Three little words deemed destructive for boys


From all appearances, the Ban Bossy campaign is a fizzle. Even feminists roll their eyes and comment on its misdirection. I would have thought “bossiness” is part of being a boss. And if a girl is discouraged enough when that word is hurled her way to give up her ambitions, maybe those ambitions weren’t too firm to start with. I used to daydream about being the first woman president of the United States, but my dream was crushed—not by a mean old misogynistic society, but by my lack of interest in politics. I just wanted the house, not the job.

I never wanted to be an astronaut or a fire fighter, either, which may be why I never felt limited in any way by my gender. No offense to women who craved such roles, but they were in the minority then, and I believe they still are. Forty years of “I am woman, hear me roar” has left us with more to complain of than ever, because insisting on more respect from men has perversely led to less respect for men. And for women.

The Representation Project, founded by creators of the documentary Miss Representation, is dedicated to blasting gender stereotypes. (Take the pledge: “I pledge to use my voice to challenge society’s limiting representations of gender.”) And not just for women: A new documentary, The Mask We Live In (see the trailer; warning: some inappropriate language) exposes the “three most destructive words every man receives when he’s a boy”: “Be a man.”

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That is, don’t cry, pick yourself up, don’t let anybody disrespect you, be cool. Culture, you see, has bought into this male stereotype of super-aggressiveness that corks the natural empathy of little boys and gives them no outlet for showing their caring side.

Among the families I knew when growing up there was a wide variety of masculinity models (including a couple of stay-at-home dads), but the general expectation was that men supported their families and came home at night. It wasn’t a golden age, and a few fathers came home at night only to tyrannize the household, but most were decent fellows who did their job. That’s what is missing from the film trailer, and perhaps the film itself: the father factor. Instead, “culture” bears the brunt of bringing up junior, and we’re all somehow responsible if a generation of juniors goes astray. If only we didn’t flock to superhero movies! If only we didn’t love football! If only we didn’t fall straight down when we walked off a cliff!

But we do. Stereotypes become stereotypes precisely because there’s a lot of truth in them. Allowing for many exceptions, males tend to be more aggressive and propositional and females more nurturing and intuitive. “It’s like instinct,” says a young man in the movie trailer. Boys learn to show their caring side when there’s someone to care for, beginning with family. Personal relationships rub the rough edges of instinct smooth. We used to understand this, instinctively. But without the moderating influence of committed family life, stereotype rules.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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