The stereotypes that plague our lives teach that the characteristics of empathetic understanding are feminine: listening, sensitivity, quiet consideration and gentleness. Empathy is feminized and boys learn quickly that what is feminized is, in a man, the source of disgust. While parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents and others whose ideas shape children aren’t sitting around telling boys, “Don’t be empathetic!” they are saying, in daily micro-aggressive ways, “Don’t be like girls!” The process of “becoming a man” still often means rejecting almost anything that any activity or preference that smacks of cross-gender expression or sympathy.
Expression and empathy are closely related for children. When boys are taught that they can’t “be like girls” it has the three-fold effect. First, it alienates them from core aspects of themselves. Second, it portrays what is feminine as undesirable and inferior. Third, it forces boys into a “ man box” from which emotions and empathy are excluded. An upcoming documentary, The Mask You Live In, carefully examines, from the perspective of boys and men, what this feels like and means in their lives.
While more and more parents are openly grappling with how to handle “non conventional” gender behavior in children, many others won’t even consider the behavior as remotely acceptable. The policing of boys’ gender expression doesn’t require parents who yell, “Stop crying, you sound like a girl!” or homophobic classmates hurling some variation of “ Don’t be so gay!” (which is, sadly, still a serious problem). A whole range or rules, traditions, daily interactions and media content come together to narrow boys’ options and, ultimately, abilities. Consider these five everyday ways that boys are taught first not to look like girls, not to be like girls, not to do “girly” things, and then, ultimately, to lose the ability to feel compassion.
1. Clothing. That we color-code kids needs no explanation. Without getting into the details of how fearful communities can be when it comes to gender-fluid children and their free self-expression, in general, boys and girls are taught to dress according to binary gender-types and stereotypes. We seem nationally fixated on making sure that boys and girls not only “know” “what they are,” but communicate it clearly to others. This is especially true for boys. We no longer think twice about girls who wear pants, but when women first started doing so, it was shocking and revolutionary. It meant, for example, that they could ride bicycles and be independent. Only this past spring was a 200-year old law banning women from wearing trousers revoked in Paris.
But many girls now have the flexibility to be creative with their clothes, to use more colors, to dress with flair and generally enjoy a broader range of options when it comes to appearance than boys do. There are downsides, of course, because accessorizing in these ways is actually part of a bigger problem, namely, your entire gender being treated as an accessory itself. On the other hand, boys are far more strictly confined in their choices. Boys wearing skirts as a matter of daily habit, in the United States, is as shocking an idea as trousers for women were at the turn of the last century. Those who challenge limits are regularly mocked, bullied and penalized by peers and adults, especially when it comes to school dress codes. While most schools make provisions for girls to wear pants, very few include skirt options for boys who might want to wear them, for whatever reason. For example, Warren Evans, a student in Maryland, was suspended for wearing a skirt. For some people the simple idea of a boy wanting to wear a skirt, ever, is bizarre.