyishly if she preferred it.
And there lies a point: why is it so unacceptable for males to do anything considered ‘feminine’? Where the name tomboy may be worn as a badge of pride by girls, sissy – the name for boys who exhibit typically feminine behaviours – is always a term of abuse.
I fear for my son as he grows up, and discovers pressure not to be himself, but to live up to other people’s expectations of what it is to be male. Where his peers will tease him for liking flowers, or for kissing his mother; and where adults say to him “big boys don’t cry”, where they’d comfort a little girl of a similar age. Where he’s not expected to identify with girl characters in books, or read stories written by women (Joanna Rowling’s Harry Potter series was published under the gender neutrality of her initials, because of the publisher’s fears that a female name would curtail boys’ readership). Where he will have it drummed into him in a way which is as unhealthy for males as for females (albeit with different results) that “woman” and “girl” are lesser entities: less important, less appealing, and everything that is even loosely associated with femininity is to be despised.
At the moment, Austin has a freedom that he may never experience again. The freedom to like things because he likes them, not because he is told he ‘ought’ to like them; the freedom not to be ‘a boy’ but ‘a child’. He deserves to be able to keep that, but the fact is that gender assumptions are pushed on us every day in one way or another. In women, it leads to an expectation that nurturing comes naturally to us, that we do not deserve to be paid the same amount as men for doing the same job, that there’s something unnatural about a woman who is, say, a mechanic. This is, of course, outrageous. And when one sees men – particularly white, middle-class men, which is what my son is likely to be when he grows up – getting better jobs, being paid more and being able to walk alone at night without fear of sexual assault, it is difficult to feel sorry for them.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that it is teenage boys who have the highest suicide rate. They’re conditioned to believe that they can’t ask for help because it is ‘unmanly’. Just as women suffer under the principle that there’s nothing worse than not being a man, so too do boys and men who have characteristics (and most do, to some degree) which are not considered to be appropriate (what an awful word) in males. Made to feel as if they’re not ‘real’ men, teenage boys may feel utterly isolated.
At the moment, as his mother, I have one of the strongest influences over my son. I am trying to use this time to implant in him the belief that he can be anything, do anything, without having any sort of gender judgement attached. My hope is that as he grows up, no matter the level of external pressure, these values will stay with him, and that I can make him confident enough in himself to feel free to act in whatever way comes naturally to him. If they say: “Boys don’t do that,” I want him to be able to reply: “I’m doing this, and I’m a boy, so actually they do.”