I remember a warm Saturday morning two years ago that I had wasted indoors. Pacing the aisles of toy section in the third shop I’d visited that day. ‘Just pick something!’ I scolded myself, uneasy with the choice I knew I had to make. I was on my way to a baby shower for a dear friends first child. The invitation did not explicitly say the baby was a boy but was blue with small drawings of trucks and cars supposed to indicate so. ‘He’s not even born yet and already he is being defined by so-called masculine stereotypes’ I remember thinking. I want to purchase a gender-neutral toy for the baby, but I struggled a lot. I selected a plain brown bear and left the store. It wasn’t a great gift but at least it didn’t come with expectations.
Ever since I was young myself, I have been acutely aware of the gendered expectations placed on children. I’ve always been a feminist, actively calling out harmful stereotypes and sexism in my life but it wasn’t until I began working for WHGNE that I noticed the resistance toward the feminist movement.
Perhaps the most common pushback I hear is that we should just ‘let boys be boys and girls be girls’. At times, I have found myself wondering if gender should be discussed with children. Shouldn’t we let them just be kids while they can? Before they can understand the reality of the gender pay gap, gender disparate morbidity and mortality rates and gendered crime including sexual assault, violence and suicide. But I am reminded of other baby showers and children’s birthdays I’ve been to in the past and it’s hard to see the gendered stereotypes we enforce on children as anything other than contributory to systemic gender inequality as adults.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I think we are making strides for women and girls in this way. The toy section still has a myriad of pink and teal ponies, baby dolls and pretend makeup kits but greater representation for women in settings such as the Sporting leagues and STEM careers means that little girls can see beyond gender stereotypes and strive to be whatever they choose to be. We certainly haven’t reached parity yet but in many ways, we are getting closer for women and girls.
But what about boys? It’s easy to rationalise buying a toy truck for the little guys in our lives. They’re usually bright yellow with moving parts and even I find them fun! But as adults who understand the extent of gender inequality, it’s up to us to think critically about the effect of this small action in the long term. Each time we buy boys trucks and cars instead of baby’s prams we are sending a message about what is acceptable for men. If they can’t see it, they will never be it.
Traditionally, the stereotype has always been that boys don’t cry, boys don’t express their emotions, boys don’t play with dolls. In a perpetual cycle of gender inequality, this traditional notion of masculinity is both caused by, and causes, men who bottle up their feelings and are embarrassed to be vulnerable and caring.
Men make up 6 out of the 8 daily suicides in Australia. That’s three quarters of an extraordinary problem. They also make up an overwhelming majority of perpetrators of violence. Not only toward women but to each other and to themselves. So, it has become increasingly difficult for me not to cringe when I hear phrases such as ‘let boys be boys’. We’ve tried that. For so long boys being boys has meant boys behaving badly but not having the tools to do better. But we must do better. When 6 men are dying by suicide every day, and when men are killing one woman per week in Australia alone, it’s hard not to see masculinity as a major piece in the puzzle and one which we all must address.
Today, I have purchased the same child’s second birthday present. It’s a wiggles DVD for a kid who loves to shake his groove thing more than his mother did back when we first met on the dance floor as 18-year olds. These days, I try to buy kids presents based on their interest rather than the colours or activities assigned to their gender at birth. These gender stereotypes seem harmless – a truck for a little boy who isn’t even born yet – but they all add up to gender inequality which hurts men and boys too.
Join us on June 21 to unpack gender stereotypes and what it means to be a man in modern rural Australia. More information at bit.ly/menandmasc
Jasmine Isaacs, Health Promotion Officer