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How We Teach Our Boys To Be Men And Our Girls To Be Women

I babysat a 4-year-old girl once, and she was just like any other typical 4-year-old girl I had ever encountered. She loved princesses and everything pink. She adored kitties and cuddled dolls with googly eyes. She wore sparkly bracelets and twinkling tiaras, and the movies she watched were mostly Disney princess movies. Her dream was to become a beautiful bride or a princess.

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“Not a fan of the whole princess thing”, says Alison Abdullah as she removes the candle princess from her daughter’s birthday cake. Upon her husband calling their daughter a “pretty princess”, Alison replies with, “she’s not a perfect pretty princess; she’s a smart young woman, she’s strong, she’s beautiful. We gotta use empowering words- not cute and princess”.

Like Alison Abdullah from the popular Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black, parents today are more cautious of forcing their daughters to conform to socially constructed gender norms and expectations. Ideally, girls are encouraged to be assertive, to voice their opinions, to be independent; not submissive, defensive, and dependent. Iconic figures like Beyonce have saturated powerful messages about empowering young girls, and Hillary Clinton during her election campaign highlighted gender equality. It seems only natural that the onus is on women, considering that women have been treated unfairly throughout history and there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The empowerment of women and the activism surrounding gender equality is without a doubt very important. However, where do the men fall into this conversation? How often do we see the media portraying parents telling their boys that crying is okay?

Instead, boys and male teenagers are encouraged to engage in masculine behaviors, shamed when they act feminine, and told to “man-up” when they show signs of weakness. The expectation for boys to be strong, aggressive, and sometimes mischievous, as is portrayed in the phrase “boys will be boys”, forces boys and young male adults to spend a great amount of time trying to achieve this expectation. And when they are unable to conform, they are ridiculed and the young adult is emasculated. There is a normalized culture of hegemonic masculinity, at least very distinctly in the United States, that causes men to conform to societal expectations of masculinity from fear of being undermined, and can in certain cases lead to violent acts in order to prove their masculinity.

It is not simple to fix blind prejudice. Societal norms have deeply influenced our behaviors and beliefs, and it is impossible to un-know the known. However, before you instinctively tell a boy to stop crying and to man up when he is hurt, or asking a girl which doll she wants from Toys-R-Us for her birthday, take a moment to consider how your actions and words may reflect on young children.

After all, feminism is not about making women powerful and leveling with men. Feminism is about creating equality for all of humanity and it involves an all-inclusive conversation.

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