“Ian has long hair! He looks like a girl!” The longhaired three-year-old boy looked up at me, his blond bangs falling in a swoop over his bright blue eyes. Those eyes were currently pleading with me, his preschool teacher, to get the girls to leave him alone.
“Hey, boys can have long hair and girls can have short hair. It’s okay,” I stepped in, pointing to my own short hair. “I don’t have long hair and that doesn’t mean I’m not a girl.” Explaining gender presentation to three year olds whose parents would probably be horrified to learn that a liberal feminist is teaching their children is no easy feat. I have to simplify what I have to say and build on what I know of their home lives to make sure I’m not stepping outside the bounds. But getting kids to stop making fun of each other is worth the risk – at least, I hope so. “It’s okay that Ian has longer hair! I think it looks good!”
“I guess,” the long haired ringleader of the girls agreed reluctantly. Just then, a ball came flying over by our group and the preschoolers ran off, distracted quickly by the reminder that this was playtime.
The next week, Ian showed up at the preschool with a shorter haircut more common for young boys his age.
One of the ways in which we teach men how to be men is through discouraging any stereotypically feminine traits in them. We insult young boys by telling them they “throw like a girl” and discourage the liking of any colors that aren’t “manly.” I see this fairly clearly throughout my preschoolers – not a single boy has shown up in pink or with a female superhero on his chest. Two children who recently had birthdays brought in cupcakes for their class – one, a girl, brought in Frozen themed cupcakes. The boy brought in Ninja Turtles. Each of the cupcakes contained little plastic rings with movie designs on them. Out on the playground, the girls proudly brandished their Frozen rings and the boys ran around playing games with their Ninja Turtle rings. I don’t recall a single boy walking around with a Frozen ring, though there were definitely boys who got them.
Even amongst three and four year old boys, doing “girly” things is already perceived as negative, as something they shouldn’t do without facing punishment of some kind. Many adults would take this as evidence of the innateness of gender coming out. What I see, instead, is carefully policed gender roles manifesting themselves in children almost from birth.
This kind of policing is a lifelong process for men. While we’re beginning to ease up and open the doors for young girls and young women to pursue “masculine” activities – STEM fields in particular – men are still by and large discouraged from entering traditionally feminine work. At my preschool, for example, there is one male teacher out of nearly 20. When my mother was in the hospital, we rarely had male nurses attending (though there were a lot of male orderlies). In publishing, of all things, I work with nearly all women (though the feminist nature of my work lends itself to bias in this area).
And in the church, due to both a purposefully structured doctrine which prevents women from being pastors and an ongoing environment in which women and men are strictly divided, women and men end up separated into some very specific roles. Women work in the nursery; men preach from the pulpit. If a man decides he wants to be a stay at home dad, for example, the evangelical church will refer to him as a “man-fail” and comment that he is shirking his duty to be a provider.
The church turns right around and proclaims that fathers are extremely important for children. And yet, those who want to spend more time with their children are demonized and mocked as failures of men. The contradiction is almost astounding.
This kind of reinforcement of specific kinds of culturally constrained masculinity also contributes to homophobia within the church. The pervasive fear – and it is a fear – that young boys will turn out to be “one of them” causes stricter enforcement of gendered roles and the demonizing of any inclination of femininity. This is the fear behind mothers freaking out over their sons getting a pink toy from McDonalds instead of a blue one or refusing to let their sons play dress up unless it is in “manly” costumes like Spiderman.
Much of this fiercely masculine identity seems to be rooted in making sure that men stand above and separate from women. Any natural display of female-coded elements is immediately discouraged – things like long hair or even the lack of facial hair are seen as important signifiers of womanhood to be discouraged.
This kind of teaching becomes powerfully transphobic as well, particularly toward transwomen. A transgender woman’s very existence threatens the neat lines of masculinity which are dependent upon the demonization of anything female. A transwoman, seen not as an “actual” woman, is therefore a threat to the world of masculinity, as she is seen as someone who gave up masculinity for femininity – the ultimate crime of any “masculine” person, especially in the church.
This demonization of womanhood, too, is where anti-feminist arguments come from. Conservative writers, one after the other, proclaim that feminism is about “turning men into women.” This “emasculation” is the highest and greatest sin of the feminist world: to make men something that is viewed as lesser, because anything not male threatens to be sinful and lesser.
At the root of this fear of emasculation and fear of men displaying womanly traits is a fear of the feminine. We police both genders harshly, but young boys, pushed to be leaders and providers and strong emotionless robots, get a raw deal. This kind of toxic masculinity depends on the demonization of anything female – which extends to things like close friendship with women, close friendships with male friends (because no homo!), and any exploration of feminine traits when a connection to those traits may help to make for a more well-rounded person altogether. Men are to be solitary strengths, because admitting needs is feminine and weak. And the burden this places on both men and women creates an untenable vision of masculinity and a hatred for femininity. We create misogyny – it is not born of nothing.
[Photo by Steven Leonetti, Flickr Creative Commons]