Children, gender identities, and empathy

A recent article tackles an issue head-on which, honestly, I’m surprised hasn’t been talked about more. The article is entitled “The real boy crisis: 5 ways America tells boys not to be ‘girly'” and reveals that a lot of what we accept as gender stereotypes may actually be detrimental to the emotional and psychological well-being of our young boys. From the article:

Expression and empathy are closely related for children. When boys are taught that they can’t “be like girls” it has the threefold effect. First, it alienates them from core aspects of themselves. Second, it portrays what is feminine as undesirable and inferior. Third, it forces boys into a “man box” from which emotions and empathy are excluded.

Perhaps a better explanation goes like this: We train boys that being empathetic is “girlish” or feminine behavior. So as they grow older, they become less empathetic, meaning they understand others less. The problems that result from this stem from the benign, to those (former boys that have now become) men who have found ways to adjust, to those that wind up on the evening news from those who have not.

Of particular note is that this article enumerates five specific ways in which we indoctrinate our children with gender stereotypes: clothing, hair, products (mostly toys, but can include things such as lunchboxes), sports, and stories. The problem, actually, doesn’t end with boys, as another quote from the article illustrates:

Immediately after girls watch television, their self-esteem drops. (This is true of all children except young white boys.)

(I notice the race issue, but choose to leave it for another day and another post.)

While this appears as a symptom of a larger problem with television and specifically the television programming aimed at children, the number of female characters in children’s books is imbalanced enough to be statistically significant (57% male versus 31% female protagonists; 36.5% feature male title characters versus 17.5% female). This goes beyond any one medium, whether print, television, or cinema.

It’s time for a radical change on how we educate our children, regardless of gender. Let’s get rid of this silly “blue for boys, pink for girls” nonsense. It never made much sense to me. The gender labels we have attached to some sports need to go. (What’s wrong with boys, or men, wanting to play volleyball? Honestly, I think an adult professional volleyball league would make great television, at least as good as NFL football.) I like what the WNBA has done for women in professional sports (I would have watched this summer if I had more time), but there is still a huge gender gap that needs to be narrowed.

Clothing is another area that’s a real sore spot for me. Utilikilts are a step in the right direction, but a lot of men don’t even know the company exists (and as a result, the prices are high because of economy of scale, which means even fewer men buy them than otherwise would). It’s still not as socially acceptable for men to use color cosmetics as it once was (cosmetics being primarily for women is primarily a product of early 20th century or perhaps late 19th century thinking). Yes, men can get away with some wild face paint if they are in a rock band (KISS, Twisted Sister) or an actor (Johnny Depp), but that’s about it.

Yes, I covered some of this same ground years ago (I don’t feel like linking to it but it’s there if you go back far enough). It’s an issue that hasn’t gone away, and isn’t going to go away until we as a society realize what the problems are.