On a recent trip to Target, my two boys and I stopped to look at some little shoes. My 3-year-old son Beau was quick to point to his favourite pair, happily announcing he’d like “the lovely ones”…

…The lovely ones being the sparkly, pink Little Mermaid ones.

We moved onto another department.

It occurred to me though, had the situation been reversed, I’d have had no hesitation in buying a little girl a pair of navy blue ‘boys’ shoes.

In fact, encouraging girls to embrace so-called ‘tomboy’ behavior is considered by many to be a positive thing, with many mothers proudly resisting all things pink and princessy and happily urging their girls to rough and tumble with the boys.

The opposite situation however, prompts the opposite response.

The taboos associated with males whose interests extend beyond the traditional starts young, and remains entrenched in the mindset of the vast majority of adult men, and many women, throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

The attitude towards and the stigma associated with straight males who tend towards so-called feminine pursuits, such as art, culture or dancing, is ever present in adult society.

In Australia, where manliness is of utmost importance, this attitude is particularly widespread. More than that, it’s become a part of our culture.

In a recent interview, Ian Thorpe spoke about being assumed gay due to his non-typical interests – his flair for fashion, penchant for reading books and other non-blokey characteristics.


Ian Thorpe: Why can’t straight men like fashion? Image via thedailytelegraph.com.au. Front page image by Jane Dempster via News Limited.

He took issue, not with being considered gay, but rather in being called a liar – he happens to be straight.

In his case, the fact that he was an athlete seemed to make his lack of macho-ness even more unexpected and, quite frankly, unwanted.

Surely a sportsman should be more macho? More manly? Grunting and groaning and hunting in packs?

The assumption that Thorpe must be gay wasn’t offensive, but it is telling. As if straight men are simply not supposed to be interested in anything other than sport, cars and chicks.

According to Lifecare counsellor Susan De Campo, the pressure on men to be “masculine” is as strong as ever: “The fact that House Husbands is such a fascinating new show speaks to how unfamiliar Australians are with blokes performing non-stereotypical roles.

“You rarely see media “stars” demonstrating so-called feminine behaviour.”

Susan is currently counseling a (straight) man, aged 62, married with children and grandchildren, who continues to struggle with the fact that he didn’t fit in with other blokes.

“He used to be a radio announcer for a station that played classical music – what ‘normal’ bloke did that in the face of a culture where footy dominates!”

According to Susan one of the most contributing factors to her client’s insecurities was his father’s lack of acceptance.

“The importance of parents accepting their child’s interests is critical to the development of a healthy sense of self.

“Who we are (as a person) is way more important than what we find enjoyable and fun. Isn’t this a no-brainer?”

In fact, Susan goes as far as saying that boys could do with a great deal less encouragement around stereotypical male interests or pursuits, which she feels often leads to aggression, even violence.

“There is no mystery at all for we therapists who work with men who have learned – as boys – that managing conflict via culturally-endorsed methods is the preferred option.

“Using ‘strength’ is a very slippery slide.”

Like most boys his age, my son, Beau loves anything with wheels, wings or an engine. But the fervor and excitement he feels towards planes, trains and automobiles, he experiences in equal measure towards butterflies, fairies, glitter and dress-ups.

He looks after his “babies” with as much care and dedication as he looks after his precious Airwolf helicopter.

As his mother, my children’s joy is the most important thing to me and I wouldn’t dream of denying them the opportunity to indulge their interests, regardless of perception.

I do admit though that while I try not to let gender stereotypes limit my children, I do so within the confines of gender stereotypes.

So while I’ll happily buy my boys a pram or play kitchen (traditionally for girls), I will try and find one that isn’t covered in flowers or princesses – an incredibly difficult task.

Earlier this year, a British couple revealed the gender of their child, after taking their resistance of gender stereotyping to a new level.

Beck Laxton, 46, and partner Kieran Cooper, 44, refused to reveal baby Sasha’s gender to the world so he would not be influenced by society’s prejudices and preconceptions.

For the first five years of his life, Sasha was only allowed to play with gender-neutral toys and alternated between girls’ and boys’ outfits. The couple revealed Sasha as a boy after he began Primary School.

Miss Laxton claimed she thought gender stereotyping was “fundamentally stupid” and “wanted to avoid all that stereotyping.”

For me, this course of action feels too extreme, taking away from the positives of each gender and potentially setting the child up for future confusion.

However, I think the current mindset is also too extreme – and one sided – with too much pressure placed on boys and young adults to behave in a particular way and shun non-traditional interests or character traits.

We should celebrate and embrace our own gender without being limited by it.

I’ve watched as adult males gravitate towards my younger son, Bailey, who some might describe as a more typical little boy – more active and independent, less fearful, a bit rougher around the edges – and more readily offer him praise and attention.

As a mother, this bothers me, particularly if I notice Beau change his behavior in order to gain similar attention, and I worry that this is a sign of things to come.

I don’t plan to encourage or discourage my sons in one direction or another – but I will encourage them to be themselves and will actively foster whatever interests they develop.

I hope they will be proud of who they are and embrace their diverse interests, both popular and unique, throughout their lives; that they’ll be strong enough to resist peer pressure, should they ever experience it and become the men they want to be, not who society says they should be.




Imagine There’s No Gender…

Princesses. So Last Year

You Throw Like a Girl!
*Nicole Madigan is a writer, journalist and communications consultant with more than ten years experience in the media industry. Her work has been published in The Australian, The Courier Mail, The Sunday Mail, Madison, Cleo, BRW, Practical Parenting, The Walkley Magazine, Notebook and The Deal. She was a contributing author to literary project, The Modern Woman’s Anthology and was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine for several years. You can read more from her on her website, or follow her on Twitter: @NicoleMadiganE.

Follow us on


  • Reply November 27, 2012

    Catherine Rodie Blagg

    Ive been so busy resisting the pink frilly stuff for my girls I hadn’t really considered gender stereotyping from the point of view of boys. Really good read.

  • Reply November 27, 2012


    All this angst about pink and blue!!

    Our great grandparents were playing with sticks and stones and their parents weren’t painting them pink, blue or any other colour in order to enforce gender difference.

    There is no reason in the wide world to choose between pink and frilly or blue and macho. These are make-believe goods designed to fill make-believe needs in a consumer society. Give them a book , a bike and they’re happy. Or were – until we foisted our own wants onto them.

    The advertisers are programming us.

  • Reply November 27, 2012


    My husband was assumed to be gay by his extended family and his brother. They were amazed that he’d always had girlfriends and treated me with slightly smug amusement as clearly I didn’t know the “truth”. The reasons? In a “huntin’ and fishin’ and shootin’ and killin’ things with your bare hands, beer-drinking” family where all other related males are either on the land or in a trade my husband was too different for them. He doesn’t drink, never bothered to renew his gun license after he moved from the farm, worked for a time in an office (wearing a suit = clearly gay unless it’s for a wedding, funeral or court appearance). He can cook and sew – nuff said!
    When we married there was confusion, when I became pregnant: bewilderment. His brother was heard suggesting that he’d never be able to “put a handle” (oh yes a handle, not a penis!) on the baby. To their collective shock our first child was a boy, we named him Nicholas (Nick for short) and not the “faggy’ sort of name they’d apparently been expecting. I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a “faggy” name so I don’t know how we avoided it.
    20 years down the track, we are still married and he still does all the things that made them assume his preference was for men – he cooks during the working week, we make costumes for family and friends, he still doesn’t like alcohol. He is, however, a fantastic husband and father and I am proud that my children and my nieces and nephews have such a positive alternative role model.

    We do need to stop reinforcing stereotypes that limit opportunities and identities. We need to stop allowing strangers to make negative judgements on how our babies are dressed or what they’re playing with. We have to avoid that ourselves too – not always easy in some families (cue an uncle bellowing “Jackson drop that! You’re touching a GIRL’S toy”!!!!!!!!!)

  • Reply November 27, 2012

    The Huntress

    Hee hee, my son is always asking me for “pretty” and “bootiful” things. He loves necklaces in particular, trying on and prancing around in my high heels and enjoys picking an outfit for me to wear for the day, usually co-ordinating it with jewellery and accessories. That’s my boy!

    But to balance all of this, as much as he loves a good dress outfit, scarves and gloves, most of the time he just wants to wear boardies and a t-shirt. Which is fine by me also. I want my son to have fun and be happy no matter what he wants to play with or what clothes he wears. He is very much a boys boy, but maybe with a sprinkle of glitter around the edges 🙂

    My husband, like the above commenter, is often thought of as being gay. He dresses well, cooks, does his own washing and irons a hell of a lot better than I do. I encourage his more flamboyant side (which doesn’t often come out) and he was delighted when I shrieked with jealousy over his own shiny silver patterned dress shoes. He doesn’t really care what other people think, but gets rather tired when people outrightedly keep asking if he’s gay. Is it really that important if he is and does it change anything if he’s not?

    Gender stereotyping is kind of boring. Can’t we just encourage people in whatever their interests happen to be, whether they’re stereotypical or not?

  • Reply November 27, 2012


    What is wrong with boys wearing mermaid shoes? I draw the line at kids wearing high heels….

  • Reply November 27, 2012


    Ha ha does this mean that we also think that girls who prefer to play with cars and play cricket in the street as being lesbians.
    My only child-(a son)- grew up with 4 girls next door. They of course had dolls and the usual girl type toys, and my son had cars and boy stuff. Whenever they played at each others homes, they payed with whatever was there. Cars and racing over here, dolls and house over there. They also spent hours doing craft, and painting and drawing. I doubt they even gave it a thought as to whether they were playing boys or girls games. He did ask or a doll (it lasted a week)which he ended up giving to the girls as he said it was boring to play with it by himself.
    I did go out with a guy who everyone thought was gay, he wasn’t at all, but he had a more effeminate way about him which peope obviously saw as gay. Strangly, we once met a gay couple through friends and they knew straight away that he wasn’t.

  • Reply November 28, 2012

    Tony W

    “All this angst about pink and blue!!”

    Yes, especially when you consider it used to be the reverse, ie. pink for boys, blue for girls. You can see it in colourized photo portraits pre 1940’s.

    “The advertisers are programming us.”

    Actually the evidence suggests otherwise. When coloured clothing for children was first advertised, it was pink for girls blue for boys, eg:

    “June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

    But people started to choose the opposite so the advertisers responded:

    “Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.”


    It turns out there’s a reason for their choice:

    “Researchers at Newcastle University pinpointed the pink-blue division by presenting more than 200 men and women with a series of coloured triangles and asking them to pick out their favourite hues. Faced with more than 250 different colour choices, the women clearly veered towards pinks and lilacs, while the men went mainly for blues. The correlation was so strong that the researchers could tell someone’s sex just by looking at their results of the colour test.”

    “It is thought the difference has its roots in evolution and the activities of our hunter-gatherer forebears. While men developed a preference for the clear blue skies that signalled good weather for hunting, women honed their ability to pick out the reds and pink while foraging for ripe fruits and berries….women were the primary gatherers and would have benefited from the ability to home in on ripe, red fruits.”

    How do like them apples?!! (collective groan)


  • Reply November 28, 2012


    Good, balanced article. You write about things that we, as a society, shy away from discussing. Keep it up! Stereotypes are limiting, and its true it starts when we are very young and impressionable. We’re a funny lot, us humans!!!

  • Reply November 28, 2012


    True Tony but it was the retailers who ran with it and promoted it. Meant they could double their sales because parents bought new instead of handing boys clothing down to girls or vice versa. Holds for toys as well.

    Interesting when you think about it – how consumers are manipulated.

  • Reply November 28, 2012

    Tony W

    “True Tony but it was the retailers who ran with it and promoted it.”

    Absolutely Rhoda, no question there. The only thing they didn’t get to decide was the boy/girl colours, which is of no consequence anyway. As long as they were different they get to sell twice as much clothing. Then expand the concept into toys as you say.

    You’re quite right – it’s scary how much our lives are determined by marketing. We think we’re exercising free choice, but in fact our choices have already been decided by other consumers before us. If we try to deviate we are socially condemned – even for the colour of our childrens clothing! It would be hard to think of anything more trivial or meaningless.

Leave a Reply