“Lock up your daughters!” So says the slogan on a sleepsuit for baby boys. In a culture that rewards predatory behaviour in males, I guess it’s always best to start ’em young. It’s no wonder parents of girls feel anxious, though. Writing in the Telegraph, Ian Douglas argues that “we dads are right to be more protective of our daughters” (even if he does not literally recommend locking them up). You only have to look at Gamergate, writes Douglas, to understand “the difference between having a son and having a daughter”:
If what happened to Zoe Quinn, or Anita Sarkeesian, or the possibly-not-even-existent daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, or any woman with a job or a violent partner, happened to our sons, we fathers would be just as strenuous in our efforts to ease their trouble, but most of the time it doesn’t. It happens to our daughters. And that’s why we’re still overly protective of them, arguably more so than ever.
Reading that, I suppose I should feel relieved. I might be female myself but I don’t have any daughters, just sons. Nothing to worry about there, right? Well, not unless we consider the fact that two thirds of all victims of lethal male violence are themselves male. But who’d want to consider that? It only makes the issue far too complicated.
When we talk about violence and gender, we tend to think of male perpetrators and female victims (unless we’re indulging in a spot of wilful whataboutery in order to undermine feminist campaigns). Rarely is it argued that since men are particularly vulnerable, they should not go out alone at night or drink above a certain limit. Since men are, potentially, both victim and perpetrator, it seems we’ve resolved to let them fight it out amongst themselves.
As a parent of boys, I find this disturbing. While those raising girls might be faced with the awful yet relatively straightforward paradigm of vulnerable girl/evil world, for those of us with sons it’s more complex. If I attempt to protect my son from his own aggression and that of others, aren’t I pushing him towards “girl” status – the status of a victim? But if I toughen him up and prepare him to fight, am I not just creating another aggressor in a world where over 90 per cent of them are male? As long as masculinity remains powerful, it seems there will never be an in-between.
“Mother’s Pride”, a song on The Beautiful South’s 1990 album Choke, articulates the problem beautifully. You can raise a son how you want, but in our pink and blue world, he will either be too soft (“with a year’s supply of sandwiches and fairy cakes / that she provides for him to eat at dinner breaks”) or too hard (“he’ll always roam the yard looking for a fight / he’ll pick on all the kids who are twice his height”). And so this is the dilemma – do you want a mummy’s boy (“with a head full of get your laces tied and woe betide”) or a father’s boy (“with a head filled up with devil dogs and genocide”)? Do you want your son to kick or be kicked? As long as we maintain our obsession with gender, the choice has to be between aggression or victimhood, masculinity and femininity stripped bare.
My elder son’s football coach tells them not to play “like girls” (despite one of the team members being a girl). Don’t be weak, don’t be vulnerable. After all, the other team are bound to be playing “like boys.” Be on the offensive, or else you’ll have aligned yourself with the weaker sex and you know what we do to them. And where does this flight from potential vulnerability lead? To fear of, and aggression towards, other human beings. Even if you believe Oscar Pistorius thought there was a male intruder behind that toilet door, Reeva Steenkamp still died as a result of male violence, male aggression, male fear. It is self-perpetuating, this nihilistic kill-or-be-killed bullshit and we start teaching it to our sons from an early age, on the football pitch, on the TV screen and in every discussion of male violence which presents it as something that is “just there.”
When people talk about “masculinity in crisis” I think there is real fear of violence – fear of other men – underpinning it. It’s not just men feeling terrified of women and girls are encroaching on “their” space. It’s men knowing that letting go of an immoral, unjustifiable dominance puts them at greater risk of those who are still clinging on to it. We talk of men needing to drop their defences in terms of discussing emotions, but maybe what we really need to discuss is actual, physical risk. The only way for men to stop killing other men – and women, too – is for someone to propose a ceasefire and nobody wants to go first (hence rather than dare to dismantle masculinity entirely, we skirt around the issue, hunting for new “male role models,” all the while polishing the same old turd).
Recently my younger son, a huge Frozen fan, asked to go to a school fancy dress disco dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle. We’d spotted an outfit in Sainsbury’s – a long, sparkly blue dress, complete with a silver wig. Despite the well-intentioned warnings of grandparents, I let him wear it. A dress is a dress. So he arrived and there was a lot of fascination – and some mockery – of this “boy dressed like a girl”. He didn’t care and went and got his nails painted blue to match his dress. I felt proud of him. His disregard for social norms makes him strong, not weak. And yet there was a part of me that still feared the consequences of this “like a girl/not like a boy” definition imposed upon him by his peers.
I don’t want my son to positioned as “victim” and right now, this is how girlhood is constructed, as a necessary complement to masculine aggression. I want my boys to challenge masculinity; I want them to be the people they really want to be, without having to renounce maleness (and hence leave masculinity fully intact) should they wish to do the things we currently associate with being female. But as long as the cult of masculinity remains so powerful and so violent, I feel guilty for encouraging them away from it unless I can be sure other parents are doing the same. If you don’t push your sons to fight in a dog-eat-dog world, isn’t that just denying them a fighting chance? The more I think about this, the more I start to understand parents who gender stereotype the hell out of their sons, even if that’s something I’ll never do. To me, the path of non-violence is the only one worth following, yet sometimes it can feel like sticking a massive sign marked “Kick me” on your children’s backs.