Like many kids of my generation, I grew up with Free to Be You and Me on the record player. I heard over and over again the story of William, the little boy who wanted a doll but kept having bats and balls shoved at him. As old as that song is, the message about masculinity still resonates today. Just look at Sociological Images’ regular features on pointlessly gendered products to see how much rigid gender expectations are still ingrained in our culture.
Mychal Denzel Smith writes at Feministing about how his father’s homophobia and narrow view of masculinity has impacted him:
I was cutting the grass, as any teenager raised in the suburbs was responsible for doing and hating. Cutting the grass is stupid. My attitude and body language reflected my feelings about cutting the grass. My father noticed this and made an observation. He said, “you know, you show more enthusiasm for baking than you do cutting the grass.”
I had been baking since I was ten. It was the age my mother picked to start giving lessons in cooking and cleaning because, in her words, she wasn’t going to raise a “trifling man.” My first lesson was chocolate chip cookies. They’re still my favorite to this day.
Baking is awesome. The end result is cookies, cakes, and pies. Cutting the grass is stupid. The end result is smelling like sweat and outdoors. I don’t think it’s hard to pick up on why I would favor one over the other.
But my father thought he was seeing something more, something he didn’t like. I hadn’t thought too much about whether my dad was homophobic, because I was a teenage boy in America and homophobia is the air you breathe.
His whole thing was raising me to be a man. What that meant for him was preparing me to someday be a husband (to a woman) and father. He was often frustrated with me because I showed so little interest in the things that were a part of that training. In order to get me to pay attention and give extra effort, he’d say things like “when you have a wife and kids of your own, you’ll understand why this is important.”
Perhaps the reason I have no interest in getting married or having children is because my dad led me to believe it’d be a cruel nightmare filled with drills and hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches and fixing sinks and unclogging toilets and touching car parts I still don’t know the name of and, of course, mowing lawns. Obviously it’s not the worst thing in the world to be able do these things. I just never made the connection between this stuff and being a good husband/father/man.
It’s sad to read how indelible those pressures and expectations are and how they can reverberate for years to come. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that subverted those expectations. My mom was often the one who would fix things around our house. She built us an amazing tree house, which did not seem out of the ordinary at all at the time. Now as an adult, I’m in awe. I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to build a tree house that kids from all around the neighborhood could safely play in. But even if you get to see traditional roles undermined, you don’t have to go far to be reminded about what our culture expects of you, and when those expectations are reinforced they can do real damage.
Some have responded by trying to redefine masculinity, but Smith points out that these attempts have their own problems:
What does manhood look like when the identity of husband/father isn’t at the center?
That last question is something I grapple with much more as I get older and watch a lot of the men around me get married and have kids, then talk about how that experience has made them men. And it’s not just the traditionalists. I see it among the most progressive of my social circle. They’re on board with redefining masculinity, but only insomuch as it relates to being better husbands to their wives and fathers to their children. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, that’s absolutely necessary. But if we’re only going to redefine it on those terms, who among us gets left out?
It ultimately raises questions about why people remain so invested in having a definition of what being a man or a woman is, whether clinging to a traditional one or coming up with a modern one. Why does organizing the world in this way feel so important to people? People everywhere on the gender spectrum will be better off when we stop trying to define what a “real” man or woman is and allow people to be comfortable as they are.