A Boy Named Sue: Gender Shaming and Stereotypes With Boys
A recent kerfuffle has gained traction on the internet (what doesn’t gain traction on the internet these days?) regarding a mock-up for an advertisement depicting a young boy, seemingly enjoying himself, as he tries on his mother’s lipstick and high heels. The ad (which turns out was an in-house mock up that was inadvertently leaked to the public) was for a karate academy down in Florida. This is a classic form of advertisement reliant upon suggestion and subtle persuasion. The message was, simply put, to get your boy to karate before he gets into your lipstick and a life of gender confusion (this seemingly ignores the fact that a near 40% of those martial arts participants are girls). This ad has caused a small firestorm, and revealed a division of opinion among the Internet vocal. Some see the ad as retrograde, evoking a “gay panic” and utilizing gender shaming to frighten parents into toughening up their boys to fit in with the masses. Others see the ads as a call for parents to address feminine behavior in boys, and guide them in more seamlessly fitting in with “normal” boys.
“ůSome gal would giggle and I’d get red
And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named “Sue.”
Excerpt from “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash (written by Shel Silverstein)
This excerpt from the famous Johnny Cash song, while humorous, depicts how exceedingly difficult life can be for a boy with any trace of femininity; whether it is in his manner or simply his name. In the song, it turns out that the boy’s (Sue’s) father intentionally stigmatized him with such a name to compel him to be tougher and more resilient than the majority of boys (and men) out there with more conventional male names. Now this is just a song, and therefore it is fiction, but without a doubt, many parents choose not to accept, what they view as, abnormally effeminate behavior in their boys (the issue of masculine behavior in girls is a whole other issue to be tackled at a later date). Instead of acceptance and tolerance, parents endeavor to mold or direct their children to more acceptable ways of being, by signing up children for sports, gearing their attention away for entertainment or playthings that might be deemed “girly,” and attempting their son’s to adhere to a more “normal” and socially acceptable notion of boyhood. A humorous, and totally satirical, depiction of that parental drive is illustrated below (courtesy of the Onion):
While some parents are motivated by the idea that by guiding their child toward more acceptable behaviors they are ultimately making life easier and more manageable for their effeminate child, many parents opt to shame their children into change by perpetuating gender stereotypes and rewarding only, what they view as, appropriate male behavior. And too often these parental motivations are not driven so much by what is best for the child, but more what is least offensive to the frail egos of the parents. While gender permissiveness has greatly broadened over the last few decades, and we would like to think that we have become more enlightened and tolerant of behaviors outside the norm, it is plain to see that we have a long way to go in dealing with behaviors that make (some of) us uneasy. As many religious groups (and the socially conservative) still contend that overtly “girly behavior” among boys lead to a path of pain and peril, and deem it as a disorder, rather than simply a way of being.
The fact is different is not wrong (and it might not even be all that different) and pervasive societal fears (not to mention media stereotypes) repeatedly play into the harmful issue of bullying, shame, and aggression towards young children who exist outside of the old-fashioned, rigid 20th century gender roles. However, the fact is that these issues of how to deal with a child that does not conform to the accepted norms are not decided by policy, child psychologists, or school administrators. They are dealt with individually and often behind closed doors, without the benefit of dialogue and/or community support.
Has anyone out there dealt with a similar issue, and if so, how did you choose to approach it? Is unconditional acceptance the answer, or should parents provide some form of guidance/persuasion in these issues of gender identity? Is it fair for parents to ask their children to comply with their (or societies) notion of what it means to be a boy, or is it reckless for parents to simply accept their child and turn a blind eye? How can we, as the larger society/community make this easier for everyone involved?