Scuffed knees, fights on the schoolyard, mud tracked into the house – all explained away with the saying “boys will be boys.”
But what does it mean to be a boy?
Society might indicate that a boy is someone assigned as such at birth. That the word of the doctor that handed the baby in question to his or her mother’s word was law. And perhaps this has been true, for quite some time.
But as the world becomes a more complex place, and the lines of gender and sexuality are growing less rigid, does this definition of what makes an individual a boy remain concrete?
“We are all sexed and gendered beings, and we all make sexed and gender-based decisions every day,” says Dr. Olga Marques, professor of Criminology at UOIT, who specializes in the links between gender identity and society.
According to Marques, everything from the way that we dress to the way that we choose to greet each other is tied into our gender identities, even subconsciously. She says a reluctance to be emotionally vulnerable, a need to be strong, a reluctance to be physically affectionate with one’s fellow man – all long-standing stereotypes of men. While exceptions to the rule certainly exist, she says it remains the rule nonetheless.
“We are all sexed and gendered beings, and we all make sexed and gender-based decisions every day,”
But what does this mean for men that seek to break away from the status quo?
Is a man any less of a man if he chooses to wear a dress, or be open about his emotions? Are boys that like the colour pink and playing with dolls somehow lesser than boys that prefer more stereotypically masculine pastimes?
The negative reception to Target’s decision in 2015 to stop labelling their toys by gender might indicate that some believe this to be true.
According to Marques, while society might be growing more progressive, the divide between what is stereotypically masculine and feminine remains in place, as evidenced by some being surprised when a woman knows a great deal about cars.
She says with the growth of feminist movements, the concept of the ‘patriarchy’ is growing increasingly prevalent – the idea that society is male-dominated and male-controlled. While there are those that would seek to deny the existence of such a structure, Marques says that society praises the masculine over the feminine.
Nearly as common as the phrase “boys will be boys” is the phrase “stop acting like a girl.”
“We elevate masculinity to such an extent that it cannot be tarred with anything feminine. But we do not see the reverse,” says Marques.
According to her, it is treated as something exciting and noble to see women partaking in typically masculine pastimes: fixing cars, being police officers, or running for political positions. But stories of men that become dancers, social workers, or babysitters aren’t as often told.
At first glance, the societal implications of this divide between acceptance of masculine and feminine personality traits might seem somewhat benign.
“We elevate masculinity to such an extent that it cannot be tarred with anything feminine. But we do not see the reverse,”
But when these gender stereotypes and traditional roles are enforced, she says it permits them to become the norm. According to Marques, where the desire to remain emotionally closed off is concerned, it leaves many men at risk of harm.
“We have seen generations of men turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol abuse,” she says.
According to Statistics Canada, men are two-and-a-half times more likely to engage in heavy drinking than women, and the rate of suicide, in 2009, was three times higher for men than it was for women.
Marques cites a link between emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol abuse. Given this, would being more emotionally vulnerable ultimately be safer?