Boys and Gender Stereotyping

If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you know that I have two sons. Mini Me is 10 1/2 and very much the NIT (Nerd In Training), already following in his dad’s footsteps playing Dungeons and Dragons and video games, reading fantasy novels, and showing a real aptitude for science and math.

Monkey is a whirling dervish of creativity who also seems to be just as good at math as he is at art. There was a point, from the ages of about 3-6, that he was always in a superhero costume of some sort. He still plays dress up at least once a week with his BFF, although some of the costumes are getting a tad small on him and starting to fray at the edges.

Yesterday, I read a blog post by natural urban mama here:

She was talking about recent Gymboree and Old Navy ads for Halloween costumes that were very much gender stereotyped. Girls are pixies and fairies, boys are astronauts and EMTs and she very rightfully refuses to buy into it.

She did a second post today after a reader named Dave pointed out that her original article tackled the issue of girls dressing as boys but not vice versa. You can read it here:

What Dave very eloquently points out is that while we can be indignant about our girls not being shown in traditional ‘boy’ roles, the reverse is never spoken about. We don’t even address the idea of a boy wanting to wear a pixie costume.

I would beg to differ with Dave, just a little bit. We are a very liberal household and we live in a part of Toronto that is pretty far left-wing. Most of my friends are of the urban leftie hippie granola type and I know several bloggers who are of the same persuasion. Here’s the thing though: I hear talk about sons who dress up in fairy costumes or wear nail polish and sparkly barrettes. I see pictures of my friends’ little boys wearing princess dresses and lipstick. We want to be open-minded and let our kids be who they want to be, so we say it’s cute and it’s a natural part of growing up. Little kids are like magpies and ‘girly’ things are bright and shiny. But while this seems to be a typical stage for boys up until they’re about 6, I rarely seem to hear about boys who are still in this phase after the kindergarten years. And I wonder if that’s when society has determined that a boy wearing princess dresses goes from ‘cute’ to ‘wrong.’ This is when your son’s love of nail polish and sparkle becomes an ‘issue.’

It was at Monkey’s dance and drama class that I met another mom whose son, just turned 7, identified himself as a girl. He dressed in shirts with flowers on them and pants with pink trim, put his beautiful, long wavy hair in pigtails with colourful clasps and bows, and wore pink sneakers. I had no idea there was even another boy in the class until I spoke to her. We got friendly as moms do when they’re forced to wait around and she shared some of her pain with me. How her son was picked on at school, how the teachers didn’t know what to do, how he was starting to get angry and lash out physically. He had reached that age where it went from ‘cute’ to a very real problem. Not for the mom, but for society.

We lost touch after the classes ended and I do regret that because she was a pretty awesome woman. She wanted her son to be whatever he wanted to be and she wanted to support him every step of the way but society was making nearly impossible for this poor kid to be happy, despite all the love and support he was getting at home. And the most difficult part, she told me, was other kids. Because her son dressed like a girl, strangers assumed he was one, but the kids in his class knew the truth and they were making grade one pretty hellish for this poor kid. Somewhere along the way, those little boys who used to dress in princess costumes had learnt words like ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ and ‘fag.’

I wonder what happened to that little boy and his mom. I do think about them often and wish I had pursued the friendship between Monkey and her son because I realize now how much it must have meant for Monkey to be so accepting of her son. I think the conversation between Monkey and I went something like this…

Me “You seem to really like that other little boy. Do you know his name?”

Him “What little boy. It’s only girls”

Me “No, Chris (not his real name) is a little boy too.”

Him “Oh. He looks like a girl.”

Me “Yep. He likes girl clothes but he is a boy.”

Him “Oh.” and dances off.

I could pat myself on the back for a parenting job well done, but I think that it’s just in Monkey’s loving and trusting nature to accept all things. He has also grown up with a BFF who has two mommies, and in a school with about a 50% muslim population where head scarves are pretty commonplace. He doesn’t have much of a concept of ‘different is bad.’ I wish there were more kids like him out there. I wonder if there would be if we didn’t impose our own notions of gender at such an early age. I wonder how many kids are out there like that little boy from dance class who have learned that they are ‘wrong’ and are too afraid to be who they really want to be. And it makes me sad.


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