How our culture treats boys

My children are a bit older now, so I don’t shop at The Children’s Place as much as I used to. I happened to stop in the other day though, and I found myself worrying about the sort of messages that we are sending to boys in our culture. For those who don’t know, it’s a clothing store. The layout is always the same: they are split right down the middle, with girls’ clothing on one side and boys’ clothing on the other. This provides a particularly convenient opportunity to compare what is being sold to girls and boys, at any given moment, and to contemplate the various assumptions about gender that go along with it.

For instance, looking the “graphics tees” section, I noticed a very striking difference in the type of images and messages being marketed to girls and those being marketed to boys. Here is a selection of the girls’ T-shirts.

girls-shirts

And now here is a selection of the T-shirts being sold to boys.

boys-shirts

The difference in messaging is, I should mention, not a new thing. The overall theme is one that’s bothered me for years. For a long time, the working assumption seemed to be that boys were only interested in dinosaurs and video games (and, of course, sports). The “girl power” theme, on the other hand, is pretty much a constant. This last time I went into the store, though, it seemed to me to have gone completely over the top.

It should go without saying that, if the genders were reversed, and boys were currently being sent the messages that are currently being directed at girls, we would not hesitate to describe it as sexist. So I hope it is not too controversial to describe the current messaging as “reverse sexism.” Girls are being encouraged to be smart, to be successful, and to become powerful. Boys are being encouraged to be lazy, to work less hard, and to be stupid. In other words, it’s not just that girls are being encouraged to strive for success, but boys are being encouraged to develop habits that will lead them to failure in life.

For those who are inclined to say “whatever, it’s just one store,” I want to insist that boys in our society currently get this sort of thing a lot, not just from the ambient culture, but in school as well. It’s not quite so egregious in school, but it’s the same pattern. Male success is simply taken for granted, and as a result, is seldom positively encouraged, and is sometimes discouraged.

When we evaluate these cultural practices, it’s important not just to look at them through our own eyes, the eyes of adults. It’s also important not to assume that children today must be experiencing the world in pretty much the same way that we did, when we were children. You have to try to picture it through the eyes of a 10-year old, who doesn’t know anything about how the world works. We, as adults, may understand why boys are being subjected to reverse sexism (and some may even be prepared to justify it). But boys find it completely bewildering.

 


Comments

How our culture treats boys — 14 Comments

  1. That’s feminism for you. You may disagree with me, but I really think we need masculinism (again). If girls alone will be our leaders without any male leadership, society and our nations are going to collapse.

  2. This popped up the same day as this op ed by Christopher J Ferguson:

    https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/toxic-masculinity-gender-norms-harmful-boys-12782202.php

    You’ve taken a more agnostic position about the effect of media messaging, but I do wonder how defensible the overall position is about boys and masculinity presuming there are other explanations why they are falling behind in academics and in some other areas. I’d like to try to avoid taking similar positions to culture warriors who presume their pet idea is true.

  3. You’re also overlooking those pants for girls that say “Princess” or “Diva” on the bum.

    I agree that there’s a problem with some of the clothes that adults provide for children, but it’s not restricted to those for boys.

  4. Aside from the the fact that most of the boy’s t-shirts are pretty objectionable on their own terms for the reasons Heath mentions, there are two really disturbing complimentary bits of rhetoric. The positive non-sports boy t-shirts reek of vague male superiority, since are mostly on the order of “I’m awesome” as a generality and a given, not about specific virtues or accomplishments (as are very many of the girls’). So the t-shirts still maintain and reinforce the connection between ‘male’ and ‘successful.’ At the same time, the negative ones compliment this with messages about how cool it is to be lazy, indifferent, and generally a slob or waste of carbon and water.
    The problem though is not (just) that the shirts are setting up the boys for failure at least in conventional terms. I’m pretty sure that the relatively easy slide into success for men will be maintained consciously or unconciously in our culture for a few more generations at least. To pick one indicator, perhaps not a perfect one, I seriously doubt that the percentage of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies will break 20% in the next 50 years. The extent to which our institutions are or will soon become actual meritocracies that will reward genuinely smart, capable women over mediocre men is overestimated if the fear is that men will fail in terms of conventional terms of attaining and maintaining high socio-economic status. In fact, the cynic in me thinks the reverse too often will be the case: the standards by which someone is said to merit, for instance, a promotion, are more likely to be lowered to ensure access of males to socio-economic status goods—not so much by conscious design of course.
    So the negative rhetoric about boys is problematic because we (a) lose out on human capabilities we very much need and (b) harm these boys as individuals by preventing them from realizing their potential. But, in addition, to the extent that our institutions do become more meritocratic and we fail to encourage success-based self-esteem and appropriate personal and work habits in boys, to just that extent will we be contributing to an unwarranted, unjustifiable, and unworkable sense of entitlement in men.

  5. I am inclined to repeat, and elaborate upon, a comment I made in the last post (on racism): Most people trained in the humanities (outside of analytic philosophy) in (at least) the last 5 years or so would regard this kind of impartial observation and sober analysis to be patriarchal, misogynistic, and harmful to women. So I do hope Prof. Heath is not so naive about what his “colleagues” in the humanities (and increasingly social sciences) are writing and teaching to their activist students. In the past few years, far too many serious thinkers have been threatened and mobbed by ideologically possessed students: Bret Weinstein, Laura Kipnis, Jonathan Haidt, Amy Wax, etc.

    The best way to make sense of these shirts is through the lens of the constellation of theories encompassing “postmodern relativism” (to use Edward Slingerland’s preferred phrase). It goes roughly like this: Men are the beneficiaries of a patriarchal culture, and so, in light of the historical oppression of women, social justice demands an inversion of these patriarchal norms.

    The irony is that the people who believe in this sort of messaging are either hoping to achieve some kind of female-dominated society (inegalitarian) or believe that males are just so inherently superior that the only way to achieve equality is through radically unequal social conditioning (also inegalitarian).

    These shirts aren’t “reverse sexist”; they’re just regular sexist. But hey, it liberates women! Because obviously everything will go well for women when there is a generation of underemployed, lazy, resentful, unskilled, stupid men. Some utopia that will be.

    • We all have different priors and assumptions – and everyone is confused or even unhinged about something. There is no impartial observation and there are conflicting visions of the good, what human nature is, etc. People behaving badly should be resisted but it’s important to have some humility and charity in interpretation to find common ground for further discussion (not to be confused with politeness as Mark Kingwell has observed). Otherwise it turns into a tribal hugfest where we talk about how awful those other people are using caricatures and outliers. I’m not saying there isn’t some justification, however when the talking points come out it reinforces a self deception about the strength of your arguments that wouldn’t be evident in a real conversation.

      • I wholeheartedly share your endorsement of humility and charity as principles in philosophical debate, but I do believe they are meant to be adopted presumptively and not absolutely.

        My primary concern was that I suspect that Prof. Heath does not know how his posts read to folks in the humanities (outside analytic philosophy). U of T went after Jordan Peterson for refusing to (be compelled to) use gender-neutral pronouns; is Prof. Heath denying the reality of male privilege? A careless reading of this post (which is the most likely reading–and this should be obvious to anyone who read James Damore’s memo, and then read any of the “reports” about it) might conclude as such.

        As for the shirts, I did not mean to suggest that The Children’s Place has some strong ideology informing their graphic tees. I’m sure some higher-ups just think they’re “cute”. But that doesn’t mean that the effects of this kind of messaging aren’t very real. I should also add that after browsing the store website, the range of graphic tees was wider than this post suggests: Some of the shirts for girls just said things like “Diva” and “Princess”, while some of the shirts for boys emphasize confidence and celebrate science. Still, I take Prof. Heath’s point that there is nonetheless a clear discrepancy, especially with regards to which shirts, respectively, were given most prominence.

    • Lol wut?

      Of course before five years ago there was never any stereotypes about lazy men! Certainly not on television! Homer Simpson is the hardest working character of all time!

      Further, we all know that corporate America is up to date on the trends in academia! I think most CEOs start in women’s studies, in order to propagate a women supremacist society!

      The term professor Heath you are looking for isn’t “reverse sexism”, it’s stereotyping. The Children’s Palace is stereotyping Boys as being lazy and whatnot.

  6. This is not sexism. This is not the difference of how society values girls over boys. This is a marketing department regurgitating trends it observes on social media. This is capitalism co-opting the aesthetic of a social movement and selling it to parents who do not know how the world works. The Children’s Place places no value on women or feminism, it doesn’t even place a value on human lives (http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/08/rana-plaza/).

    And besides, you did cherry pick your data:

    “Beast-mode” – (https://www.childrensplace.com/ca/p/Boys-Short-Sleeve–Hashtag-Beast-Mode–Panther-Graphic-Tee-2097852-1969)

    “Science Ninja” – (https://www.childrensplace.com/ca/p/Boys-Short-Sleeve–Science-Ninja–Graphic-Tee-2097860-10)

    “Won and Done” – (https://www.childrensplace.com/ca/p/Boys-PLACE-Sport-Short-Sleeve-Graphic-Top-2092534-1439)

    “It’s not easy being awesome, but I manage” – (https://www.childrensplace.com/ca/p/Boys-Short-Sleeve–It-s-Not-Easy-Being-Awesome-But-I-Manage–Graphic-Tee-2093943-1877)

    “Super Genius” – (https://www.childrensplace.com/ca/p/Boys-Short-Sleeve-Glow-In-The-Dark–Super-Genius–Graphic-Tee-2097829-524)

    Do these samples fit with your argument that “boys are being encouraged to be lazy, to work less hard, and to be stupid”?

    You are right, there are inherent flaws in the way capitalism bends our views of gender. Even when boys are encouraged to be powerful, smart, and hardworking, they are encouraged in a way that values brute physicality and violence over empathy, arrogance over modesty, and competition over co-operation.

    However, what is most deeply concerning about your argument is that there is a huge history of consumer marketing that trains women to be submissive and sexually objectified, and that encourages the abuse and degradation of women. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_Us_Softly) (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/gender-toys-departments-piece/)

    And yet, when the pendulum happens to swing back to something that can at least be considered not terrible for women, there are cries of “reverse sexism.” It’s as if walking into a store and seeing women being encouraged to be leaders, to be strong and smart, is something so shocking, something so out of the ordinary to the male psyche, that it causes feelings of disgust and offense.

    We should be changing the images of boys clothing to reflect an egalitarian society, to encourage boys to be inclusive, kind, and emotionally strong, to be compassionate and determined. But your argument, and especially your description of marketing departments finally creating slightly less awful messages for women as “sexism,” only feeds those who are truly sexist, who truly believe that women are inferior and must be subjected. Let’s read one of the comments to your blog above:

    “If girls alone will be our leaders without any male leadership, society and our nations are going to collapse.”

    This isn’t a precaution, it’s a fear that if a boardroom or a parliament is exclusively female, there won’t be enough “honcho,” brute physical strength, to be successful. Yet, history is the story of nations and businesses that have collapsed with exclusive male leadership.

    A case in point: 70% of the executives of The Children’s Place are men. (http://quotes.wsj.com/PLCE/company-people)

    You say that men are being discouraged or their success is being taken for granted, and yet, men are employed at the most highly-valued positions in our society at far greater frequency. How can The Children’s Place possibly be sexist against men if the people in power are indeed — men?

    • And yet, when the pendulum happens to swing back to something that can at least be considered not terrible for women, there are cries of “reverse sexism.” It’s as if walking into a store and seeing women being encouraged to be leaders, to be strong and smart, is something so shocking, something so out of the ordinary to the male psyche, that it causes feelings of disgust and offense.

      You’re right about a number of things, but I think you missed the central point of the post: It’s not that girls are getting “good” messages as such that is the issue, but that boys are getting “bad” messages overwhelmingly (the samples are pretty representative–I informally coded and counted the “population”). I don’t think “reverse sexism” is the right term for this phenomenon, because it makes it seem like the underlying issue is structured like a zero-sum game.

  7. Joe, 25 years ago, when I was last in a classroom as a secondary school teacher (Then as a counsellor), I began noticing the slow, but insidious, changes in the ways boys and girls were being differently taught and evaluated. This included, among other things, how Reports and Projects were submitted. Flowery, dressed-up essays submitted by girls were receiving “elevated” marks. The boys reports – “Just git ‘er done” – were less likely to garner top marks.

    The boys could either change their reports, or change their expectations of themselves. Many/some/a few chose the latter.

    I rarely watch TV with advertising, but when I do, I see men being portrayed as imbeciles and dolts, so the lessons continue. (Mind you, some of the female advertising characters are not what one would call “sharp”, and maybe I am seeing the male side more negatively than it really is, but ….). I do believe there is a societal problem.

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