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.
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.