Taking Boys Out of the Box

I didn’t like being a girl. It was harder to duck behind a tree when nature called when we were out playing in the woods. I sometimes had to do cruel things to the boys to prove I was tough as them. One of my friends wouldn’t let me play with his army men because I was a girl, and girls don’t play soldiers (I quickly disabused him of that notion, much to his astonishment).

But a lot of the time, I didn’t notice I was a girl. I was wearing pants and jumping my bike and getting in the mud and building stuff and commanding the pack, just like one of the boys.Hell, I was even more hardcore than some of them. When I crashed my bike on a road chip-sealed with cinders and road-rashed myself from toe to waist, I told ’em I’d be right back, and hobbled home for some quick patching up. Alas, my mom decided someone with that many bleeding wounds needed to stay inside, but my friends respected the fact I hadn’t shed a tear. One of our buddies would head sobbing for home the instant he stubbed a toe. None of us wanted to be like that.

So yeah, I was usually one of the guys, which was fortunate, because there were a grand total of five girls in the entire neighborhood, none of them my age. No one had any problem with a tomboy, of course. And, outside of a few incidents like the Army Men War, no one bothered to tell me I couldn’t do something because female. Even when I went home and played with dolls, even when I prettied up my playhouse, no one thought it was odd for a girl to be a girl in boy’s clothes, mostly doing boy’s things.

The guys didn’t do girl stuff as much, but there were times when they’d come over to play dress-up, or do a nice afternoon tea with us, and my yellow Easybake Oven was one of the boys’ favorite things ever. I remember once when my one close girl friend and I were getting our nails painted by her mom, her brother wanted in on it, too. So his mom gave him a few red nails, until he got bored with manicures and wandered off.

But that was a line rarely crossed, that dividing line between girls and boys. We girls could wear anything, any time, but the boys never put on a dress outside of playing dress-up in the house. And as we all got older, they stopped doing even that. They had to hate girls, and run from our cooties, and be all tough and in to boy things like trucks. Girls were sort-of encouraged to be pretty and feminine, but we could run around in ripped jeans and ratty sneakers one day, and a dress the next. We could cross the boy-girl divide at will.

I didn’t think that was very fair, when I thought about it. Why shouldn’t the boys do the pretty clothes and makeup if they wanted? Why couldn’t they play the girlie games without getting tormented by peers and parents alike? Why couldn’t they be openly interested in girl stuff? I might have hated being a girl at times (especially after Aunty Flow made her first appearance), but I was grateful for the chameleon opportunities it gave me. People back then were great with girls doing boyish things, so I could do absolutely anything I wanted, while my boy friends were stuck on the boy side of the divide.

I think of that often, now, as the world gets ever more pinkified. I mean, for fuck’s sake, they’ve even gendered the dogs.


Gendered doggie toys and clothes at one of the local mega-petstores. This whole pink-and-blue obsession has gone way the fuck too far.
Gendered doggie toys and clothes at one of the local mega-petstores. This whole pink-and-blue obsession has gone way the fuck too far.

And while we’re fighting to get girls out of that box they’re being energetically stuffed in to lately, the one that says they love pink and princesses and ponies but heaven forfend they like boy colors and boys toys, we need to remember that boys are in a box, too. Libby Anne has both a son and a daughter, and she sees people trying to stuff them both in their respective boxes all the time.

“Look at him!” [Uncle Dale] said. “He’s obsessed with that train. He’s such a boy!” I frowned. I hate it when this happens. I took a deep breath.

“Actually,” I said, “When Sally was Bobby’s age, she was completely obsessed with large construction vehicles.”

Uncle Dale laughed. “How odd,” he said. His voice was dismissive.

“I don’t think it’s odd at all,” I replied. “I find that if you let kids just be kids rather than pushing them into gendered boxes their interests are generally eclectic.”


Neither Sally nor Bobby fit in conventional gender boxes, but someone who spotted Sally playing at princesses might very well respond with “She’s such a girl!” in the same way that Uncle Dale noticed Bobby fascinated by trains and responded with “He’s such a boy.”

What’s going on here exactly? Confirmation bias.

And that hurts girls, but boys have it bad, too. They’re not encouraged to play with dolls, put on makeup, stomp in high heels (unless their mom is as awesome as Libby Anne). If a girl crosses the divide, she often gets forced back into the girl box, but there are plenty of people cheering her on, encouraging her to break out again. Boys who try to cross, though – society loves to belittle them, be horrified by them, call them gay, tell them to man up. We need to fight to get them out of the box, too. We need to have a response ready when society tells them they’d better toe the masculine line.

We need so much more of that. Kids don’t need this gendered crap. Neither do adults. Let people be people. Erase the lines. Let the girls put on the firefighter’s outfit. Let the boys wear ballgowns. Let’s strive for a world where no one’s trapped in a gendered box.

And the next time you see a child crossing the divide, tell them they’re wonderful.

Taking Boys Out of the Box
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19 thoughts on “Taking Boys Out of the Box

  1. 1

    I was very much like you, with one difference:
    I knew I was a girl, I wanted to be a girl, I was happy to be a girl and I HATED it when people misgendered me, usually followed by something like “well, you’d better been a boy”, implicating that I was not a real girl. Even to this day people tell me that I’m not a real woman (or not like those women) because I don’t scream at spiders, own and use power tools and enjoy “guy movies”.
    But there’s also a difference I see now comapred to my childhood: back then there were toys for children, clothes for children, books for children, furniture for children. Today those things don’t exist anymore, there are only boy/girl toy, clothes…
    And those very same people who grew up with me during a period when even Barbie had jobs and boys had dolls are now totally sold on the boy/girl division.
    What is also amazing (and by amazing I mean horrible) is that parents who have different gender children attribute all the differences between them to their gender. As if there were only two kinds of people and as if my two girls must be totally alike by virtue of being female. My friend has three sons (who even look alike) who are totally different. Whenever people tell us about how their children are different from each other because they are boy/girl, we can only shake our heads

  2. rq

    I was wearing pants and jumping my bike and getting in the mud and building stuff and commanding the pack, just like one of the boys. Hell, I was even more hardcore than some of them.

    Are you me?
    I was first made to feel different from the boys, though, when I was about 6, and my mum finally told me that I was getting to be old enough to have to wear a shirt in the summer. Before that, I rampaged around bare-chested, just like my older brother and the boy next door. Boy, was I ever mad about that, because it was so unfair – summer was way too hot to wear shirts, and the boys didn’t have to.

    Back to the boys.
    Having three, and being a woman (formerly girl) myself, I can attest to the fact that they don’t fit in any boxes (mostly because if they did, my childhood self would be leaking into some of their boxes, and they’d be half in some of mine).
    They love styling their hair (and mine) and wearing barrettes and headbands, they love glittery shining things, they love cars and trucks, they cuddle their favourite animals and breastfeed them (when that was a thing in our house), they like hot pink shirts and sandals, they love dinosaurs, they like to fight and they love hugs, they like to get dirty, and they adore princess movies. And TMNT, of course, but most recently they were so excited to watch The Wizard of Oz, even more so when I told them that movie is something like 75 years old (“Older than grandpa? WHHOOOOAAAA!!!”).
    They’re artistic and athletic and constructive and compassionate, and you should see them dance or pose for photos (I honestly don’t know how Middle Child gets his hips to do that). Then they run off to play pirates.
    There’s no way any of that fits into a box. And I hope they manage to stay out of any boxes their entire lives (except, of course, the boxes that they choose to build for themselves and fit themselves into voluntarily).

  3. 3

    The thing that amazes me about the ‘pink for a girl and blue for a boy’ convention is that it really only got going in the 1950s!
    I wonder if it was related to adding “under God,” to the pledge?

  4. 5

    Word. And anyone who didn’t watch the video, you really should. Perfectly structured, well written, and delivered with style and passion. There’s not many can spit like that.

  5. 7

    Great post.

    I had seen that video before, and found it powerful.

    I’d like to propose an alternative to “Man Up!” Let’s try “Grown Up!” Where we accept responsibility, admit weakness, and work to resolve issues. More productive and useful, in my opinion.

  6. 8

    I love the video!

    As a kid, the phrase “man up” always scared me. I usually heard it after I had taken a fall, or was the target of bullies; I grew up with the assumption that being a REAL meant getting hurt, beaten, berated and otherwise abused as a matter of course, and that my only option was to fight back and pray that I knocked the other guy out before he could knock me out. Being gay on top of that didn’t make things any easier. I was in my 20s before I realized just how f-ed up that mindset was and made the effort to grow.

  7. 10

    Some of us guys are getting into the whole pony thing. And that pink one is awesome.

    Actually having experienced the whole Brony community from where it started online I can say that gender confusion, exploration, and discussion has been an constant part of it. I suspect the community that I help moderate includes a larger proportion of LGBT members than the public at large and conversations that touch on gender, what it is, what it means and more constantly pop up.

    Yet strangely enough the Brony community has it percentage of anti-feminists as well and I’m still trying to figure out how that is possible. The creator explicitly says that she used feminist ideas in the series. I suspect it has to do with agreeing with equality but opposing any actual analysis of gender roles and responsibility for who is maintaining what and where.

  8. 11

    I’m gonna be obnoxious and quote myself–

    “…what society tends to label as “girly” or “boyish” usually isn’t either of those things when one looks at what kids actually gravitate toward instead of looking for confirmation of gender bias.”

    When I had Eldest, it was back in the early 90’s, and my request to not have explicitly gendered baby items gifted to us was fairly easy to accommodate and also went unquestioned. By the time my second child was born in 2001, it was getting harder to avoid the pink/blue washing, and by the time my youngest was born in 2004 it was nigh on impossible, especially for someone on a tight budget. Pink cheetah print onesies with purple ruffles or blue onesies with trucks are my only choices, really? Of course I could always find less gendered items in the high end stores but we were not on a high end budget. Apparently plain yellow is on the color palate of the upper class.

    When I was a little kid back in the mid-70’s I explicitly remember getting for xmas one year an inexpensive tin tea set that was trimmed in green and had apples on it. I went looking for something similar for my second kid’s fourth birthday, and all I could find at the chain stores was pink, or pink and purple. I wanted something that wasn’t explicitly labeled “this is for girls” because I knew my boys would also want to play with it and I didn’t want anyone telling them that they couldn’t just because it was a girl color.

    Memory around the same time of a park mom from a church group spanking her preschool aged son for trying to play with his sister’s doll stroller, yelling at him that that is for girls and he needs to act like a boy. The look on his face broke my fucking heart. Beating a young child for merely trying to explore his nurturing side, and we wonder as a society why boys can be so closed off. This is why, in a hundred different ways.

    My favorite photograph of my younger three is of them sitting on the sofa in their jammies, pig-tailed every one, grinning ear to ear. I printed out that photo with a quote from one of my friends about taking joy in the little things. It has been on my fridge for years.

  9. 12

    Lithified @ 7,

    I don’t like the idea of using ‘grown up’ either because it disrespects the young just as ‘man up’ disrespects women.

  10. 13

    I’m a middle school science teacher. If I didn’t respect and value young people I’d have given up in despair a long time ago.

    I very much value their potential, but at the same time, I am faced every day with the reality that they are not grownups. Besides teaching them science, a big part of my job involves helping them to become mature, responsible adults. At that age, there is a huge range of maturity levels, and some of them are indeed more responsible than many adults. That was my point – that we all need to be as grown up as possible, including those of us who have reached legal adulthood. Sometimes we fail.

  11. 14

    As a boy who, in the 80s, felt the oppression of Expected Boy Behavior… this is it. This is the gender-equality issue of this generation in the US.

    We have to get rid of the aggressive and violent gender enforcement against kids.

    We’ve been in a backlash period for so long. Those of us who are children of the 70s grew in perhaps the least gendered period in a very long time, and we need to push things back to where they were then, and beyond. Not surre how.

    (I was one of those boys who wanted long hair and styling and dresses. But I didn’t want anyone to think I was a girl, and I didn’t want to be “girlish”. I just wanted those things to be gender neutral.)

  12. 15

    Dana, this is a beautiful and tough piece of writing and I can relate to it so much. I was also tomboyish as a kid and was (mostly) encouraged in this, but with hindsight, I realized that it was a kind of misogyny I was learning – stay away from those superficial girly things; you’re better than that. In retrospect, that sort of reinforcement was not only demeaning for those girls who did like “girly” things, but also, and even more so, for the boys who couldn’t even express a desire to try those things out.

    All you commenters above: you are awesome and give me hope for humanity.

  13. 16

    You remind me of my daughter. In her room she has an American Girl doll with a bunch of pretty clothes, some cute little stuffed animals, ballet slippers and leotards, a display of girl scout badges, a bunch of other girly things. And also a plastic model of a lunar orbiter, a transparent horse showing internal anatomy, long-exposure cameras she mad out of tin cans, a full book shelf of Feynman, Greene, Hawking, and Sagan, and a $600 telescope she bought herself. Today she’s studying aerospace engineering. She hikes up mountains, takes 40-mile bike rides, and bakes delicious cookies. And one more completely irrelevent data point, she’s blond.

    My point is, as the father of a daughter I’m all in favor of not stuffing little girls into a pink box.

    Also, I liked your comment about your boy friends liking your Easybake Oven. As I man I still think one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a dish coming out of an oven.

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