As part of my carpool duties, twice a week I pick up a friend’s boys, Logan* and Wyatt*, from school in addition to my two girls. Logan is Anya’s age (9) and Wyatt is Stella’s (6), and they are all good kids. The other day, Stella requested that we listen to the Frozen soundtrack. The reaction from the boys was immediate and violent:
“Gross!” “Frozen sucks!”
I asked if they had actually seen the movie?
“Then how do you know you don’t like it?”
“I don’t know. It just sucks.”
They might not know, but I do. It was obvious that the boys’ distaste for Frozen was rooted in the fact that it featured female protagonists. They didn’t have to actually watch the movie to know they wouldn’t like it. It had girls in it.
It has long been considered a truism in Hollywood that girls will watch shows and movies about boys, but boys will not watch shows about girls. Our media is heavily slanted towards the preferences of what boys would like as a reflection of that belief. I wrote an essay on how I thought those rigid gender stereotypes and lack of role models harm young girls. Today, I’d like to talk about the harm they do to boys.
The slight against girls is overt. The media reinforces over and over again that they are not the hero of the story; that they simply don’t matter except perhaps as a “prize” the heroic male wins at the end of his journey.
Boys don’t have that problem. They are almost always the hero. They are shown as smart and capable and they have real agency in the story. They are able to see on the screen the kind of person they are supposed to be.
But that kind of role modeling is only a part of what stories have to offer. This incessant drive to cater to the power fantasies of young boys may give them self-esteem, but it denies them something equally important.
The ability to empathize with people different from ourselves is one of the most powerful gifts that stories can give a reader or viewer. And this is the one area where our media and society at large are letting boys down.
Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes does not make you less of a man. It makes you more of a person.
Boys need to learn that watching a movie about a princess does not necessarily mean you want to be a princess. Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes does not make you less of a man. It makes you more of a person.
We need to let boys know that it is OK to empathize with girls. Because if we do not prepare our sons for a world where women are true partners with men, they will grow up ill-suited to function in a society that increasingly demands the equality that it has been promised.
Gender stereotypes have historically been more harmful to girls, and for girls they are falling more rapidly. With notable exceptions, society is generally supportive of a girl that likes ice hockey or that is into computers. But a boy who wants a baby doll or plays with a kitchen set is still treated with suspicion and worry — and they know it.
A study by Dr. Isabelle Cherney found that nearly half of boys 5-13 years old when placed in a room and told that they could play with anything chose “girl” toys as often as “boy” toys — provided they believed no one would find out, particularly their fathers.
Boys will watch shows with female protagonists, just like they will play with “girl” toys, as long as grown-ups – particularly fathers – tell them that being a man does not mean ignoring the thoughts and feelings of women. Sometimes we need to tell them that explicitly. Sometimes we can lead by example.
So over protests from the boys, I put the Frozen soundtrack into the CD player and cranked up the volume. The boys may have thought that these songs – these stories – “sucked” because they were “just for girls” and thus had no value. But I knew the lesson I wanted to teach, so my girls and I sang with all our hearts:
“Let it go.”
* Names changed to protect two pretty good kids.