The Achilles Effect

This post was originally published on my Achilles Effect blog on December 8, 2008. So much written then is still relevant now, including the comments about Hillary Clinton. 

Scales indicating gender balance. Image from Dreamstime. During a recent visit to a shoe store, my 2-year-old son spied a pair of silver Mary Janes with a little bow. He walked right over, removed his own shoes and put on the new pair. He was absolutely thrilled and spent the remainder of our visit walking around the store with them on. Had they not been three sizes too big, I would have bought them for him to play dress-up, such was the delight on his face.

Sadly, some people (probably more than I think) will read this story and shake their heads. The notion of the “girly” or “sissy” boy is so entrenched in our society that many parents would be horror-stricken at the thought of their son in dainty silver shoes.

A fear of “girliness” in their sons leads many parents, consciously or not, to pigeonhole their boys into certain types of activities and manners of dress. Noisy trucks and big construction machines are good. Baby dolls and toy kitchens? Not so much. Plaid shirts and rugged jeans are good. Garments of pink or purple? Not a chance.

This reluctance to allow any “feminizing” effect on boys is the result – and sometimes the cause – of the gender stereotypes we are still grappling with today in the post-feminist era.

How can it be both the result and cause?

Gender stereotypes have existed since the dawn of civilization. (This bit of history will be discussed more in future posts) The result has been an almost pathological fear of a boy’s feminine side. To prevent the “female” aspects of their nature from emerging, many parents have taught their sons that being gentle and sensitive (read: girly) is not desirable. Instead, many boys are encouraged to be aggressive and “manly”.

Parental messages about gender – whether consciously delivered or not – have been reinforced in recent years by popular culture. Even parents who strive to cultivate a balanced view of gender in their children have trouble combating the messages the media send. I’ve even seen sexist messages in the new Scooby Doo, of all places.

This negative attitude about femininity, in turn, causes many boys to grow up with a distorted view of gender. They start to believe that “girly” things are silly and frivolous, while things that are manly are serious and important. These attitudes morph into harmful gender stereotypes that, while formed in the toddler years, take real effect in the teen and adult years.

The significance of gender stereotyping cannot be understated. Boys who grow up in an environment where female qualities are not valued cannot possibly value females. The end result is young men who view women as less than equal, and see women’s legitimate differences from men as weaknesses. In extreme cases, they treat women with disdain and even violence.

Some of you reading this post may think I’m taking things a bit too far. But I assure you I am not. A look at today’s headlines will show you the serious impact of gender stereotypes.

Just look at last month’s U.S. presidential election – the sexist language used to describe Hillary Clinton (shrill is one word that comes to mind) was appalling.  Women still often make less money than men for work of equal value. Preteen and teenage girls are attending “rainbow” parties and performing oral sex on boys in an effort to be seen as popular or hot. So-called date-rape drugs have been used in bars to subdue women and make them easier to “conquer”. The vast majority of the victims of sex crimes and domestic violence are women. In many parts of the world, rape is a tactic of war. I could go on, and on, and on.

Of course, when discussing gender balance, it is critical to address male stereotypes as well. The testosterone-fuelled alpha male jock, the skinny, short and geeky nerd, and the clownish, overweight oaf are among the most common male images boys encounter in popular media. The alpha is, naturally, the successful male. He gets the good job, the attractive women and the money. The others support him, hang out with him and aspire to be like him, but stand no realistic chance of equaling him. What kind of message does that send to little boys? To succeed is to dominate; to be nice is to be relegated to the background.

So here’s the bottom line. Boys with a balanced view of gender understand that women and men should respect each other. They know that women’s perspectives have merit, and that it’s okay to see things the way women do. They have the confidence to be the waterboy instead of the team captain, and the courage to counter female and male stereotypes with their words and actions.

Boys who don’t grow up with a healthy view of gender are bound to perpetuate negative stereotypes about women, continuing that vicious cycle of putting and keeping women down. They will learn to emphasize what makes men and women different and discount what makes us the same. And that is an outcome that should concern us all.


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