There are lots of things in this world that bother me. This is no secret. Recently a friend asked me to name my top five most persistent pet peeves. My instinctive reply was “Only five?” That being said, in addition to couples who say “we’re pregnant” as if they are both carrying one half of a set of twins and people who cannot differentiate between their right from their left, I am not okay with the way gender roles are continually perpetuated. But I’m not going to tackle the blue and pink aisles at every major department and toy store in America — that’s for a different day. Right now I want to talk about how we shape and distort masculinity with four words: “Boys will be boys.”
We hear is all the time. A teenager kicks a hole in their bedroom wall in a fit of rage, “Boys will be boys.” First graders brawling on the floor of their classroom, “Boys will be boys.” Men catcalling women through open car windows, “Boys will be boys.” Boys will be boys basically means boys will be impolite, disruptive, sexist, aggressive, and predatory, but the fact that they have a penis makes it not only okay but desirable. Why do we foster this? Why do we teach our sons, our nephews, godsons, friends and neighbors that it is normal to run around breaking stuff and people? Why do we lower our expectations of them and stop encouraging them to be active, intelligent participants in their own lives?
One issue is that our entire existence is deeply saturated with these ideas. Both the media and our everyday interactions are tainted with it. The other problem is that is seems easier to ignore or perpetuate these ideas than it does to recognize, address, and attempt to correct them.
The most unfortunate pawns in this laziness are the boys themselves. Boys will be boys shapes their idea of what is to be male from a very young age. It tells them what boys are and are not. Boys are physically tough and large. They are unbothered by pain. They are stoic and self-sufficient. They settle arguments with their fists instead of their wits. They like football and cars and construction work. While there is nothing wrong with loving football or cars or having a penchant for building, not every boy has all or any of these interests. These ideals curtail true interests and dictate behavior.
We are comfortable with boys who play contact sports, but boys of the same age seeking art or dance are bullied, coerced into finding more socially acceptable activities, and at times even feared. Why is it that we prefer one passion over another? What about those boys who cradle a baby doll lovingly in the crook of their elbow? To some, they are the example of a worst case scenario, soft and effeminate, for showing an interest in creating human connections. How is it that belligerence is favored while empathy is admonished? Why do we squelch any nurturing behavior and try to redirect it into something more stereotypically masculine, yet expect these same boys to grow into men who make good husbands and kind-hearted, emotionally available fathers?
By lowering our expectations, we influence these boys to lower their expectations of themselves. If we expect boys to act disruptively in school, they will. Studies show that both school aged boys and girls believe girls do better in school, are harder workers, and better at concentrating. These boys believe they are incapable of performing as well academically as their female counterparts so they stop trying to do well. There is a direct correlation between academic performance and perceived capability. Boys who are told they are capable of performing at the same or a better caliber than their female classmates score higher than boys who are told otherwise.
If we perceive anger and aggression as normal parts of male existence, we are not inclined to offer services to help young men find appropriate ways to channel their emotions. Instead we let them beat each other up, act recklessly, and seek drugs and alcohol as forms of self-medication which often leading to arrest and incarceration. We teach them they are by nature aggressive, mean, and incapable of rational thought during times of stress. They learn they cannot help themselves or control their reactions. There is no innocent until proven guilty, no benefit of the doubt. We teach them they are rapists and criminals, thieves and speed demons; thinly veiled monsters always on the precipice of doing something awful, if the right catalyst were to occur. At the same time, we teach them to denounce any emotions outside of aggression. We brush off serious issues like depression and other mental health issues, not as realized medical issues, but as points of weakness, then balk as they commit suicide at alarming and heartbreaking rates.
We rob them of strong friendships with other boys by making deep emotional connections, turning what could be a vital to their emotional health into something embarrassing or romantic in nature. We vilify romantic or sexual relationships between men, using the word “gay” as the ultimate insult. We strip them of a true self-exploration in regards to their sexuality by creating a culture which paints them as hyper-sexual, detached, and insatiable. We teach them their disrespect for the women in their life is part of the natural order. We create a model for masculinity that leaves no room for deviation or individualization. We carve our boys into identical toy soldiers and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
At the same time, we teach girls to lower their expectations of the men in their lives including their brothers, fathers, classmates, co-workers, boyfriends and spouses. Boys will be boys teaches girls that the male counterparts who taunt them, pull their hair and push them on the playground are just trying to show their affection. We ingrain the idea that the men who love them will undoubtedly hurt them, often physically, and such behavior is both normal and acceptable. Boys will be boys, after all. I would never want my daughter to date or marry a man who felt it was appropriate to make frequent or even occasional sexist comments, act in a predatory manner, or be aggressive verbally or physically. If she is attracted to men, I don’t want her to fall in love with a boy whose parents expected him to act out and not only get away with it, but find himself adorned with the tokens of masculinity; stars, stripes and three counts of domestic abuse.
So, what do we do? First, we stop being dismissive. Boys need just as much guidance as girls. Correct unacceptable behavior and reward good behavior. Creating a social code that outlines respectable behavior based on our humanity and not our gender is also integral. What is inappropriate for girls needs to also be inadmissible for boys and vice versa. Speak carefully. Using words like slut and bitch spread the belief that men have a right to inflict physical, sexual or emotional pain on a woman based on how they dress or act. And listen to boys, not as a mass of the population gifted with and burdened by their XY chromosomes, but as individuals with their own sets of dreams, feelings, needs and interests.
Written by Rachel Brandt
This article was originally published in Deleting the Adjectives.