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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.

“…Some 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):


How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume For Your Effeminate Son

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?

Read more: Children, Family, Love, Parenting at the Crossroads, Sex, , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

76 comments

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6:07PM PST on Jan 14, 2013

This comes straight from Amazon books: (http://www.amazon.com/Woman-Denied-Early-Years-Volume/dp/1475103964) A Woman Denied... The Early Years is a biography of one beautiful woman named Raymond. Raymond was born in Pretoria. She spent a few years of her childhood in Soweto, Johannesburg. Her father, a stubborn traditionalist, had always wanted a boy. With two little girls in the house, he had reason to yearn for a little boy. When Raymond came, all wishes and hopes, and the pride and joy were shattered as the baby came with mixed gender. Neither could the baby be a boy or a girl... but subsequent domination from an abusive and drunkard father saw that the baby would lead life as a boy. Needles to say, it put paid to Raymond's mother, Evelyn's desire to raise a happy and healthy baby... as simply a baby she loved. The account of the times and life of this wonderful and humble child is a tear-jerking story. Get in her shoes and walk through her trials and tribulations as she grows through life in the 70s and 80s. Experience the hurt and the abuses she had gone through; cry with her as all undeniable signs of womanhood surface.... And at the same time think that there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people like Raymond who the world keeps denying their true identities and existence. For Raymond, it was not a matter of choosing a specific gender - it was a fight to live life to the next day as she was denied to be a woman. This heart-felt account of her life, as told by her

3:04PM PDT on Jun 15, 2011

My father, who was very old fashioned, was horrified when I started playing with a doll and dressing it up - the toy in question was an Action Man, the clothes were Army uniform! Hopefully most of us have moved on a bit since then (he was born in 1913 bless him). Society expects' men' to take on a 50/50 split with household chores etc (quite right to if both partners are working) but we are less comfortable in teaching them how to do so. Whilst this doesn't apply to quite to the same degree to women we are still slightly aghast when a women chooses to take on certain roles. Surely life is hard enough, we need to all roll up our sleeves and muck in. For my part I hope that my as yet un-committed daughter will provide me with a flock of grandchildren who I can coo over (we could only ever have one child so there is a lot riding on her 30 year old shoulders) but if she (currently very single) ends up settling down with another women then I'll accept this and be happy, indeed glad that she didn't end up as a drug dealer, a murderer (or murdered), as a child molester etc.

4:05PM PDT on Oct 3, 2010

There's nothing wrong with encouraging children to explore their own distinctive likes and dislikes. As youngsters, all of my kids played with both dolls and trucks. There was no schedule or pattern, just doing at any given time what appealed to them. This was an early lesson in "finding oneself" that no one else could do for them. As adults they have discovered their preferred activities and are comfortable with themselves. That's more important than being forced to comply with the gender fashion police.

8:36AM PDT on Sep 26, 2010

At various times through history men wore makeup, jewellery, bright colours and lacey clothing. In fact men could and were more made up than the woman.
This whole masculine/feminine thing is rubbish. I was a tom boy as a child and my brothers like to dress in girls clothes.
They played with my dolls and I'd play with their toys.
We have to stop making people into something they are not.

7:47AM PDT on Sep 25, 2010

I'm not at all pleased by our current gender stereotyping--and this article really does capture it well. There are plenty of men and boys who are simply uninterested in things that are stereotypically male. All they're doing is exploring their world and getting to know themselves. And stereotypes fundamentally stifle that process.

8:05AM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

Thank you to everyone for posting comments on the subject. A special thanks goes out to Mac R and Rose, who despite their disagreement, kept the dialog respectful and engaging.

All the best,

Eric Steinman
Care2

9:39AM PDT on Sep 21, 2010

Thank you Mac R. for being so comprehensive in your comment. I must admit I felt a little bad after posting my comment as I felt I might offend someone and I apologize if I did. But this is what I believe. I thank you for respecting that and for sharing your beliefs very intelligently and opening the door to a deeper comprehension. The beauty of all of this, I think is that though we may not see eye to eye, everyone on this site respects the fact that we are all entitled to an opinion and we do not hate each other for exercising that entitlement.

12:17PM PDT on Sep 20, 2010

part of being a child is NOT being 'sexual' '
house or trucks, tools or dress up. as children they should be allowed to explore and learn so they can figure out who they are and part of that trying on ALL the rolls.

11:16AM PDT on Sep 20, 2010

I purposely bought my son dolls and my daughter trucks-- they should be able to play with whatever they want and express who they really are

8:30AM PDT on Sep 19, 2010

Chidren should be allowed to express themselves and play with all kinds of toys regardless to their gender!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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