I had a conversation at church that caused me to think again about childhood gender roles and what we seem to believe is acceptable (or not).
When I picked my son up at Sunday school, I noticed that all the boys had turned their cross craft project into airplanes. The girls were all coloring pictures. Chatting with some of the other parents, I commented on it. I mentioned that it seemed like a pretty typical thing for boys to do. I said that I love boys, but I’m glad to have a daughter too, as I relate to her better. One of the other adults (who has grown children) told me that her daughter was always “more like a boy.”
There is nothing wrong with our chat or anything anyone said that morning. But afterward, I realized something. When a girl is “more like a boy,” parents take a certain amount of pride in it. There are assumptions made–that she will be strong, athletic, and spunky; that she will be able to hold her own against the boys; that she will be a leader. Most people find a girl who prefers pants, climbs trees, and likes mud to be endearing. But on the flip side, parents are usually ashamed when their sons display more feminine traits. At least, they are encouraged to feel shame. The number of times people have suggested that my son, if he wants to dance, should do it competitively, serves as an example.
Realizing those two things about boys and girls, three other things occurred to me. First, the default position for gender identity seems to be male. Girls can be tomboys, but boys must be what we consider masculine, too. This has actually been true in other areas of life as well. For example, in medical research, most studies used to be conducted using men as the subjects (though this has dramatically changed in more recent years). “Unisex” clothes are designed with the male body in mind. Stories intended for general audiences usually have a male (or at least a tomboy) lead character and more male characters than female.
Second, the cute tomboy thing only lasts so long. Once a girl reaches puberty, she is expected to lay aside such childish things. She should learn how to be a proper woman. That doesn’t mean she has to give up sports; she just has to be sexy when participating. It doesn’t mean she has to wear dresses, just that she should be what we consider very feminine while wearing her jeans or sweats. A mature young woman can still be tough, athletic, strong, and hold her own against the boys–as long as she isn’t too masculine while doing it.
Third, boys who are considered more feminine, unlike their tomboy counterparts, are not expected to outgrow it. In fact, people seem to believe that feminine boys are doomed to be sissies for a lifetime. Too many boys have turned away from pursuit of the arts, especially classical music and dance, because they are led to believe that participation will somehow limit their ability to become “real” men. (Side note: This is a very contemporary thing. As little as 60 years ago, the vast majority of professional orchestral musicians were men.)
What I find even more disturbing is that many conservative Christians buy into the idea of “appropriate” gender roles as though this is something that can be found in the Bible. Trust me, it’s not in there. There is no commandment for men to be “real” men or women to be “real” women. Nothing, not even in the writings of Paul, indicates that men should not enjoy the arts or that women should not be construction workers. I am not suggesting that we can’t have societal norms, or that I want a completely gender-neutral society; I think that would be pretty dull. But I do believe that people, especially children, should not live in fear that they will be ostracized or shamed for being true to themselves.