Gender: It's Not Just for Girls Anymore

Tracy Clark-Flory today draws attention to a quote from Peggy Orenstein, who wrote a pretty good article over the weekend about trying to raise your daughters with an adequate balance of intrepidness and, for the lack of a better word, "femininity." I recommend the article, especially to parents of girls. But that's not what I want to talk about, at least not directly.

Toward the end of the article, Orenstein says something that gets neglected far too often in the discussion of how to raise our daughters to be less "girly" -- how to raise our boys to be more so:
Whether girlie or girlist, girls, because they’re allowed more latitude in their identities, can still be girls: Boys, on the other hand, must be boys — unless no one is watching. In another study of younger children, Cherney and London found that if ushered alone into a room and told they could play with anything, nearly half the boys chose “feminine” toys as often as “masculine” ones, provided they believed nobody, especially their fathers, would find out. That made me question whether any more expansive vision of girlhood can survive without a similar overhaul of boyhood, which, apparently, is not in the offing. Learning to “create an amazing dance routine” (as suggested by “Everything”) is still far more Dangerous for boys than, as their own volume suggests, learning to juggle.
The short answer to Orenstein's question, of course, is "no."

Feminism has been a wonderfully transformative force in Western culture. It has helped women chart courses that were not open to them but a generation or two ago. Yes, as I state often, there is far to go before women reach true equality, and there are many out there who would roll back the clock to 1957, if only they could figure out how. Nevertheless, we've come a long way; my mom, along with the rest of her class, had to wear skirts to high school, and were brought on stage at her high school ten at a time and asked to kneel, to ensure the skirts weren't too short. Meanwhile, my sister did not, to my knowledge, wear a skirt to school from sixth grade on. Yet my sister, who was an all-state goalkeeper, was still considered as acceptably feminine as girls who always wore dresses to school and focused on Home Ec classes.

That "acceptable femininity" has expanded in scope is unquestionably a good thing, and while we're not there yet, one can see the day coming when girls are considered girls simply for being girls, no matter their dress, interests, hair length, or sexual orientation.

The same cannot be said for boys. Boys are still, to large extent, expected to fit into a very narrow range of "acceptable masculinity." Boys are supposed to like sports, rasslin', "kinetic activities." They're supposed to show toughness, supposed to show little interest in emotion or caring for others. Quite simply, boys are supposed to be boys, and any boy who dares step outside that box is going to be called a girl or a homosexual, not just by his peers, but likely by his own parents.

The quote from Orenstein is heartbreakingly accurate: boys are as likely to want to play at parenthood as girls are to want to kick a ball. Boys are as likely to want to read quietly as girls are to roughhouse. Boys are, quite simply, no more likely to "be boys" as girls are to "be girls."

But while we as a society have recognized that girls can and should want to be made of more than sugar and spice and everything nice, boys are still supposed to be all snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails. That this is a problem for boys is obvious; that this is a problem for girls should be.

I attack the MRAs often and strongly, because their prescription for what ails men in our society is completely backward. But their diagnosis of the problem is not, or at least, not necessarily. Men and women used to have rigidly defined roles: men were doers, women were caring, men worked, women stayed home, men dispensed punishment, women dispensed love. Boys were football players and soldiers, women were cheerleaders and homemakers. This was The Way it Was, and there was a certain comfort to it for some. Oh, sure, it constrained the path one could go down, but there was comfort in knowing that was your path, and you owned it.

Feminism changed that game, by letting women onto other paths. Suddenly, women could walk down the same path as men. Men like me thought that was perfectly fine -- why shouldn't women be able to go where they wanted? But some men objected, because that was their path, damn it, and who were these women to go walking down it?

Those men have fought bitterly to force women back into their roles, and for the most part, they've failed. But there's something unspoken in all of this: what about men who would want to go down the path women were once expected to?

They're still supposed to stay on their own path. Share it, yes -- but they're still expected to be workers, dispensers of punishment, football players. They're still supposed to tough it out. They're still not supposed to be caregivers, they're still not supposed to be homemakers, still not supposed to cry or fear or worry.

You doubt this, I'm sure. Okay, consider: you and your spouse have to go to a tax seminar tomorrow, and you need someone to watch your eight- and six-year-olds. You have your choice between an equally-qualified 13-year-old boy and girl to watch them, save for the fact that the girl is charging $40 for the night, the boy $20.

Look deep in your heart, because there's a good chance you'd fork over the extra $20.

I would. Despite everything I know and believe about equality, about the ability of boys to be caregivers, about the fact that men and women are far more similar than different, about the need for boys to learn to be caregivers -- I'd still, when it came down to my daughter, fork over the money to have her watched by the girl.

Maybe others reading this are different than me, maybe you're better at this equality stuff than I am, but I don't think so. I think we still view the roles boys can play as more constrained than that girls can.

The end result is obvious: boys don't learn to be caregivers, and so they grow up not to be equal partners in parenting. Women learn men are workers, and so it is expected that men will go to work, and women will have to sacrifice and stay home.

Until we let boys onto the paths of their choosing, we're constraining just how free girls are to choose their own paths. Until we free masculinity to be as varied and expansive as femininity, we're placing an ultimate boundary on femininity itself. For those of us who believe that feminism is an important and transformative philosophy, one that will eventually bring true equality to the sexes, we need to remember that feminism is not just for girls, and gender norms apply to both sexes.

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