You probably heard about Ashley Judd‘s recent Daily Beast post calling out the media for nasty judgments of her appearance. Ms. Judd points the finger at the patriarchy but clarifies that “Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate.”
Indeed it is. And this system cannot be overcome by ignoring male stereotypes and “acculturated boyness,”[i] which is what happens more often than not in discussions of patriarchy and the fight for gender equality. It is important to acknowledge the impact of patriarchy on boys and men, as Ms. Judd does when she says that males “are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood.”
Patriarchy is learned, of course. Boys are not born sexist. If they become sexist, it is because of the popular and family culture in which they are raised.
It’s true that popular culture is largely created by men who run entertainment conglomerates and toy companies, but the attitudes of these men have been shaped by the same forces that affect boys now.
Our culture teaches boys that physical strength and dominance are the most valuable traits a man can possess. Just look at the average animated superhero, like Hal Jordan here, or listen to the language used in a typical sports broadcast, where athletes are valued for being “tough” as much as for having any skill. In cartoons targeted to boys, action is often delivered in the form of violence, reinforcing the link between male heroism and physical dominance.
At the same time, children’s pop culture trades on stereotypes of both sexes and often relegates female characters (if they are present) to small, supporting roles. Rarely are female characters protagonists or heroes. Those females who are considered heroes, like Wonder Woman, are never the star of a program. They are part of a team, not leaders or solo heroes, and they tend to be highly sexualized. In short, kids’ pop culture reinforces many aspects of patriarchy–men are shown as dominant and women, when present, are diminished and devalued.
Even children who watch little television or film are not immune to the influence of popular culture. Its tentacles extend beyond television and cinema to book shelves, toy stores, and clothes. It is then shared through conversation with peers. To wit, a 5-year-old girl who visited our home last week told me that she couldn’t believe my son “plays with girl toys.”
Children learn some of their most important gender lessons in the home and from family members, but our culture can influence parents’ and caregivers’ attitudes as well. Here are some examples from my experience. I once read a parenting “advice” column that referred to boys who cry “too much” as “wimps.” I was recently party to a conversation about a young boy who wasn’t interested in sounding out the words in his introductory reading book. A well-educated parent who calls herself a feminist chalked this up to “boy laziness” and noted that boys typically cannot sit still long enough to read. And I was once told by a father when an older boy was swatting and shoving a younger boy on his baseball team that it was “the law of the playground.” In other words, this boy was not misbehaving or being a problem, he was just being a boy.
How can we combat patriarchy if we don’t address male stereotypes like those described above and invite boys and men to become part of the solution?
Instead of disregarding the male gender stereotypes that surround boys from birth onward, we should be examining the culture we live in and the messages it sends to children of both sexes. We should be proactive in educating boys about gender bias, just as many of us are with girls.
Like girls, boys need lessons in media literacy and positive examples of males and females in their entertainment and literature. And they need to be taught to value people for who they are, not for their ability to conform to preconceived (and archaic) notions of what boys, girls, men, and women should be.
[i] Landsberg, Michele. “Cultivating the Human in the Boy.” Canadian Perspectives on Men &Masculinities. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada, 2012.) 2-11.