I'm driving to the shops with my four-year-old to buy a pair of 'beautiful gold shoes'. He desperately wants a pair just like his big sister's.
When we find them – a pair of sparkly gold slippers with fluffy white bows – I wait for the sales assistance to say something. She does double-check that they are actually for him, but then appears to swallow her objection and smiles nervously. I breathe a sigh of relief. He has a lifetime to deal with the weight of other people's gender issues; he doesn't need to hear them now.
My son loves beautiful things, like golden slippers and tutus. He also loves swords, cars and Lego. He is similarly indiscriminate in his admiration of fictional heroes – Elsa and Anna, Peter Pan, Batman, Dora, Spiderman, Tinkerbell and all of the TMNT (including April, who he thinks is 'so cool'). His play has no boundaries. But I worry about how long this will last.
Young girls are bombarded with an avalanche of pink princess merchandising, and the pressure on boys to conform to a narrowly gendered range of interests can seem subtler, but it's just as insidious. Seemingly these are flip sides of the same coin – a rigid enforcement of gender roles – but as kids grow up it becomes apparent that something else is going on.
Older girls are given more freedom to stray from pink princesses and to embrace more 'masculine' interests. While older girls will often still have their appearance and manners commented on before their bravery or brains, they will also be applauded if they reject 'girly' interests and demonstrate their capacity to fit in with the boys. In contrast, boys who demonstrate a similar capacity to admire female heroes or enjoy a bit of sparkle are rarely applauded.
At first this may seem like a double standard, but, in fact, so-called masculine interests and qualities are being consistently treated as the gold standard. The loosening of gender roles has opened up the space for girls to be admitted into this gold-level boys club, should they meet the criteria, but the underlying value system hasn't changed. Girls are still considered substandard and this explains why boys are expected not to tarnish themselves by association.
The cost this extracts from girls and women should be obvious – fundamentally we will always be second-class citizens, even if we have won the right to visit the boys' club (on the condition that we carefully conform with the rules). What is less obvious is the cost this extracts from boys and men.
When boys grow up fearful of behaving 'like a girl' they are often forced to shut down their natural emotional reactions to the world. When they are forced to hold back tears, all that emotion still has to come out and often the only acceptable vehicle is aggression – either in sport, play, or less social outlets. Without permission to open up and behaved vulnerably, male friendships can be stunted from the outset. This can be horribly isolating and has been linked to high rates of depression and suicide in men.
I want my son to grow up with the self-confidence to express his emotions without aggression. I want him to feel comfortable being vulnerable so that he can forge deep connections with people around him and build a support network to see him through challenging times. I want him to continue to respect and admire women as much as men, and to feel free to express his feminine side. The sad thing is that there is only so much I can do.
A friend of mine posted a request for advice on Facebook the other day. Her son was attending his first book week at school and had decided to go as Silke from the Faraway Tree. What my friend wanted to know was whether she should warn him of the likelihood of negative comments. Would she be preparing him better by giving him a 'heads up' or would this only give credibility to the teasing? I've had similar dilemmas before, such as when my son chose to wear a skirt to a school dance and I knew he'd be teased. We cannot protect them from ridicule, but it sucks that it's even an issue.
When we leave the shop with his new shoes, my son wants to wear them immediately. My husband helps him to put them on and he strides confidently through the mall. No one says a word to us and he is full of joy. I want to freeze this moment of innocent freedom, because I know it will not last.