If I told you my kid loves to wear nail polish, is passionate about nature, animals and Wild Kratts, likes soccer, mountain biking and skiing, and sported, for the last month of summer, a feather in blond locks from Slow Food Cycle – and that her name is Jo – I’m guessing you’d think she was a pretty well-rounded girl.
If I clarified that his name is Joe, would your raise an eyebrow at the hair feather and nail polish?
Enough of his kindergarten friends did that, at five years old, he became abruptly aware of the line between pink things and blue things. Up until then, using hazardous smelling chemicals with small brushes to carefully paint keratin claws in coloured tribal markings, had appealed to his sense of danger, responsibility and self-expression. Yet at school, he was informed clearly that nail varnish is only for girls. Kids don’t mince words. Pink and blue is black and white.
The other morning, carefully trying to navigate the minefield between what I fiercely say (“anyone can love anything!”), and what the world tells him, he advised me that most girls draw love hearts in pink, while most boys would choose red. It’s a tonal degree, this learning how not to get beaten up – popping the saturation from pink to red and just letting the girls have at the wall of nail polish.
I am heart-achy and perplexed by these revelations. How do I raise the kind of man the world needs, (one at ease in his own skin, able to express his innate likes and dislikes), if we’re still trapped in these gender expectations?
Universally, don’t we want a world full of men who are capable of tenderness, who love the planet and whom we’re safe to be around? More than any of the things we might personally want or expect from the men we encounter (be that: open doors for us/not patronize us, admire us/not ogle us, treat us like a sister/treat us like a princess), we all want to feel safe/not unsafe, around each other.
And yet, we think it’s okay to damage men’s hearts and quash their expressions from their earliest moments, insist on some ideal of manliness that forces them to constantly check for cues from the pack as to what’s permitted under the Blue Code?
I recently heard of an endocrinologist with a large patient load of men coming off steroids. When you’ve been juicing with artificial hormones to build muscle to look the pinnacle of bulked-out virility, your body actually stops producing its own testosterone. If you then want to procreate – that is, to actually “be virile” – you need to patiently pursue a long process of allowing your body to re-regulate, and that can come with “unmanly” and deeply disconcerting symptoms, like breasts. Ironic, really – that one of the more dominant images of manhood today is in reality the opposite of a healthy, productive, virile man. We are so entrenched in bullshit.
For me, it’s not about pushing back on gender norms or insisting on my son’s right to wear pink if he so chooses, so much as it is a deep desire to hold space for him to have feelings. Complex rich nuanced feelings. And for him to find all kinds of creative outlets in which to express them – in play, in clothing, in movement, in design. Not just the narrow emotions that are deemed manly: anger, and … well, anger. Not just the narrow range of fashion choices that are deemed dude-like.
I don’t want to think that school is a slow march towards hiding your true self away and conforming as best you can to a narrow range of possibilities. For any single kid.
That’s been the paradigm for some time now, and I think it’s safe to say, it’s not really working out. Because here is what the science says: there is a clear link between climate deniers and the anti-feminist far-right. Researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, have analyzed the language use of climate skeptics and found a striking theme: for them, it’s not the environment that is under threat, but “a certain kind of modern industrial society, built and dominated by their form of masculinity.” For these vocal and influential men, climate science has become feminized. Caring about the planet is “oppositional to assumed entitlements of masculine primacy.” What they have learned, from our industrial culture, is that manliness equates with dominance, and isn’t weakened by feelings. That humans are separate from nature, and that economic growth is more important than the environment, is part of a package of values and behaviours that are connected to a form of masculinity that the researchers call “industrial breadwinner masculinity.” And they are fighting like mad to protect it. To all of our perils.
At a milder extreme, other experiments have shown that people of both sexes thought shoppers using reusable shopping bags were more feminine than those using plastic bags – regardless of whether the shopper was male or female. Seriously?
So this is the legacy for our kids? Girls get nail polish. Boys get to destroy the planet. (And everybody dies.) Because, you know, you wouldn’t want to come across as “feminine” by caring too much about, uh, vital life-supporting systems. The crisis of climate change is a crisis of disconnection between the facts and the feelings. As the brilliant writer Suzannah Showler recently wrote: it is a massive lie that men’s feelings are really thoughts and women’s feelings are nonsense. That some hearts are pink and some hearts are red. All hearts are capable of breaking. And the wounded ones do the most damage. My Code is Green. And in this fierce love and desire to protect small hearts, I am a warrior like no industrial breadwinner has ever seen.