“This video makes me feel lazy and messy and dumb.”
Eh? Who is making my baby – only male offspring to jettison himself from my womb – feel ‘dumb’?
As I whip around, I am confronted with the knot of muscles and knitted brows that often form a cast on my son’s bearing: frowning, disapproving, but above all, searching. His sisters meanwhile are giggling, obviously delighted by what has made their brother so unsettled and seemingly oblivious to his real pain.
“What is this video?” I ask. I prepared myself for something truly awful, a YouTube channel that I’d have to add to our every growing blocked list. As it turned out, it was pretty innocuous content. Every week, the kids wait for a popular DIYer to upload her videos and then try to replicate them with scraps of cardboard and markers we have lying around the house. Sometimes Stone participates – sometimes he doesn’t. He never misses an episode, however.
“It’s a video about how to craft blahblahblah,” he explained. “When they showed how the boys did it, it was all scribbly and careless. When the girls did it, it was perfect.”
I nodded to demonstrate my understanding. Before I could get the words out, Stone spoke the truth I was just about to remind him of.
“I’m a boy, and I’m not messy like this. Why are they always trying to make girls look smarter than boys?”
“First of all, son, you are not dumb or messy because you’re a boy. In fact, you’re the only kid in this house who consistently makes his bed. You always have your shirt tucked in. And your dad and I know you usually try your best at anything you do. Don’t mind this video.”
The tension in his face eased a bit as he accepted my parental advice. One of his sisters echoed my sentiments. We went back to the normal chaos of the weekend.
Incidences like this serve as a reminder of how and why men are conditioned to believe that they are simply not good at – or worse, incapable – of performing tasks that are labeled and perceived as ‘woman’s work’. In this case, the task happened to be something as silly as constructing a rose petal out of seagull wishes (I can’t remember), but the messaging remains the same and consistent throughout a boy’s life: There are some things that you are smart or good enough to do because you’re a boy.
When boys advance in age, they convince themselves that their inability to perform these tasks is because the work is beneath them. These ‘inferior’ tasks often manifest in the form of abilities that are necessary for basic human survival: cooking, laundry and proper sanitation of one’s living environment.
When boys who lack these basic skills eventually enter into amorous relationships, their helplessness is ‘cute’ at first, but they quickly become a burden on the partner who gets stuck with cleaning up after an individual who has embraced the idea of his own incompetence.
Thanks to social media, we have born witness to men who revel in their domestic amateurism.
- They can’t/won’t change the diapers of their squalling infants – particularly if they are girls – because of reasons.
- They won’t marry women outside of their race because women with ‘western sensibilities’ will expect them to make unreasonable contributions towards the upkeep of the house.
- They’d rather go hungry than enter the kitchen for any reason, whatsoever.
Sometimes, these inadequacies aren’t the fault of these men. This sort of man-baby-king personas are the examples of manhood many people have grown up with. My husband and I have often talked about the archetype of the bumbling dad in popular kid culture: the one who can never find his keys, who constantly forgets some vital element at home/in his office, the one who can’t dress himself without the assistance of his life partner. Sometimes, the viewer is spared all that awkwardness and the dad is left out of the picture altogether. Perhaps he’s died or he’s just gone. Either way, he’s a ghost.
The majority of men are not even aware that they’re being indoctrinated in this way until many years later. The advertising industry, with sexism and egoism as their go-to tools, rely on these tropes to sell brands to a willing public. A general lack of balance between the Expandables Guy and Dead Disney Dad is what made fictional Cliff Cosby of The Cosby Show so universally beloved. He was just a normal guy – great doctor, loving husband, fun dad, and a man later on forced to deal with the health consequences of eating far too many hoagies. He embodied a normalcy in manhood that remains underrepresented.
I fervently believe that we should continue to push images of strong, talented and intelligent girls forward. I believe that it is necessary to keep pushing for a change in narrative about the abilities and capabilities of the girl child if we are to achieve true equality. I also fervently believe that it is vital that we alter the type of messaging boys are subjected to. If we’re not ignoring them, we’re subtly telling them that they’re inferior to girls in specific ways. That’s not helpful. We can’t sacrifice the well-being of our boys in order to advance the fortunes of girls. We can absolutely do better.
So! If you’re an advertiser/content producer/social media influencer – or perhaps have the ear of one – my humble request as a mother is that you begin to increase output of examples of collaboration between our kids. Be mindful of how what you publish might be interpreted by 9-year-old boys all over the world. Don’t rely on stereotypes to push your messaging. And if you’re a parent who pushes this archaic thinking, please stop. You’re not doing your child or society any favors.
Have you ever been forever impacted by a print ad or commercial you saw as a child? Was it positive or negative? Mine was Mary Lou Retton. I just knew I was going to be a gymnast. Turns out you need core strength and balance for that sort of thing. Discuss!