Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gender Part 1: Boys Don't Cry

My previous WTF do I do post has generated a good number of comments on the topic of gender. Gender is the bread and butter of my research and career aspirations, so I have quite a bit to say about it. 

My intention is to compose a series of posts dedicated to this topic. I will cover women's, men's, transgender, and intersex issues over the course of the series. They will be primarily non-academic in nature because I know that most of my readers are in vastly different fields. Therefore, I will refer you to books and things that are written for the masses for more information, and if anyone wants journal articles just let me know. Favorite books on the topic are interspersed throughout the post. 

Gender Part 1: The Men & The Boys

When I was first looking at grad programs, I was focused on issues of men and masculinity. I felt that there were enough people studying women's issues, and in fact there are TONS of women's studies programs in universities across the country. I can count on one hand the number of men's studies programs. 


Book 1: The Man, Dr. Levant. One of the pioneers of men's studies in the US.

"But wait," you ask, "Why would/should we care about men's issues, JLK? Men have been ruling the damn world forever!"

Because, dear readers, many of the issues we experience as women stem directly from the way we raise our boys. Allow me to elaborate. 

One of my favorite bloggers, DuWayne, recently commented about how he occasionally likes to go commando in a hippie skirt, calling it "the next best thing to being naked." In our society generally, unless you're Scottish a dude wearing a skirt is unacceptable. 

But women can wear pants, "boyfriend" jeans, their male partner's clothes, etc. Basically, women can wear whatever the fuck they want pretty much whenever they want. I know at least some of you own "boyshort" panties that resemble men's boxer briefs! (I love those damn things, they're sexy as hell.)

However, a man who wears women's clothing is labeled a cross-dresser. We've all heard stories about a woman who comes home to find her husband trying on her lingerie, and she gets all freaked out about it. 

Why the double standard??

The fact is that boys are brought up with a very rigid prescription for how they should behave, what they should wear, what they should pursue as a career, etc. Now I am not saying that girls don't experience this as well, but the overall prescriptions for boys are MUCH MORE STRICT. 

Think about it, especially those of you who are around my age. If you, as a little girl, wanted to play with legos, trucks, cars, video games, etc. - were you told that those toys are "for boys" and that you should run along and play with dolls? Probably not. Most of us were allowed to play with whatever the fuck we felt like playing with. They made police officer and firefighter costumes for girls that were sold right next to the fairies and princesses. If I wanted to watch the He-Man cartoon before bed, I was never told that I should be watching She-Ra instead. 

But little boys who want to play with dolls are met with fierce opposition. If not from the parents themselves (especially dad) then from peers and from other parents, teachers, and family members. If a little boy wants to dress up as a fairy for halloween, he is either talked out of it, or expressly told "No."

Boys are supposed to be "masculine." They are supposed to be rough, dirty, and enjoy loud noises. They are not supposed to play with girls or girl toys, dress in girls clothing, and they are not supposed to want to grow up to be a nurse or other traditionally "feminine" career. They are told that boys don't cry, and learn that the only emotion that is acceptable for them in public is anger. They learn how to suppress and hide their emotions, and are discouraged from talking about them. 


Book 2: This was my eye-opener. If you read no other book I recommend, read this one. It follows men from childhood on, detailing the ways men learn to deal with emotions.

The saddest thing I learned in my research on little boys is that boy babies are left to cry in their cribs much, much longer than girl babies. 

Think about that for a second. 

Parents have a silent belief that baby boys should learn to "tough it out" when they are INFANTS. 

More research showed that male children were told to play by themselves more often, were engaged in conversation less, disciplined more, and received less overall attention by their parents. 

The kicker? These parents wholeheartedly believed that they were treating their children the same!!! They were shown video footage of how they treated their male and female children, and some of these parents CRIED because they felt so bad. "I never realized I was doing it!"

This is much, much, much more common and widespread than you think. 

What we have created is a male culture that values fierce independence, control or lack of emotions, no tolerance for weakness, and a disdain for anything "feminine."

Men aren't born that way. We make them that way. And then we wonder why women have a hard time getting ahead in a male-dominated career path, why the kiss of death for a woman is to cry at work, why men don't help out with children and the household as much as we would like them to, why HOMOPHOBIA EXISTS. 

Think about THAT one for a second. How many homophobic women do you know? (Those brought up in traditionalist Christian households aside.) Why do you think that is? Well, for starters, little boys are brought up experiencing less affection overall, and are taught that males showing affection for each other is WRONG, regardless of the circumstances! Why do you think that girls kissing girls on tv is just fine, and why staunchly homophobic men have no problem watching lesbian porn? If they were really and truly homophobic, they couldn't stand any of it. But the fact is, women being affectionate and even sexual with each other is an extension of what society perceives women to be - affectionate touchers. But men? Men aren't supposed to do that stuff!

All of these things combine to create a climate in which heterosexual marriages and relationships are very difficult to sustain. The divorce rate has skyrocketed since the women's movement. Why?

The answer is much simpler than you might think. 

If we are raising boys with a rigidly traditional idea of masculinity, while girls are being raised to believe that they can do anything they damn well please, that's going to create some friction. 

We left the men behind. 

The traditional masculinity complements traditional femininity - the idea of the breadwinner husband and homemaker wife. The roles are clearly defined for both, including the responsibilities. But women are now (mostly) raised to view marriage as an equal partnership. They work and so do their husbands, therefore neither person is more or less responsible for one thing or another. Which is great!

Except that we are still raising our boys to believe that the house is a woman's domain, and so is taking care of babies, and so is the emotional climate maintenance that comes with having a family. Even if a man WANTS to do these things and believes in egalitarian relationships, he does not know HOW to do them without help, because he was socialized to never learn them. 


Book 3: Austin Murphy is a sportswriter who embarks on a journey as a stay-at-home dad. Very funny read, and makes many of the points I have mentioned.

If we truly want equality for men and women, we have to raise our children with those ideals. If your son wants a baby doll for his birthday, get it for him. If he wants to dress up as Dora for Halloween, let him. Other parents will give you shit for it. But really, who gives a fuck if other parents think your 2 or 3 yr old son is gay?? Allowing him to explore his identity and his likes and dislikes is much, much more important. 


Book 4: An Unconventional Family by the Queen of Gender Studies, Dr. Sandra Bem from Cornell. This memoir details how she tried to raise gender-neutral children in an egalitarian household. 


The bottom line is (and I will reiterate this after every post in this series) that we all need to just BE WHO WE ARE. We cannot continue to foster a climate of "constant no" to our boys and expect the windows of opportunity to open up for our girls. Because we're telling our boys to "be men" when they are little, and then they grow up and are told by women that they are the enemy, part of the evil patriarchy that is oppressing the feminine spirit. 

But I ask you......when a little boy is punished for crying while his sister is comforted, who is really oppressed?

15 comments:

PhizzleDizzle said...

JLK, this is a truly fabulous post.

I have never been a man-eating feminist, I have always considered myself more of a realist. Women do often get the short end of the stick, and that bothers me. When men get the short end of the stick, that bothers me too. When anyone does, it bothers me.

I have thought about this problem with boys before in non-intellectual contexts, and the degree to which little boys today are pumped full of Ritalin so they will be quite and stop being boys just makes me sad.

The point you bring up which ABSOLUTELY fascinates me, and that I have never thought of before, is that a lot of the ills generalized to men (the lack of empathy, the more prevalent homophobia, etc) can be traced to the way we as a society raise them. That is truly a revolutionary statement in my eyes. But it makes total sense!!!

I have always wanted girl-babies so that I can raise them to be tough and independent like me. Because I think it would be better for the women of the world if I did so. However, this post might make me reconsider that desire and think about how to raise men that will respect women such as myself. That is probably as much a service to humanity as raising strong girl-children.

Thanks for the great post.

sandy shoes said...

Well, the Oppression Olympics gets silly very quickly. Bottom line: Absolutely, patriarchy hurts men, too. It seems there's a long way to go yet till that's widely acknowledged, so good on you for heading down that road professionally.

Gender, particularly transgenderedness, is a keen interest of mine, as well. My friend Helen Boyd has two terrific books on the subject: My Husband Betty, and She's Not The Man I Married. Her POV as a partner is not one often heard from.

Over the years I've come to know several transgendered folks very well. Thinking of gender as binary seems plain weird to me now. But out there in the "real" world, it so often comes down to ugliness over who gets to use what bathroom. Sad.

Procrastinating Postgrad said...

Here here. Great stuff. Phizzie, I have always considered myself an eating feminist- in fact, I have a cup of tea and a fruit bun right now.
I'm a sociologist researching parenting attitudes and I have just touched on the edges of social psychology. I found Carol Tavris' "The Mismeasure of Women" fantastic. She writes about measurement (which is my subfield) and makes a very convincing claim that in social, biological and legal situations, men are considered standard humans and women a small, odd, subgroup.
Standards and measurement, and measurement tools, are for my money one of the key ways in which gender differentations are maintained.

DuWayne Brayton said...

PhizzleDizzle -

Just be make rather clear, there are a great many circumstances in which Ritalin or similar is not only warranted, but a almost essential way to go. We actually took my eldest off of it, after it was clear that the negatives were outweighing the benefit. But have no doubt that as he gets older, he will go back on it.

I have severe ADHD, as does he. I was put on it, then taken off soon after due to side effects. The topic of my (then called ADD) ADHD, was pretty much ignored after that. I ended up dropping out of high school, in spite of having done truly amazing on some testing for special ed. Not trying to brag, but in seventh grade, I tested at grad and postgrad levels on every test, except for arithmetic and English mechanics, which were respectively below and at my grade level at the time.

I subsequently spent several years abusing just about every drug you have heard of and some I am certain you haven't. That is to say that there were few drugs I abused in particular, but I was pretty much high and/or hallucinating nearly all the time from about seventeen, to my mid-twenties.

As multiple studies have confirmed that kids with ADHD, who are medicated for it in there tween to teen years are exponentially less likely to fall into substance abuse patterns, you can bet your ass my eldest (and likely his baby brother, but I hold out hope) is going to be medicated. Of course, we already started the rudimentary discussion about inebriants when he was four.

sandy shoes -

You beat me to it.

I have a post brewing up about the bathrooms at my school. Apparently there was a kerfluffle about male born women using the women's bathroom a while back. The solution was to turn some of the men's bathrooms into "unisex" bathrooms. You can guess how many women actually use said unisex bathrooms.

My research/writing instructor was apparently part of the push that got the school to bend that far. I'm going to push it further and see if we can't get some of the women's bathrooms turned unisex and am also encouraging woman born women to actually use the unisex bathrooms.

Parenthood has taken me out of the getting my ass kicked/maced by cops and thrown in jail sort of rabble-rousing, but I think I can dive into this issue.

I also think I may have to bust out some skirt action for school. Though given my penchant for decidedly un-ladylike sitting, I'll probably wear unders. (I once sat out front of a coffee shop and the friends I was with decided to wait quite a while to mention that I was exposing myself to everyone in said coffee shop)

PhizzleDizzle said...

DuWayne, most certainly, you are right, Ritalin/Adderall/etc. is not a superfluous drug. I didn't mean it to come off that way. I am certain that it is necessary for some people. However, I have heard of a phenomena where parents and/or teachers will just put their kids on (or recommend parents put their kids on) the stuff just so they can put their boisterous little boys into a medically induced stupor, so that they will be quiet, so that they will "behave." These days, with shrunken recess and the like, asking a small boy to sit through hours of school without hardly any breaks just seems too much to ask, and putting them on medication to make them do so is just sad. That breaks my heart, and that's what I was talking about.

I wish the best to your boys.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I actually didn't figure you did particularly. I just tend to be a bit oversensitive about it. I have gotten way too much of the denialist bullshit about ADHD. Grew up with it, believed it for a long time and in many regards my lack of understanding or acceptance of it fucked up my life.

So I have this nearly pathological drive to jump on statements about Ritalin et al.

Ambivalent Academic said...

JLK - This is a fantastic post! I have LOTS of thoughts on this and need some time/space to articulate.

Like Phizz, this idea that we are raising boys to become the insensitive male buffoon stereotype that feminists like to rail against really struck me. It's so obvious, yet I hadn't been able to put my finger on it.

I saw it happen with my own brother. My parents never said "boys don't cry" to him. If anything, I think they coddled him a bit...but then he was the last of three children. It was school that really pigeon-holed him. Like my sister and I, he's really really bright. Unlike us girls though, his social group at school (the jocks) made it pretty clear that brains and athleticism were mutually exclusive. So what did he do? He dumbed himself down, tried to score B's when he could have easily gotten A's, all so he could be a star on the football field. It made me sad at the time, but he's turned out OK.

It's also interesting how much our community attitudes had an influence on him growing up. We were raised by very socially liberal parents in a rural small-town conservative community. I didn't blend in. Nobody was surprised when I took off for greener pastures after high school. I still get a little resentment towards my "elitist" attitude from the people who chose to stay in Home Town.

My sister was a chameleon. She was fast friends with all the people whose family's had lived there for generations...and is still friends with most of them despite her world-traveling and extensive education.

My brother, on the other hand, is a redneck. He will be graduating from the state Ad college this spring for a career in agribusiness (very much in line with the Good Ol' Boys Club values of our hometown). He chewed tobacco for a while and goes out to the local "tav" with his buddies from high school. I worried that he was going to be a redneck to the core. How could this happen in the family that I grew up in? Not that there's anything wrong with small-town rural America, but frequently this Good Ol' Boy redneck attitude is coupled with quite a lot of intolerance.

I'm sure that the guys my brother works with use the word "gay" as an insult...as in, "you can't paint your track that color! It will look so gay!" That's just one example of pervasive intolerant attitudes in his social circle. I worried that my brother might dive into this head first. He probably uses the same speech patterns as his buddies when he's with them in order to be part of the group.

But a few months ago one of my cousins came out. This cousin has a sibling who is also gay (came out several years ago). So when my brother and I were catching up on family news I mentioned to him that Cousin2 came out. His response: "Hey, good for Cousin2." Yes! Then there was a brief pause, before he felt the need to reassert his masculinity: "I mean, it's not really my thing but I'm glad he'll be happy."

I'm glad my brother was fairly accepting of my cousin's situation, given his cultural environment. But I think it's weird that it's almost reflexive for a man to assure other people that he's not gay when that was never in question in the first place.

Ambivalent Academic said...

state Ag college

DuWayne Brayton said...

AA -

Given the culture your brother lives in, it is pretty much essential that he make clear his own sexuality.

I grew up in the midwest, in a fairly progressive environment. Most of the men I know have absolutely no problem with gays. And that's not just the liberals, pretty much everyone around these parts are fine with it and few suffer much, if any visceral reaction - such as; "I'm fine with it, as long as they don't hit on me."

Yet there were many of my friends who wondered about my own sexuality, because I never felt compelled to provide the caveat that I'm not gay, when homosexuality was being discussed. One of my closest friends once decided to have a heart to heart with me about it. He wanted to make sure that if I was gay, it was ok, that none of our friends would have a problem with it. He, and several of our friends, were concerned that I was living in the closet and worried about how that might be affecting me.

Not only was the friend who actually brought this up quite a liberal, he also happens to be gay. And yes, they pretty much based their assumption on the fact that I never felt the need to assert my lack of Teh Gay. (it was largely that conversation that pushed me to stop identifying as straight - that and reading an interview with Michael Stipe, where when he was pressed about his sexuality, responded that he likes to have sex with humans)

So I really don't think your brother was being unreasonable at all. Nor do I think it's indicative of some sexual insecurity (which is a very common claim about people who use that caveat). He is simply a product of the culture in which he lives. And I have little doubt that if he didn't throw that caveat in, most of the people he works with, hangs out with would absolutely assume it's because he's gay.

As much as I would love to see our society get to the point where it isn't even a question, we aren't there yet. But slowly and surely it's a changing. Look at it this way, thirty years ago, it's unlikely your cousins would have come out at all and if they did, it's likely they would have been summarily ostracized by most of the people around them, including many family members - certainly any product of your brother's culture.

Ambivalent Academic said...

DuWayne - That was precisely my assumption about his need to throw that in there.

The culture that he currently occupies is the culture that I grew up in too, so I've seen quite a lot of examples of this. The difference is that I left and he stayed, hence his need to continue to fit in to his very rigidly defined role there. It heartens me to know that he's "cool with it" and that he and most of his buddies come to the defense of their gay friends and acquaintances if they're being harassed.

I still think it's weird (not weird-I-don't-get-it, but weird-it-should-be-different) that so many hetero men have to constantly assert their hetero status so that no one will assume otherwise. I get that it's just the way that culture works. Your story illustrates this very well - by the way, it sounds like you've got some really caring friends. I just wish it would change.

I also think it's weird that in general, most people assume that others they meet are straight unless there is evidence to the contrary (this is probably a numbers game - population studies suggest that there are more hetero than gay people and most people will default to assuming that everyone else they meet is like themselves until they have to acknowledge a difference). Yet, omitting the statement "By the way, I'm straight..." when discussing homosexuality is somehow an indicator that this persons does not fall into the default category, suggests to me that there is still quite a lot cultural angst over this issue.

I think my brother's doing a pretty good job of being open-minded and accepting given his social environment. I just think that it's too bad that there's so much anxiety over sexuality that people have to constantly assure each other of their status. In the case I mentioned, it was almost kind of funny. I mean, he's my brother. He knows that I know that he digs girls and that he's secure about his own sexuality, and his response was a purely reflexive afterthought to what he really wanted to say. That he had a habitual need to add that into a conversation with someone who knows him really well just suggests to me exactly what you are saying: omission of a statement that "I am hetero" in any conversation about alternative sexuality is reason for someone else to wonder or question your self-identification and their perception of it, at least in his culture.

I don't think that my brother was being unreasonable either for all the reasons you mention. I just hope that someday we will achieve a level of tolerance where one's sexuality (especially for men) is not such a big deal that he and his friends have to make a big deal out of it all the freakin' time.

I guess that my main point with sharing that story was just to support the theme of JLK's post that boys are raised with much more rigid boundaries for their self-identification as men, and especially as hetero men. But I guess that we're still talking about that.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

Think about it, especially those of you who are around my age. If you, as a little girl, wanted to play with legos, trucks, cars, video games, etc. - were you told that those toys are "for boys" and that you should run along and play with dolls? Probably not. Most of us were allowed to play with whatever the fuck we felt like playing with.

I agree with you that boys, in general, have less license with their masculinity than girls have with our femininity. (Though I don't think we can compare degrees of oppression between the sexes and genders with admissions like these-- for myriad reasons . . .)

That said, the quote above does not hold true for my upbringing. I grew up on Air Force bases in the '80s and '90s. In my world, boys were "boys" and girls were "girls"; men were "men" and women were "women". The vast majority of moms stayed at home. The vast majority of wives had children. I grew up assuming I'd get married and have children and submit to my husband's plans because it was unthinkable that I'd do anything else. I was plied with Barbie dolls (exclusively black after my three-year-old sister innocently remarked that the white ones were "better"), stunningly frilly dresses, stuffed animals . . . Everything in pink, too.

When I did "tomboyish" things-- mimicked adults smoking (my mom was a closet smoker and I caught her again and again from toddlerhood on), collected locust shells and fungi, made mud baths, got dirty in any other way, climbed trees (I was really good at this and loath to give it up), built shit out of the metal and wood scraps the manly-men muscled and clean-cut Air Force dudes generated in their garages with their weekend hobbies, etc., I was rebuked, harshly or tacitly. Personally, the tacit rebukes were worse.

I could go on and on, especially because I can't factor my racial and cultural experiences out of my socialization as a girl. In my world, a "real" girl, a desirable, pretty, good girl, was white. We all watched Disney movies and we understood that princesses couldn't be black. And my mother was so keen on our resembling my "dad's half of the family" as minimally as possible, without even really being conscious of it . . .

(Though this gets (thankfully) less and less true every year, I can argue that notions of masculinity and femininity vary by ethnicity among black, white, Latino and Asian Americans. I can also argue that "white culture" and "Asian culture" find the "black" and "Latino" notions repulsive, and that this has a lot of bearing on how anomalous people like me manifest our femininity.

(Before I get flamed: I will unhesitatingly acknowledge that class-based notions of gender are steadily taking center-stage, as more and more minorities infiltrate the mainstream. I'm not interested in the Oppression Olympics; I am merely trying to understand things.)

I went to a civilian Catholic high school where little changed in terms of rigid notions of femininity and masculinity. Those kids were rich, but only because their dads made serious money as longshoremen down at the Harbor. I say "only" because this also meant a culture in which women kept their places and men were aggressive and strong. And, incidentally, everyone in my high school was rampantly, stultifyingly homophobic. (This was a high school where, at the time, a girl "caught" with a teen mag pinup of Tyson Beckford in her locker never stopped hearing, "Ew! Why do you like that nigger?!" It was great.) Girls and boys; women and men.

I feel like you're doing a good job of slowly unfolding a discussion of a subject that is bogglingly complicated.

No wonder I took my ass to UC Berkeley, where I learned things that would give "traditionalists" apoplexy. That just popped into my mind. It makes me chuckle.

Sorry for the disorganized comment, JLK. I'll try to do better next time.

JLK said...

Great comments, Juniper!

You bring up several things that I intend to get to in later posts:

1) The military mentality. The military reinforces traditional gender roles and heteronormative behaviors almost as severely as traditionalist Christian sects.

2) Cultural/ethnic differences in gender role typing and socialization. There is a lot of variation here, so for the moment I have been focusing on the dominant American culture that is seen in the media and all around us, which often includes trying to stuff other cultures to fit the mold that's been set by white Christian America.

3) Religion and gender. The more conservative the religion, school, locale, etc., the more traditional gender roles are reinforced and interracial attraction is forbidden.

I laughed when I got to the end of your comment, because at my Catholic high school I had half-naked pictures of Tyson Beckford All. Over. My. Shit.

He was later replaced by Boris Kodjoe and Shemar Moore. Y-U-M-M-Y.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

I laughed when I got to the end of your comment, because at my Catholic high school I had half-naked pictures of Tyson Beckford All. Over. My. Shit.

I think I love you, JLK.

The military reinforces traditional gender roles and heteronormative behaviors almost as severely as traditionalist Christian sects.

You're seriously gonna take this on? AWESOME! I can't friggin' wait!

JLK said...

@Juniper - LOL! I am definitely going to take it on, it's going to be tough for me to do it with much credibility though because I can't access journal articles anymore and there really aren't any books that I know of about this subject. So a lot of the info you'll get getting from me is going to be regurgitated lectures unless I can find something else. My husband is military, but his experiences are too colored for me to get really accurate information.

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