Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is it Harder to Be a Boy or a Girl?

My little boy has really been into "dress up". Every day he comes downstairs in a new outfit and has a new identity. Some days he is a train engineer, a robot, a spaceman, a pirate, and for awhile a witch... complete with the witch hat and dress.

The first day he wore the witch dress he asked me, "Mom, am I a girl?"

"No, you are a boy."

"Are witches boys?"

"No they are girls, boy witches are called warlocks."

"Oh, well I am going to be a witch."

After that he wore his witch dress around non-stop for a good two or three weeks. To him it was all make-believe and deep inside it made me proud that my little boy valued girls (or witches) enough to put them on par with things like train engineers and pirates... which are pretty important at our house! He hasn't yet been taught that being like a girl is somehow inferior to being like a boy and that that boys shouldn't act like girls. To him boys and girls are equal in value... and there is just as much worth in being a pirate as their is in being a witch. I love that and I hope he doesn't loose it as he gets older.

Yet despite how much I enjoyed watching him play around in his witch dress I found that when it came time to take him to the grocery store I hesitated. I'd had no problem taking a train engineer, a pirate or a robot to the store but something in me balked at the idea of taking him, in his frilly dress, out in public.

My reaction bothered me.

If Rose, my little girl, had been dressed up like a pirate, a basketball player, or something else traditionally "boyish" I wouldn't have hesitated taking her to the store. It would have just been cute. Yet I worried that in taking Asher to the store in a dress might attract criticism or embarrassment and I didn't want to chance it. So I had him take the dress off before we left.

I've been thinking a lot about this and it has made me realize that our gender expectations are much more constrained and defined for boys than they are for girls. It is alright in our society for a little girl who doesn't like "girly" things to choose an alternative identity and be a "Tom Boy". She can dress like a boy, like sports, and do other things that are traditionally " boyish" and not be socially criticized for them or have her femininity called into question. Yet for a boy it is a different story. If he doesn't like things that are traditionally "boyish" , or doesn't excel at them, he doesn't have much of an alternative. He can't become a "Tom Girl" and dress like a girl, play with princesses and dolls and do other traditionally "girly" activities without being socially criticized for them or having his masculinity challenged... often in very harsh ways.

I realize that in a world where homosexuality is rampant and where gender is seen as a personal preference that it is very important to teach children how to honor and love their divine nature as a son or a daughter of God. It is something crucial to their eternal development and they should learn to love and value it at a young age. Yet, I think that we are too harsh on our boys when it comes to gender expectations. We expect them to all fit into a certain, very rigid, mold of masculinity and if they don't fit into it they experience criticism and social pressure... most often from other boys and men. I think that because of this many boys who don't fit into the ordinary mold of masculinity end up assuming that something must be "wrong" with them or feel like they need to seek an "alternative" lifestyle in order to fit in.

Granted, I hope my son isn't still wearing dresses (or witch hats) when he is 25-years-old but I hope that he still remember that it is alright for boys to exhibit "feminine" qualities just as much as it is for girls to exhibit "masculine" qualities. Christ was the ultimate example of this. He embodied traits that are traditionally seen as "feminine"-- compassion, love, tenderness, mercy, long suffering, patience-- and yet He was the greatest of men. He is the ultimate role model of masculinity and the one I'd like my son to pattern His life after.

Yet I think that our world is a hard place for a boy... maybe more so than for a girl. What do you think? Is it harder in today's world to be a boy or to be a girl? Why?


  1. I know exactly what you are talking about, and I completely agree (that it's harder in society for boys to exhibit "feminine" qualities than the other away around) - however, I think that in the same spheres where boys displaying "feminine" qualities is hard, girls displaying "feminine" qualities is also hard. The world doesn't like soft, loving, compassionate, self-sacfrificing people. In our world you are supposed to take what's yours, take care of "number one" and step on anyone who gets in your way - and this is almost more true for women than it is for me (feminism, anyone?).

    Because you and I (and I have found, many Christian people) value those "feminine" qualities, it is usually more acceptable in (some) religious spheres for men to exhibit "feminine" qualities. I think that actually in Mormon culture is it harder - BECAUSE we value gender identity so much, we often confuse gender identity with gender ROLES - when they are not at all the same. Sure men are to "provide, protect, and preside" - but the WAY they do that is really completely up to them and their emotional and mental makeup.

    Having grown up in a very evangelical and Baptist area of the country, I noticed that religious girls admired boys who were kind, loving, patient, and compassionate. Most LDS girls are the same, and I think that it is getting better as the Church matures - but some older generations I think still feel that LDS men should protect, preside, and provide in a very "masculine" way.

    I think one way we can all help change this is by simply teaching our children both to BE whatever they want to be, and ACCEPT others however they are.

    My husband particularly shows "feminine" qualities - he is more emotional than most men, soft hearted, and although he definitely enjoys "manly" things like sports and working out, he just isn't "macho" and personally, I like him better that way. Unfortunately he was raised in an area where if you weren't "manly" enough you were messed up, and so he struggled for long time with his identity in many ways. We are raising a boy who is just like his father (emotional, soft-hearted, and compassionate).

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that we are trying to teach our children about their gender identities without confusing them with socially accepted gender roles. Hopefully we succeed, and our sons and daughters can encourage their friends by NOT being that kid who makes fun of the boy who likes dance or the girl who likes auto shop. ;) It's not enough to teach our children how to be good people - we have to also teach them to love others - and to accept others' personalities.

    Sorry to be long winded (and probably not make sense) again. You just touched another topic that I have thought a lot about. :) Thanks for your thought provoking posts!

  2. I've been thinking the same thing for AGES. Thank you for articulating it so well.

    Now I have a lot more to think about too.

  3. Becca, your comments Do make sense and aren't long winded. I love them. I especially love how you emphasized our gender identity over our gender roles. I think that identity is something eternal and includes the guidance given in the Family Proclamation (nurturing, protecting providing, etc) but that gender roles is something we construct culturally. They are very different and I think that too often we get them confused. Thanks for the thoughts!

  4. Hi Heather, I've been reading your blog for a while, but haven't commented before. I really loved this post. The distinction between gender roles and gender identity is SO important. In some ways, I think we need to have a "masculinist" revolution as much as we needed a feminist revolution.

    As you said, it is now socially acceptable for women (both little girls and grown-ups) to take on a wide variety of formerly exclusively male roles. But little (and big) boys are still kind of stuck in their traditional roles, unless they decide to find an alternative gender identity.

    Here's a question that's been much on my mind: where do gender identities end, and gender roles begin? If you could sum up the difference between the gender identities of men and women, what would you say?

  5. Love this post, Heather!

    It seems to me that gender expectations for boys are more constrained and it's (more) okay in our society for girls to exhibit "masculine" qualities than for boys to exhibit "feminine" qualities simply because those "feminine" qualities still aren't valued as highly as the "masculine" ones. After all, some of the worst insults for guys in our society are calling them "sissys," or saying "he throws like a girl," or using pejorative terms for female anatomy.

    Silly example: all three of my sons have gone through periods of time when their favorite color was pink, and I have had to stare down kids (and even other parents!) who've tried to make fun of them for it, whereas it's perfectly acceptable for a little girl to like blue. Even something as simple as color preference has become gender-ized and I think it's ridiculous. (Especially since the pink-is-for-girls and blue-is-for-boys social construct really only showed up after WWII, but I digress...)

  6. Becca/Heather-- it's so funny because that idea of identities/roles really resounds with me, and I've thought of it that way for awhile. Yet in my mind I was using the term "role" to fulfill what you used the term "identity" for. Meaning, I thought of "role" as referring to our innate gender responsibilities, while gender stereotypes and expectations (which happen a lot in the church and which I definitely have a certain level of resentment for) tend to box us in and inhibit our other natural qualities, gifts, and responsibilities. Wouldn't it be great if we could share this idea you articulated, and have a consistent terminology? It's just that if you hadn't been so explicit, I might have thought we were disagreeing when in fact we have the same perspective, and use words to imply different things. I like your version though... I'll have to think about what I prefer. What about the idea of gender identity/responsibilities vs. gender roles?

    Also, I'm not sure that it's harder to be a boy or a girl, though certainly in some cultures it is more dangerous to be a girl. And in those cases, I'd venture harder as well.

  7. I wonder that if we were more accepting of boys with feminine qualities that if some of those boys would then no longer feel forced to enter a gay society to feel comfortable about themselves. Do they feel forced even? I'm not sure....

  8. Here's a thought-- I feel like (and this is obviously a generalization) women are more limited in what they can accomplish, while men are more limited in how they can behave. Like society/culture often limits what women can do in the world, what we can create etc., while men are more limited in the way they can express themselves, and act.

  9. My thoughts, its both hard to be a girl and a boy in this world. I think it depends on the circumstances, but I find its hard to be both and in different circumstances. Yes Feminine Qualities in this world on a man are seen as week, Feminine Qualities in this Church on a man are seen as good, and so we face a dichotomy. Honestly I've seen a little boy cousin in my family play with barbies, house and girls, but that is because he is drowned by girl cousins his age. I think that we should realize we need Boys and Girls who are both Strong and Gentle, Kind, and assertive, charitable and wise, spiritual and temporal. We need Boys and GIrls who are balanced, not scared of showing traits because they have been tied up to Traditional roles.

    I am one that actually Believes a Girl Presides, Protects AND provides for her own family too once she is older. I believe that the Family a Proclamation is Inspired, however not necessarily set in stone to me. I feel we can admire the Direction it sets out, but must remember that the men who created it was raised in a Culture where Mother stayed home and Father was the head of house and the breadwinner. Oh Mother may have worked, but she was in that time and that society treated as lesser then men.

    To me, this cultural upbringing shows in the Family a Proclamation signed in 1995 and read in the General Relief Society meeting. I was only 5 and I liked Trucks and Barbies. My cousin played with barbies when he was younger, and I must say I agree that he probably got pressured into thinking he was gay by other guys at school. For he has now opened up he is Gay and lives that lifestyle.

    So I agree, but I also have my pauses. And why not let men wear skirts? I mean if you are so worried, buy him a kilt but please have him wear shorts underneath. But I digress, those are just my feelings though. I know others may disagree.

  10. Good discussion, Heather. I wish there was a "like" button after comments! Anyway, yes, I, too, wonder that "if we were more accepting of boys with feminine qualities that if some of those boys would then no longer feel forced to enter a gay society to feel comfortable about themselves" (what Jeri said) would help. I had a guy friend who was very effeminate. One time he commented on how multiple times guys would hit on him. Finally we just asked him if he was gay. He said NO!!!! He had no desire for that, he was just more effeminate. But I can see, that when people press and press for you to be a certain way, that could be a determining factor in your eventual life-style.

    I also really liked Kels's comment: "I feel like (and this is obviously a generalization) women are more limited in what they can accomplish, while men are more limited in how they can behave." Amen.

    When I student taught in Western Samoa I was at first shocked at when I'd pass out colored papers for a project how many boys would jump for the pink papers! I realized that our pink/blue divide is definitely a US culture thing, but doesn't apply all over the world. And look at the lava lava everyone in Samoa wears -- a skirt! That doesn't make Samoan men effeminate. It's just cultural and totally acceptable.

    As for if it's harder to be a boy/girl, I dunno. I tend to always say it's harder for the boys because of all the porn EVERYWHERE, but that is really affecting the women now. I've also heard the side that it's harder to be a girl because they're the ones chasing the boys. So, it probably depends on the individual and how well their integrity holds. Satan's got his tactics for both boys and girls for sure. Make the girls feel like nothing unless they "look" right; make the boys hyper-sexualized.

  11. I love this post, and have had similar experiences with the boy I currently nanny (who likes to be a princess sometimes and Mario other times.) I have told him both are adorable because, well, they are. It's sweet and innocent!

    But I do think it's difficult with the double-standard because it says "women emulating men is acceptable and empowering, but men emulating women is degrading and unacceptable." It reminds me of a quote from Virginia Wolfe that I cannot remember exactly but basically says that there are real differences between men and women, but what needs to be changed is the value we place on those differences. Right now the female side-or anything our culture views as "feminine" is still looked on as negative.

    I do have a wrench to throw in the conversation, though in regards to eternal gender identity. What about people who are born with both genitals? You know, hermaphrodites? When I see that, it makes me wonder if there are some spirits that actually got the wrong body for their eternal gender-like a birth abnormality. Like how some people are born with a limb missing, or a severe birth defect mentally or physically. Is this who they really are? No, but it is their trial to deal with in this life. We just have to be careful not to assign misunderstood fault to it (your son was born blind? Someone did something morally wrong!) But if your spirit feels it is in the wrong kind of body, that's a really hard trial. I'm not saying I have any answers to this, or if that's really what's going on, but there are so many random wrenches in the real world that don't fit into an easy explanation.

    I guess I just feel drawn to those who are in those weird situations that don't fit into the Gospel so cleanly, but still want to belong just the same, so I try to see how difficult having a "non-traditional" trial would be. (like friends who have struggled or still struggle with homosexuality that never leaves them, but they still want to be obedient and in the church. No simple or easy explanations there.)