Rebecca Asher has charted the one-dimensional view of boys and men throughout their lives, from ‘boys are like dogs’ to teenage troublemakers to non-communicative breadwinner and on to isolated older men in her latest book, Man Up: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules.
Boys, men and how they are affected by stereotypes are everywhere: CALM have an ad campaign: keeping men alive by talking, as suicide is the single biggest cause of death of men under 45 in the UK. Grayson Perry’s All Man series on Channel 4 explored ‘contemporary masculinity’ and how male identities – and perceptions of those identities – are changing. Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary on men ‘The Mask You Live In’ is now on Netflix in the UK and being screened in the US.
The stereotyping of boys and men has always been an issue close to our hearts at Let Toys Be Toys. While toys and books that diminish girls and narrow their aspirations are often seen as the ‘biggest’ problem when challenging gender stereotyping, not putting boys in expectation boxes is just as important to influence change for the next generation.
Being male is the biggest factor in crime (not just violent crime), suicide, suspension from school (at any age), GCSE performance, unemployment, loneliness in retirement. Yet research and policy does not always address the gender of those involved. For example, while class and ethnicity is the primary factor in underachieving in school, working-class boys do worse than low-income girls. Ofsted however, have stated that ‘The poor performance of low-income White British pupils is not, therefore a gender issue’. Surely, Asher argues, it’s a secondary factor and should not be overlooked? At secondary education in 60 countries (OECD study), teachers give girls higher marks than the boys, keep teaching to stereotype and boys and girls then conform to those expectations (boys as troublesome, girls as quiet and hardworking).
Being male is the biggest factor in crime (not just violent crime), suicide, suspension from school (at any age), GCSE performance, unemployment, loneliness in retirement.
Dr Judy Chu’s study of a group of boys from age 4 to 6, as they start school, shows that boys consciously demonstrate stereotypical boy behaviour in order to gain acceptance in their friendship group. This might mean, even at that early age, they learn to compromise their true selves in order to remain part of a group. Parents all too familiar with their children’s sudden dislike for ‘girl’ things or ‘boy’ things when they start school or pre-school could try to follow Dr Chu’s advice. She suggests that parents let boys stay true to themselves by enabling them to be aware of what ‘they really think, feel or want’, even when their behaviour may be showing something else. Let them preserve their integrity through their beliefs, and learn to speak up as they grow, seeking out relationships that do allow them to be themselves. This reflects President Barack Obama’s recent essay in Glamour magazine about being a feminist: ‘Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.’
Let boys stay true to themselves by enabling them to be aware of what ‘they really think, feel or want’, even when their behaviour may be showing something else.
Asher visits a variety of schools and youth groups in her search to uncover how boys can be stifled by stereotypes, and what positive things are being done about it. The City of London School (a boys’ public day school) has set up its own Feminist Society and call each other out for ‘heteronormative’ assumptions, with gay boys openly taking their partners to the end of year prom. The Great Men Project runs workshops with secondary school boys, challenging male stereotypes and enabling boys to talk candidly about their anxieties around conforming, pornography and how to be themselves. Big Talk Education now goes into primary schools to talk about sex education and consent, as at secondary school children already have too much misinformation and misconceptions.
While Asher has included the experiences of men such as actors Charlie Condou and Ashley Walters in her book, it is the organisations who stand out as the stars: Great Men Project, Carney’s Community, CALM, Big Talk Education and more. The project ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ may well agree: ‘celebrity role models’ are often seen as too distant, and a better term is ‘mentor’, and mentors can be peers, relatives and older people. They can also be male or female for boys and young men: MP David Lammy credits his brother’s wife as much as his older brother as influencing him growing up. At Let Toys Be Toys, while we often talk about girls and boys seeing women and men in key roles, it’s as important that boys are not deemed to only need men as role models, as what is that saying about the status of women?
Asher finishes her book with the realisation that both masculinity and femininity need to be rejected: why can’t we just let ‘people of both sexes be accepted for who they are and who they want to become’. With nearly half of 18-24 year olds identifying as neither straight nor gay, and teenagers and young people more likely now to have more mixed-sex friendships than in the last generation, it seems that the younger generation are better at letting people be people, without any male or female ‘rules’.
Read Rebecca Asher’s blog post for Let Toys Be Toys about writing her book, tips she picked up on raising children free of stereotypes, and setting children free.