What does it mean to be masculine? To be feminine? What do my children associate with girls and boys and men and women and masculinity and femininity? What traits to they see reflected in me? In their father? In themselves?
I thought about these questions (and then some) when I read Fertile Feminism’s recent piece on “Gender According to Teens.” She writes:
I was going through boxes of memorabilia from my childhood at my parents’ home recently and came across a clutch of papers from a class I took in high school. I believe it was my freshman or sophomore year and I even vaguely remember participating in the exercise described. Reading the answers my peers and I had been conditioned to give (and believe) saddened me greatly.
What was the exercise?
From what I can tell, it asked the participants to list what they considered to be traits of both femininity and masculinity, and then to list the pros/cons of being male and the pros/cons of being female.
The results were telling. Shocking. (But not really.)
Under traits of femininity were terms like: kind, frail, stays home, outspoken, high pitched voice, unconditional love, jealous, sneaky, loving, clothes, moody, and nurturing.
Under traits of masculinity were terms like: brave, mean, shows little emotion, strong, slob, muscular, laid back, cursing, unaffectionate, tough, deep voice, and competitive.
Some of the advantages of being female? Can cry and be emotional, doesn’t have to pay on dates all the time, can wear anything, have children, have breasts, smell better, and can blame everything on PMS.
The disadvantages? PMS, being thought of as weak and dumb, worry about weight, have to sit to pee, discrimination, and being female in a male-dominated society.
Some of the advantages of being male? No childbirth, makes decisions based on logic, more persuasive, don’t get harassed, being male in a male-dominated society, and can pee standing up.
The disadvantages? Not allowed to cry, can’t have children, having the pressure of keeping the household afloat, and (the most telling of anything listed in these exercises) none.
There is so much that one could unpack in the responses to these exercises. So many assumptions that one could question, so many gender expectations and stereotypes worth discussing, so many socially constructed gender roles that are nonetheless very real for many girls, boys, women, and men.
But, in my own navelgazing sort of way, I think there’s also so much that I would like for my own boys to realize about gender: not only in relation to others but also in relation to themselves.
I hope they realize that boys can be just as kind and loving and soft and nurturing as girls can be.
And I hope they realize that kindness and love and softness and nurturing are not lesser, or weak, or inferior traits.
I hope they realize that girls can be just as brave and competitive and mean and strong as boys can be.
And I hope they realize that bravery and competitiveness and meanness and strength do not automatically make for superior human beings.
I hope they realize that it is okay–that it is normal–for them to cry and be emotional.
I hope they realize what it means for a society to be male-dominated, and I hope they realize that this is not an unchangeable, permanent fact about the nature of men and women.
I hope when they see the color pink, they don’t immediately think “dainty, frail, and softspoken.”
I hope when they hear someone speaking with a quiet voice, they don’t immediately think that the person is feminine and therefore dainty and therefore weak.
I hope they don’t see weakness as a weakness.
I hope they see boys playing with babydolls and girls playing with trucks and boys playing with trucks and girls playing with babydolls and don’t think about girl toys or boy toys but just…toys. children. playing. free. happy.
I hope they befriend maternal women and bold men and strong-willed women and nurturing men.
I hope they realize that one can be simultaneously soft and courageous, nurturing and outspoken, competitive and considerate.
I hope they associate femininity with strength and sensitivity and courage and compassion.
I hope they associate masculinity with strength and sensitivity and courage and compassion.
I hope some day that they are able to recognize the pervasiveness and arbitrariness and reality and social construction of gender stereotypes.
I hope they see gender differences as quirky and fun and non-absolute and in flux.
I hope they see me as as sensitive. Strong-willed. Independent. Courteous. Emotional. Loving. Competitive. Tender.
I hope they see their father as kind. Brave. Soft. Strong. Gentle. Laid back. Loving. Caring.
I hope they see themselves as considerate. Brave. Independent. Courteous. Affectionate. Open-minded. Strong. Compassionate.
And I hope that when they’re fifteen or sixteen–or fifty or sixty, for that matter–they have no question in their minds that 1) girls and boys have different life-experiences and encounters-in-the-world in virtue of their genders, yet that 2) strength and sensitivity and bravery and compassion and household management and child-rearing and working and cleaning and emotions and reason and hormones are neither solely masculine nor solely feminine but entirely human.
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