All those posts about little girls, but what about my little boy? Feminism has done a lot towards bending gender norms to allow girls more freedom and flexibility but it’s only more recently that masculinity – often seen as the standard to aspire to – has come under scrutiny.
The social structure empowers men over women, and a good deal of women’s emancipation has been about the struggle to equal the power balance. But the social structure also severely restricts men in ways that seem trivial but are probably not so. My question with all things trivial is – if they are so trivial, why so much ado about them?
Why such negative reactions, for example, to parents who might decide to not stick to the traditional gender norms and to let their children decide? Let me summarise for those too lazy to click the link. These parents decided to keep the sex of their child a secret from everyone but their immediate family… for as long as they could. The children knew they were either boy or girl but it was immaterial to them because they were brought up in as gender neutral a way as possible.
The children seem fine. But society seems to have a problem with it. Somehow a little “boy” with long hair and a pink dress upset everyone a great deal. But why should it? The consequence is that the boy had to be pulled out of school. Unsurprisingly, most people are enraged at the parents rather than a society that deals so violently with those that do not conform.
Because at the end of the day, this is about conformity. There is no logical reason why a boy should not have pigtails and a pink dress if he chooses to just as we now accept that there is no logical reason why a girl should not wear pants and have short hair if she wants to. The only reason is that people will make fun of him. And so parents have two choices – guide your child towards conformity or watch as your child becomes isolated because society in its infinite wisdom (NOT) cannot grasp a world in which the genders are not rigidly separated.
It reminds me of school. The reason many of us who went to school in India do very well in the workplace is because traditional school prepares you for life in a way unrelated to textbooks. You learn, for example, to do a whole lot of things you don’t want to do. Like sitting in a classroom for 8 hours, which is great preparation for the world of work where most of us will exchange classroom for desk. Work is actually easier because you have the Internet (and blogs) to kill the time and your boss isn’t standing right in front of you watching you, ready with a slap if she suspects your attention is straying. Other things learnt in school – reading and reproducing textbooks that make no sense, showing respect to people who may not be worthy of it. Of course one learns some things in school that are useful – like queuing up and making friends – but the biggest thing one learns in school is conformity, symbolized quite overtly by wearing a uniform.
One might argue that learning to conform works well because that’s what society needs. I’m not really convinced though that society needs people with the ability to stare into space for long stretches while looking busy. Wouldn’t society be better served by people who refuse to pointlessly sit around for eight hours twiddling their thumbs over tasks that require only a couple of hours? Many of the people who made a positive contribution to society over the years are those that didn’t conform. So many what society needs is less conformers – people with the ability to obey rules that make sense (like queuing up) but not those that are arbitrary (like only girls must wear skirts).
Apart from dress – which seems more heavily codified for men than for women – the two other big restrictions that masculinity places on men that I can think of are:
1. Pressure to be the breadwinner. The stress of being the sole provider of the family is something men begin living with from childhood. From the time they are little boys, they are encouraged – through the choice of toys, role models, comments by friends and family – into professions that will assist them in their future role as primary breadwinners. Their interests are indulged but are carefully watched and often nipped in the bud – if they veer towards such things as ballet or dress-up, for example. What the psychological effects of this clipping of wings are noone has any idea – or cares. Young men tend to get into careers that will guarantee a steady income, often not even letting themselves envisage alternative possibilities. Most of them end up in careers that are a means to an end that, if they are lucky, they have a vague interest in. Women, on the other hand, seem to have much more freedom to choose what they are passionate about – society’s assumption that they don’t have to work works in their favour here. I know quite a few women who have expressed the desire to step out of the world of fulltime work, to have babies, to pursue a hobby, to do nothing at all. They are met with nods of understanding. I know only one guy who has even allowed himself to think such thoughts.
2. Being a man means being unemotional: My son is not shy of expressing his emotions. If he’s frustrated or thwarted or sad or hungry, he throws his head back and wails the roofbeams down, tears flowing. Mums out there, when does this stop? When and how does your son realize it’s not manly to cry? Or to talk about his feelings? Or to communicate?
So will I be dressing my little boy in a pink dress? No. I don’t have the balls (literally). But I will not diss someone who does. And if my boy wants to be a ballet dancer, I hope I have the strength to help him go for it.