Vidya Murlidhar introspects about how boys too can be the victims of stereotyping, just like girls, and makes a case for mutual respect and understanding between the sexes
A couple of years ago, we were invited to a series of presentations by my son’s class in middle school. The children in the class had been divided into smaller groups of five, and each group had to come up with ideas to conduct a birthday party for an eight-year-old in a budget of under $20. The presentations were very impressive. The kids had come up with delightful, thrifty ways to celebrate. Slideshows, Venn diagrams, charts, convincing speeches—they did it all. Yet, after my son’s group had finished, I was disappointed. It seemed to me that out of the two girls and three boys in their group, it was the girls who had put in the maximum effort. They did all the talking while the boys just answered a few questions. It seemed unfair that the girls had to do most of the work themselves.
After the presentations were done, I walked up to my son and the other two boys who were helping the teacher rearrange the tables and chairs in the room. Unable to mask my disappointment, I gently asked them why they had not helped the girls. “We would have,” one of them said wryly, “if they had let us. They refused every suggestion we gave. So, what could we do?” My son shrugged his shoulders and said defensively, “At least we typed out everything… though it had to be exactly the way they wanted it.” Hurt, from my accusations, was writ large in his eyes. Just then, his teacher walked up to me, “I really enjoy having your son in my class. He is one of the most responsible and helpful students I have taught,” she said and hugged me.
Now I was thoroughly disappointed but with myself. This was my child. I knew him inside out. I knew he was such a helpful soul and yet the belief that women carry the burden in most scenarios was so deeply ingrained in my mind that I had jumped to the conclusion that the boys had not pitched in.
After the presentation, while I waited outside the classroom to pick up my son, I saw the two girls whisper into each other’s ears and then point to one of the boys in the class and laugh. They then made a snide remark and continued to giggle. “Nasty women!” I thought angrily, blood rushing to my head. On the drive back, I narrated the incident to my son. “Those girls are always mean to him, Mom. They make fun of the way he dresses. They think he has no style.” “Well, doesn’t he stand up to them? He should! And you should have too when they didn’t let you guys pitch in for the presentation.” “He says his mom says to never fight with the girls. You say that too! So, we just ignore the girls. Anyway, we already have an A in the class. This project didn’t matter, so why bother?”
This was not right. It was never about the marks but the fact that the boys had been sidelined. These boys may not have been fashionably suave or tough-looking football players, but they were good kids who deserved to be respected for who they were. In some way, I too felt responsible for what happened. This was a very trivial incident, but it made me think. All these years, I had taught my firstborn, my daughter, that there was nothing that she needed to shy away from because she was a girl. She could do anything a boy could do. I had been super proud of the fact that she was one of the very few girls in her AP physics class in high school. Yet, until that day, we had never spoken about respecting the opposite sex.
I wondered if, in our times where abuse and rape made headlines every day, we were disseminating the information that this is how the equation always is. Were we stereotyping the men? We teach our girls to fight, to never succumb, but in our attempt to gain equality, were we planting seeds of superiority in the next generation? With regard for victims of rape or abuse, perpetrators of these barbaric crimes must be severely punished to bring about change in society, so our girls can pursue their dreams unafraid. But there is also a new generation of boys, like my son and his friends, who are respectful and responsible, and we need to look after their interests too.
Equality is a delicate balance
That evening, I found myself talking to my son and daughter about how even though it was important that they should not let anyone, whether boy or girl, treat them in a manner that disrespected them, it was also important to treat the people in their lives with equality and respect. At home or the workplace, they always had to leave room for the other to express.
All things being equal, if my daughter ever went out on a date, then it was only fair for her to pick up or split the tab (with her own money of course, not ours) and if she expected flowers and chocolates and the door to be held open for her, then it was perfectly fine if her partner expected her to serve up a plate of food for him. There always had to be a little give and take.
Growing up, I felt the pressure from society with the expectation that girls had to nurture their families and prove themselves outside the home. I was very careful to not let my daughter feel that way. Both kids were expected to pursue their dreams and help with kitchen and laundry chores. Now, I wondered if my son felt a similar pressure. We expected our boys to be tough yet romantic, competitive yet chivalrous.
As a mother, there was another issue that surfaced in my mind that evening. If in the future, my daughter relaxed and watched TV while her partner did all the chores, I would not think anything of it at all, but if it was my son slogging and his partner was on the couch, it would pinch. So much for equality! I had to first learn to let go of my boy. It was not going to be easy, but I had a lot of growing up to do myself.
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