Let me start with a scenario and you can do your best to imagine it. Imagine you are me.
You're at a BBQ with some friends. You haven't been part of their community for very long so you're still very self-conscious and aware that they are all quite different from you, in a good way. Most of them have kids - a mix of boys and girls - and the kids are currently running around the house entertaining themselves. The boys are playing with toy guns. One of the Mums manages to get hold of one of the guns and is shooting her son. It's funny and sweet because you can see the dynamics of their relationship, see the love between them. In many ways it's lovely that a Mum and son are playing together it that way, rather than it being a father and son. Another boy gets caught in the crossfire and he squeals. One of the adults laughs, "you squeal like a girl." The other boy is managing to get away from his Mum's bullets and someone shouts, "come on, take it like a man."
And that’s when, for you, everything stops. Suddenly you can feel the lump rising in your chest. You feel really uncomfortable but you are fairly new here and you don’t feel you are in any position to express your feelings without it sounding like you are telling someone off. You feel like you're betraying yourself and everything you believe in by being quiet but you know you will sound judgemental if you open your mouth. The Mum with the gun comments to one of the other Mums, "I thought you didn't like your kids playing with guns." And there you have it perhaps, an opening. It comes out before you've even had a chance to think it through, "I'm never letting my children play with guns, it's something I feel really strongly about." And there's a pause, a kind of awkward silence. And you realise that you've sounded exactly like you didn't want to - judgemental. Especially as you don't have children and they do. So you try and make it better because what you actually wanted to say wasn’t anything to do with the toy guns but that seemed like it might be a more acceptable thing to say. It seemed, in that split second, like it might open up the conversation and you could manage to squeeze out your actual point without it sounded too forced or contrived or outright rude. So you try and get there, try and develop the conversation by gabbling something about gender neutral toys and how you don’t want your kids to have specific 'girls' and 'boys' toys. However what you’re saying doesn't really make any sense and you actually wish you'd never bothered opening your mouth in the first place, because really, what good did you do? What good could you do? But inside, you're screaming. Inside your head you’re desperately trying to explain your actual point – that the phrase "take it like a man" is dangerous, and the phrase “squeal like a girl” is deeply insulting and upsetting.
Let me just cut in here with a disclaimer – I want it to be clear that I am not passing judgement on anyone's parenting skills and choices AT ALL. And I am talking about people I have come to care about a lot very quickly. This post is a social commentary, my frustrated internal scream at the things that we are taught to do and say throughout our lives that we no longer think about the consequences of, because it’s so normal, so engrained. This post is me channelling my upset and asking myself how I could act differently in the future. Because I do have a point, and actually, I think it’s worth hearing.
“Take it like a man” perpetuates a stereotype, a stereotype that dictates that men are strong and can take anything. A stereotype that says that men are always able to protect and effectively attack. “Take it like a man” creates a mindset in boys (and girls), an understanding of what a 'real' man is. And so when puberty hits the boy is waiting for that change in himself, the one where he feels untouchable, powerful, strong, like all the men he’s seen on TV. But it doesn't come. Because things happen and he still gets scared, he still wants to cry for his Mum. But he knows that's not acceptable because that would be showing weakness, and men aren't weak, girls are. Men are powerful, and they can do whatever they want. He learns that he is the most important person and that his needs come first because that's what it's like for all the men in the films he watches. He learns that women are just there to look pretty in the background while he goes out and fights for them, and protects them. He learns that to scream is to be “like a girl”, which makes him look stupid. He learns that to cry is to be “like a girl”, which makes him pathetic. He learns that to squeal is to be “like a girl”, which makes him a joke. He learns that being “like a girl” is a BAD thing.
So he pretends. He gets a girlfriend and when they break up he pretends it doesn't hurt by pretending he never loved her in the first place. He proves it by saying terrible things about her behind her back, by spreading horrible rumours. She was a ‘terrible kisser'. She was ‘frigid'. She was a ‘slut'. And when the girl decides enough is enough and she will say something back, his friends laugh at him because he was insulted by a girl. He feels embarrassed but he has learnt to channel this through aggression. He confronts her but his feelings of inadequacy get too much, so when she pushes him away, when she taunts him for not being able to take her insults, he snaps. He doesn’t even recognise himself anymore. He knows, from everything he’s learnt, that he’s an exception to the rule because he’s hurting and real men DON'T HURT. So he decides to do something that will prove that he’s a real man, that he's not pathetic or stupid or a joke. So when she says “no” he doesn’t stop. When she screams “no” he doesn’t stop. When she’s crying and fighting him he doesn’t stop, he laughs, because she’s fighting and crying and screaming like a girl and there is nothing she can do to stop him. Because he comes first. He matters more. He is stronger and tougher and more important than her.
I know, it’s a lot to deal with, and you probably think I’ve gone too far. I’ve gone from speaking about a real life situation with kids laughing and squealing and fighting in a fun way with their Mums to speaking about the horrific act of rape. As if all men are like this, as if all men are rapists deep down, as if these situations happen all the time... You probably feel my point is too extreme and you’re glad I didn’t say anything at the time. You’re glad I didn’t interrupt that lovely day of family fun with my dark thoughts and scary conclusions and assumptions.
But you see, for me there is no other way. When I hear the words “take it like a man” I see a whole lifetime stretching out in front of that boy where he will constantly struggle with his inability to live up to the stereotypes and expectations of “being a man”. I see him learning slowly that to do anything “like a girl” is a bad thing. I see the statistics that I have worked with too often that link gender stereotypes to “6 out of 10 girls and women around the world will be victims of violence in their lifetimes”. I see the news stories of the American jocks who commit rape and get let off because the girls are slut-shamed into believing they are less, that they don’t have a right to decide what does and doesn’t happen to their bodies, that the men’s needs are in fact more important than their’s and they probably provoked them because they laughed at them or didn’t appreciate being approached by a ‘real’ man. I see the member of parliament in India who recently spoke out on rape and said, “well, boys will be boys.”
Some men and boys will be lucky. Some girls and women will be lucky. Other good values they are taught will override these feelings and they will be less affected by the stereotypes, or their reactions will be less extreme. A girl will have a teacher, for example, who is a fantastic role model and teaches her that actually to do anything “like a girl” is a wonderful thing, because she is wonderful and can do anything she likes. In fact, last week I saw for the first time Always’ “like a girl” campaign, which has shaped this post a little. I was originally just going to focus on the dangerous stereotypes of being a man but I found I couldn't avoid the fact that “squeal like a girl” is just as bad as “take it like a man” in another way. Because to squeal like a girl is used as an insult, which implies that being a girl is an insult. Being a girl is a bad thing. (Watch the video, it brings tears to my eyes.)
I was really upset after the BBQ. I came home pretty restless and so ashamed of myself for not speaking up. I realised that I am so used to discussing these issues with those who also work in the area or have the basic knowledge of the links between gender stereotypes, power dynamics in relationships and, ultimately, gender-based violence, that I don’t know how to talk to people in my everyday life about it in a way that will get people thinking and not sound judgemental. I was so agitated last week that I had to sit down and just write. I had to let it out. Because really, what could I do? What would you have done?
I would like to think that when I have children I will speak to them about the things that people say and things that people do that perpetuate these stereotypes and contribute to a belief that one gender must act in a certain way. I will ask them why they insult each other by saying things like "you squeal like a girl!" and what they think about men and women when they see them on TV and in films. I hope to have a dialogue about stereotypes, in a language they will understand. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I would rather be that than any alternative. I hope that my daughter will know that when she runs “like a girl” she is running like herself, and that is beautiful, and I hope that my son will know that when he squeals, it’s funny, but only because of the high-pitched sound, not because it makes him sound "like a girl". I hope that people will not become fed up of me for going on and on about these things, will not feel that I am questioning their lives or parenting decisions or criticising all the words that come out of their mouths. Because I have realised that if I’m going to do this properly, if I’m going to really challenge these stereotypes and do absolutely everything in my power to tear them down and rebuild what it means to be a boy or a girl, I am going to have to learn to speak up, especially now as I get older and will be around more and more people with children. I’m going to have to learn to be able to talk about things on a basic level which people understand and which is relevant to them. I’m going to have to be brave and stop being scared about being boring or too serious or sounding like a broken record. Because if I can change the way one boy understands “taking it like a man” or stop one person using “squealing like a girl” as an insult, then it’s been worth it. It’ll have been worth every single second.
I recently got a new job, the one I've wanted since I stepped into the UN building for the first time in March 2013. I will now be responsible for our 'Stop the Violence: speak out for girls' rights' campaign. It's huge and I feel a lot of pressure, but it also feels right. I feels right to be finally able to position myself as an expert on gender-based violence, right from the formation of gender stereotypes to the double discrimination faced by being a girl. So it feels apt that I am writing this now. That I am deciding that I can no longer stick to conversations with my colleagues or my partner, who already agree with me and understand and are standing with me as we fight. So this is a call to action. This is me reaching out and asking you if you will have an awkward conversation or ask the question no-one bothers asking – “why is that ok?”. This is a call to action for you to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge what it means to be a boy or a girl. To think twice before you laugh at someone because they're running "like a girl" or before you sigh and tell someone in a frustrated way to "man up" or "take it like a man". This is a call to action to join me, to join all of us who can't deal with it anymore. Who want their sons and daughters to grow up free from the confines of the stereotypes of their gender and to know that it is magnificent that they are strong and powerful and beautiful and loving and kind, regardless of whether they're a boy or a girl. And to let them know that they have the power to stand up and demand the right to not only be 'different' but to change the whole landscape of 'normal'. I hope you can find some way to join me. I know many many people and organisations who already are. :)
As I said, there are many fantastic organisations already working on this, and many resources all over the internet.
- I will take the opportunity to promote White Ribbon Campaign again – men working to end violence against women: http://www.whiteribboncampaign.co.uk/ Michael Kaufman gives fantastic talks to high school students about the realities of growing up as a teenage boy and the immense pressure by many to 'be a real man'.
- Men Engage: www.menengage.org - men and boys working to promote gender equality
- "And He Learned…" This is a BRILLIANT blog post on a similar theme: http://rantsandrambles.com/2014/05/29/and-he-learned/