Raising boys can sometimes stink. I’m not talking about all the dirty socks, but rather the toxic culture of masculinity that surrounds our boys and that we—as parents—actively have to fight against.
Take Halloween costumes, for instance. The other day when walking through a store, my son zipped over to some, as if attracted by a magnet. The boy’s section was devoted mostly to superheroes, with foam padding and enlarged muscles covering the various Hulks, Thors, and Captain Americas. Beside the superheroes were the “bad-guy” costumes. Lots of blood, gore, and scary weapons. These are the choices boys have today. Macho, muscled-up superheroes or violent villains. And heaven forbid they choose something from across the aisle. The teasing and bullying—from both kids and adults—is enough for any kid to swear off pink as their favorite color.
When Target made the move to stop sorting their kids’ shelves by gender, people freaked out, complaining that it was the end of traditional gender as we know it. While I highly doubt that’s the case, if it helps us move away from the current trend where girls and boys are sent certain messages about how to behave or just be—usually to their detriment—then I am actually totally OK with that.
Boys today grow up in a culture of toxic masculinity. Nobody is saying that being a boy is bad, or that being masculine is bad. Not at all. But when you enforce rigid stereotypes that squash emotional intelligence and couple it with the idea that boys are entitled to whatever they want simply because they are male, you’re hurting everyone.
Last year, Jennifer Siebel Newsom followed up Miss Representation, her powerful documentary about sexism in America, with a new documentary, The Mask You Live In, that looks at boys and masculinity.
Look at the news and you can see many examples of this at play. Steubenville, Ohio, where a handful of high school football players who were continually told they were the hometown heroes not only sexually assaulted an unconscious teenage girl while others watched and did nothing, but they filmed and posted the rape on social media. St. Paul prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, where a former student was on trial for raping a freshman as part of some unspoken school ritual. Josh Duggar and the myriad of sexual exploits that have come out about him in the past several months. Bill Cosby. Vanderbilt. The list goes on and on.
Many of the expectations that are wrapped up in what it means to be a “real” man are damaging. They cause young boys to be exposed to a range of violence, desensitizing them to it, as well as learning to suppress their emotions, which can lead to larger, more violent explosions later on. Look at many of the mass shootings or attacks that have been in the news. Many of the men (and it’s always men), have left notes or manifestos saying that since they were unsatisfied in some aspect of their lives, this is what they were pushed to do.
We need to start talking to our sons, and tell them that it’s OK to feel and express emotion. That it doesn’t make them any less of a man. We need to encourage them and support them if they spread themselves and their preferences outside the rigid gender lines. Remind them that it is OK to be nurturing and loving. And also to instill values of respect and consent starting at a young age.
Each time I hear of another act of violence, whether it’s a shooting or sexual assault, my stomach drops, and it just reminds me of all the hard work we parents of boys have ahead of us.
Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Every Mother Counts, Kveller, The New York Times, CNN, HLNtv.com, RH Reality Check, Offbeat Mama, and more. In addition to her blog, The Mamafesto, Avital has a regular feminist parenting column, “Mommie Dearest,” for The Frisky. Her first book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, came out in January 2014 from Seal Press.
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