‘He’ll need to harden up now he’s back in New Zealand’. This phrase is a sad indictment of the pressures on boys (and Kiwis, but that’s another story) to don emotional armour and show strength at all times. The he in question is 18 months old and the ‘harden up’ mentality is one of the first bricks laid in the wall that structures his understanding of being a man. There is a fascinating YouTube clip of a father encouraging his little boy not to cry when he receives his vaccinations. As the boy’s tears spill over and roll down his cheeks, he has a surge of emotion, high fives his Dad and hits his chest, calling out in a strangled voice ‘I’m a MAN!’. Poignant, terribly sad and the early manifestation of the toxic masculinity that deeply damages our boys. Tony Porter speaks brilliantly about the pressure on boys to lock emotion away; he would cuddle his little girl but shout at his little boy when each cried, such was his internal response to seeing his offspring not fit a lifelong expectation of being a man.
Beyond my own desire to do a good job of helping my little man become a big man who can process emotion, seek consent before touching another human being and think carefully about the footprint he leaves on the world, I have greater concerns about what feels like a crucial time when it comes to the limiting implications of gender constructs in society. Recently the New Zealand press covered a story in which teenage boys were screen grabbed saying that you’re not a ‘real Wellington College boy’ unless you take advantage of a drunk girl. We live in a world where Donald Trump talks of grabbing women by the pussy (and THEN gets elected as President), Eminem lyrics brag of choking and raping women, and 88% of pornography features aggression. And that’s the more overt messaging that boys and girls receive, the wallpaper that lines their daily lives is far more nuanced but contributes to a binary idea of gender that insidiously and consistently funnels children towards one of two quite disparate options; boy or girl. Boys are encouraged to aspire but not express, girls the opposite. They grow up in different shaped boxes that limit their individuality and exploration of talent, and therefore, their contribution to society.
Young people are wonderful. Creative, curious, caring and most are keen to be part of a kind and equality-seeking world. The overt negative messaging, i.e. Trump, is easier to critically analyse with kids, it’s the nuance we barely notice that is more difficult to challenge and we will better support young people on their journey to adulthood if we can provide a counterpoint and some critical thinking around this nuance. The rhetoric around manning up, the polarized marketing of boys’ and girls’ toys which funnel children down gendered paths, the language of teachers/parents which reinforce the idea that boys and girls should look and behave in opposite ways, books/TV shows which feature stereotypical characters, pornography, sexualized advertising, misogynistic music, sexist clothing, the list is endless and it all contributes to the pressure that young people feel, to very high youth suicide rates (both in the UK and New Zealand), to boys and men feeling castigated and defensive, to girls and women feeling scared and angry. It’s not insurmountable though; most humans are intrinsically good, most teenagers are kindhearted with a strong sense of social justice. With a thoughtful, wraparound approach that reframes gender and sexuality we can encourage steadfast values and critical thinking in the next generation. We can create wallpaper that focusses on being a happy, expressive, physically and emotionally intelligent human being, rather than on starkly disparate ideas of gender.
- Introduce Unconscious Bias training for teachers to prevent the hidden funneling of children by gender or ethnicity
- Be aware of ‘toxic talk’ (man up, boys will be boys) or books/films that reinforce reductive stereotypes
- High quality Relationships and Sex Education (with no exemptions) inclusive of consent, intimacy, love, different sexualities, and an unembarrassed critical approach to pornography
- Reduce the social delineation of girls and boys in schools (gendered uniforms, lining up as boys and girls, offer gender neutral bathrooms)
- Challenge retailers on segregated boys and girls toys – the brilliant Let Toys Be Toys campaign explains the sociological impact of this
- Teach young people to critically analyse social issues and inequality; they will be our policy makers and leaders of tomorrow.