The Associated Press just released a study suggesting girls as early as six already start believing boys could be smarter than them. The study involved gathering a bunch of children of different ages to react to several prompts. Some of the prompts had the researchers narrate a story about brilliance in the context of a five-year-old. After the researcher finished, he or she would hold up a picture of a man and a woman, both professionally dressed, and would ask the kids who the story was about.
As a 30-year old mother, I wasn’t surprised by the results. This was the world I grew up in. I was just sad to see that it’s still going to be the world my daughter will grow up in.
I look back at how I grew up and I feel even more dread when I think about my daughter reaching adolescence. Will her teachers dumb her down? Will she shy away from interests just because they’re traditionally male?
How will boys treat her? Will the boys of the future understand consent? Will there still be a prevalent culture of objectifying girls? Will the world still dictate girls being valued solely for their youth and beauty? Will boys still be measured by their aggression and confidence?
I keep thinking about how our generation can approach raising our boys. The impact of feminism as a cultural force has given us the tools on how to prep our daughters to overcome sexist obstacles. We’re seeing more feminist heroes in our movies and books and toys are following suit too. Little girls are tinkering more and building more. “Leaning in” has become a national discussion point where we’re rallying our girls to take on more leadership roles.
But what are we doing for our boys?
My husband and I watched a documentary called The Mask You Live In on Netflix. It’s a documentary that aims to shed light on narrow definitions of masculinity and how it has boxed men into roles that kill off their empathy and sensitivity. Our initial motivation to watch it was for my husband to understand how he grew up and to question the ideals of manhood that were handed down to him.
My husband is still wrestling with these issues as a 30-year-old—most especially how boys are not trained how to handle their emotions. Boys are told to treat their vulnerabilities as weaknesses, so more often than not, they are only comfortable expressing themselves in fits of rage. My husband verified this to me, for the longest time, he only felt like he could communicate tenderness and depth if it was in the context of alcohol and drugs.
The Mask You Live In is required viewing for any parent of this generation. It accomplishes something twofold: fathers can examine their wounds and it ushers a challenge to the status quo.
Even with our own anecdotal experience, we recognize that parents are much quicker to comfort a little girl in distress when we tell little boys to “man up.”
There’s so much work to be done. The work I’ve been doing as I prepare to raise a little girl is to shatter as many stereotypes as I can. The same will have to happen to parents of boys. There has been so much tiptoeing around existing male tropes that it feels like battling a monolith of bravado, machismo, and stoicism.
The aforementioned study with the six year olds also reveals something else. If “brilliance” becomes something that belongs to the realm of men, what will happen to boys who possess talents and skills that are deemed “feminine?” What happens to them when they don’t excel in sports, science, or leadership?
We have a chance now to redefine everything that’s been taught to us and to unlearn the worst of it. We cannot leave the boys behind.
Art by Dorothy Guya