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"Boys will be boys:" act on it, don't run from it

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

About a year ago I was telling my girlfriend at the time a story about my sister. In the story, my sister is in pre-school, and she’s fought over by two boys using “Power Rangers” rings from a cereal box.
”That is not okay,” my ex -- let’s call her Sarah -- said bluntly. “Women are not objects to be fought over.”
To which I replied, without so much as a second thought,
“Boys will be boys.”
Sarah stopped what she was doing and turned and looked me, rather appalled. “That is not an excuse!” To which I replied, a little confused, a little shaken,
“I didn’t mean it as an excuse.”
- - -
When most people use the phrase, “boys will be boys,” they mean it in a sort of recursive, self-evident sense, in the same way one might say “the sky is blue” or “cheese is good” (if you like cheese). This is somehow a defense, a way of saying the actions of male humans are immutable and uncontrollable, the same way you can’t change the color of the sky, the same way you can’t change the fact that cheese is freakin’ delicious. Because their behavior is immutable, we should just shrug it off: men treat women like property, but there’s nothing we can do, so that’s okay.
Used that way, the statement is bogus. The vast majority of humans have control over their actions, and those that don’t may very well belong in a psych ward. If “boys will be boys” means “the behavior of males in our society is immutable,” then those are the words of someone who can’t accept or doesn’t want to admit that society is really screwed up.
Yea, I think Brock Turner deserves a harder sentence. But when I say “boys will be boys” I don’t mean “It’s okay, he was just being Brock Turner.” What I mean is this: ”He was doing what society expected him to do.” It is self-evident to me that many rapists act as we expect them to. Boys will be boys -- just as the stock market is more likely to fall if a news article publishes that it is falling,1, 2 just as the prediction of a gasoline shortage can create a gasoline shortage,3 just as students’ grades respond to negative expectations4 and stigmatizing by their teachers.5 Boys will rape women as long as they think that’s what society expects of them and they will get away with insignificant sentences as long as misogyny is part of our culture.
I was raised on Disney movies like The Lion King and Snow White and stories like Robin Hood and Artemis Fowl. Like many others, my childish mind (no simile intended) absorbed them with awe, and I geared up for life with a handful of preconceptions at my back. I knew how the hero -- always a male -- got what he wanted. And I knew females played largely supportive roles.
Consider the following:
- Among the top 100 grossing films in the US in 2015, females spoke less than one-third of all dialogue6 (including in Disney’s Frozen, where the two main characters are female7).
- Among the same 100 films, only 22 featured female protagonists.6
Looking back now, I see how screwed up our childhood tales are. These are the themes I see:
- Women are objects to be won by men and fulfill their desires (Aladdin).
- A woman’s quest ends in being married to a man (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid).
- Women should stay in abusive relationships because what really matters is that they are in any relationship at all (Beauty and the Beast).
- If you kill the bad guy, the girl will go out with you; furthermore, the bad guy must be defeated by the male protagonist, never the female (Snow White, Lady and the Tramp).
- The whole point of the quest is to end up with the girl (Who Framed Roger Rabbit).
- Women play anecdotal roles in our lives, if any at all (Toy Story, The Lion King, Up, Monsters, Inc., Cars, A Bug’s Life).
Don’t believe my surface-level anecdotes? Okay: here,8 here,9 and here10 are some scholarly articles that go into more depth. It doesn’t stop with novels, TV, and film, either -- check out this great article about the objectification of women in graphic novels.
Even in movies today the men are distant and aloof, as if it’s “cool” to be apathetic and insensitive. They are impermeable, both in the sense that they are emotionless and in the sense that they are bulletproof. In which superhero movie recently has a super hero died? We’ve even started pitting them against each other and the result is simply agnostic over-the-top violence with no character growth. Our male heroes have no room to grow because they are invulnerable -- to bullets, yes, but also to emotions, sympathy, and lack of consent.
Cultures shape the people they house.11 Movies, in particular, can have a profound impact upon children.12, 13, 14 As those children grow into men, they self-reaffirm15 and co-reaffirm (men in fraternities are more likely to sexualize women and be accused of rape16, 17). Aside from movies, there is substantive evidence that men who play more violent sports are more likely to sexually coerce their partners and be more accepting of violence in relationships18 -- and yes, violent sports are part of the culture of the United States.19
I recently read a Huffington post article about why women put up with this treatment. The gist of it is that society expects women to de-escalate, so they deal with it as best they can. But the part it misses out on is why. And the answer to why is because society expects men to take what they want.
Examples of these expectations in practice abound:
- Women are more likely to take agenic (read: responsive as opposed to assertive) leaderships roles compared to men.21
- “Initiative” (or “assertiveness”) often tops the list of traits women look for in men (whether substantiated by evidence or presented simply as an accepted part of our culture).22
- The more sexist a woman is, the more she responds to male assertiveness.23
- At a young age, boys are found to use more assertive speech and girls more affiliative.24
- A man is more likely to get a woman’s number if he touches her on the arm, showing assertiveness.25
- - -
That same girlfriend and I had a conversation before the aforementioned story-telling about my sister, a conversation that went something like this:
Me: “It seems like women are more likely to give consent to men who are persistent. How should men know when to be persistent and when to back off?”
Her: “My mom told me this,” she replied: “boys will be trouble. But the trouble is less if you give them what they want.”
It was my turn to gawk.
She continued, shrugging: “So if you really want someone, be persistent and maybe they’ll give in.”
- - -
We single out crimes like the rape by Brock Turner and say, “This one incident is a problem.” “Male rapists deserve harder sentences.” Do they? Yea. But that’s the tail of the snake. You can pick and choose and rant about all the court cases and over privileged, under-punished white boys you want. They aren’t the problem. They are a symptom of the problem, and the problem is that we have created them.
We have created them by propagating the idea of “manliness” to mean taking control. We have created them by worshipping stories that put the man in charge, by creating a culture of male dominance and decision-making where the women are sidelined and won when the man completes the quest. We have created a society where the same women who chastises me for saying “boys will be boys” thinks if someone doesn’t give consent I should just be more persistent. “Boys will be trouble,” she said, as if it was immutable. “The trouble is less if you give them what they want.” Think about the message that sends to potential suitors.
We can say to each other, “Let’s get rid of the judge who gave Brock his sentence.” The judge is a grain of sand on the beach that is our screwed up society. Should he have given Brock a harder sentence? Absolutely. But what we really need to be saying to each other is, “This decision is evidence of a larger problem in our society. How are we going to change our society so we produce people with a better sense of gender equality?” Replacing a judge is a start, yes. Punishing a rapist, an obvious good step. But these are steps on a long, long journey of reformation that needs to happen in the deepest roots of our society.
Needless to say, this is a pain to explain this to everyone, so I don’t say it anymore. I just nod in agreement, because I do agree: rape is a crime always deserving of severe punishment, consent is necessary, the right to say “no” and have it respected is immutable. But this agreement has become rote and mindless for me, the same way I brake at stop signs and brush my teeth before bed. These statements are self-evident, and while my friends and colleagues may know they are true, what we need as a society is to act like they are true. We need to make movies where woman are not won. We need to tell stories where women are respected. We need to redefine what it means to be a man -- through changing our movies, our sports, our fraternities, and our parenting mentalities.
This I say to you: boys will be boys -- no matter how angry that makes you. You can be angry at Brock because you think that the behavior of men in our society, our low expectations towards them, and the rapes they perform and get away with are immutable. Or you can be angry at the movie-makers, the story-tellers, the fathers who raise them, the women who propagate those expectations in the first place, and the fraternities that reaffirm them. You can refuse to go to movies where women are sidelined, you can raise boys who treat women as equals, and you can stop telling men they should “be persistent” and “take what they want.”
Boys are boys and will always be boys. We can be angry about it. Or we can use that anger to fuel a redefinition of what it means to be a boy.

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