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It’s Different for Girls

I’ve spent much of my daughter’s life trying to resist her being pigeonholed by gender. I think it’s been a pretty decent success. At four she still loves trucks and tools and all the colors of the rainbow (plus pink). She wears dresses and gets them dirty and carpenter jeans while playing with her dolls. We’ve started to have conversations about why there are so few women working on the Delaware Avenue rebuilding crews, and my husband has been threatening to bake a cake of gratitude for the ones who are there, especially the one who drives a steamroller. We’ve found a set of actually traditional old stories with strong female characters to read instead of hokey heavy-handed modern versions. I think we haven’t been rigid enough to cause backlash but have generally kept her sense of possibility open. (This does not mean that she doesn’t do anything traditionally female. I’m not silly enough to aim for that. I’d have to keep her in a bubble, and there’s, well, a whole other host of problems with that.)

I’m sure when we get into teenagerhood there will be a whole different round of challenges.

But having recently had to think about the prospect of raising a boy (turns out we got another girl), I realized just how much harder that seems to me. There are many things that make parenting boys and girls different in our current world, but one recently struck me in a new way: the safety considerations involved in encouraging non gender typical behavior are opposite: Women and girls are more at risk of violence if they conform to gender expectations. Boys and men are more at risk if they don’t.

There are exceptions, of course. Lesbians are still at risk of violence in some areas just for being who they are. And hyper-masculinity in other contexts leads to a high chance of being involved in violence, especially as a perpetrator.

But as things stand now and here, violence at the hands of a romantic/intimate partner, probably a man, is still one of the largest gender-coded dangers looming in my mind’s eye for my daughters. Also violence at their own hands in the name of twisted goals about body image and sexuality.

Trying to teach girls to resist usual gender stereotypes about passivity and assertiveness, physical strength and willingness to use it, self-worth associating with beauty, relationships and domesticity, and related issues is one clear way to fight that. Riot grrrls are not immune to abusive relationships, and they’ll need some explicit messages about what’s OK and what isn’t, but my gut tells me they’ve got at least some protection.

But for boys it’s different. Encourage a boy to wear pink or skirts if he wants, play with dolls, not be ashamed to cry, and while you are probably on track to raise a stronger, more complete, healthy, secure man in the long run, you’re exposing him to more risks in the short run. A girl may be teased briefly for wearing flannels and jeans. Or might not. A boy in “girls” clothes is 100 percent assured of some sort of explosion in most mainstream contexts (unless he passes as a girl). The range of what boys can’t do without bucking gender “rules” is smaller, but the backlash when they do it is many times larger. Witness the numerous recent news reports of young boys who had been labeled “sissy” or “gay” being beaten up, harassed, and even committing suicide. As a parent, this sort of prospect would worry me approximately 10,000 times more than the vanishingly rare chance of my child stumbling across a pedophile kidnapper.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give boys the kind of freedom they deserve. It just makes it more complicated.

And if our sons are not inclined toward behaviors that will likely get them bullied, then, too, we have to worry about them becoming the bullies. As Liza Featherstone wrote recently in Bitch magazine about her four-year-old son joining in with others in his preschool class to condemn the boy who wears princess dresses to class, “I don’t want my sweet little kid to think he has to be a violent thug just because he has a penis.”

I have, at least for the time being, been spared having to address this directly with my own children. I am partly relieved, because it’s far less clear to me how it should go. And partly I feel a little disappointed and even guilty for having been exempted from some of the hardest and yet most important work in combating sexism in our culture. I salute those who are doing it.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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