Every quarter I ask my women students if any of them had been tomboys when they were little. Many hands enthusiastically shoot into the air. The women often have fond memories of their time climbing trees and digging in the dirt.
Then I ask men students if any of them had been sissies. The class bursts out laughing. One hand might sheepishly creep up.
One man claimed the question was unfair since the word “sissy” is stigmatized but “tomboy” is not.
Actually, there isn’t a non-stigmatizing word for a boy who acts like a girl. And there’s a reason for that. Any boy who acts like a girl takes himself down to a lower status. He becomes demeaned.
A girl who acts like a boy, on the other hand, doesn’t harm her social standing. At least not until she gets older and the behavior takes on lesbian overtones.
Another student thought I was exaggerating the problem. For his term paper he asked men and women on campus whether they had been tomboys or sissies, and whether they had ever thought about being the opposite sex.
When he asked women if they had ever wanted to be a man, or wondered what it would be like, many said they had. When he asked about being tomboys when they were little, they often reminisced on that happy time.
But when he asked men whether they had ever wanted to be a woman, or been curious about what it might be like, stunned reactions were the rule: “What!? Are you serious?” When he asked if they had been sissies when they were young, men turned an angry eye and asked, “Are you looking for trouble?”
He’s lucky to have finished his research and still be alive and in one piece.
This is just one of many examples of how we “gender rank” men above women in our society.
What difference does it make?
Devaluing females and femaleness ends in all sorts of problems: Women expect less for themselves, including pay and power in relationships. In societies and subcultures where masculine is valued over feminine we find higher rates of rape, wife battering, gay bashing, daughters-for-sale, and female infanticide. STDs are more widely spread. Women’s sexuality becomes repressed. The list goes on.
Gender ranking. It’s all about empowerment and disempowerment. But as we become more aware of the problem, we can create change.
Random Moms across America think they know: My son has got to be gay. He wears khakis today but wore a dress to school from age 4 to 6; he used to do ballet and still doesn’t like sports; in preschool he was all about playing princess but now is all about Pokemon; and, in spite of the clear gender divisions in third grade, he plays with both girls and boys. I mean, what straight boy is into that kinda freaky gender mash-up?
This mom knows better, and she goes on to remark that, actually, butch boys can grow up to be gay, and fem boys can grow up to be straight.
Interestingly, few moms worry that their little tomboys will grow up to be lesbians.
But this mom gets LOADS of advice on how to turn her son “boyish.” Take away the girly toys and clothes, and enroll him in sports!
So much worry about girly boys.
Yet what we think of as “girl stuff” turns out to be “boy stuff” in other times and places.
Boys shouldn’t wear pink? Years ago the country staged a great debate on whether pink or blue should designate girls or boys. Some advocated pink for boys – such a robust color! Blue is so dainty.
The Cabbage Patch craze of the last generation led a lot of boys to want dolls. One of my little boy cousins got one for Christmas. Today most people would call him a manly man, complete with wife and baby. (And G.I. Joe is a doll, too.)
Ancient Roman men wore skirts, though the one on the left is armored! (A likely relief to some macho men out there.) Other Roman men wore dresses (robes).
And we mustn’t forget men in tights, circa “Romeo and Juliet.”
Moving on to the court of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, we find him wearing lots of lace, ruffles, curls, and color. And gracefully posed!
The American founding fathers had considerably less glitz, but they still wore more color, lace, ruffles, and curls than most men today would be caught dead in. They also hired instructors to help present a more graceful appearance. One of my male students asked, “Ok, but what did the manly men wear?” This is what they wore!
In more modern times, Scottish men can still be partial to skirts, though they call them kilts. Below are traditional and more recent versions of the garment.
Judges, priests, and scholars also continue to wear “dresses” today.
Perhaps the most surprising expressions of manhood come from a culture entirely different from our own: the Wodaabe of Nigeria in Africa. There, men adorn themselves with makeup and jewelry. Because white eyes and teeth are part of the beauty ideal for men, they often roll their eyes and show their teeth to show off these features.
In our own time and place there’s Rod Stewart, who seems to be strongly hetero by all accounts. But check out these shots:
There’s a difference between sex and gender. Sex is biologically-based. It’s made up of our genes (xx for girls, xy for boys), hormones (testosterone, estrogen), anatomy (vagina, penis, breasts, etc.). But gender is all made up. Or what cultures make up to mark biological differences.
If clothing, makeup, jewelry and toys aren’t naturally “boy” or “girl” things, how can doing “boy” or “girl” things mark sexual orientation?