“Boys will be boys.” This carefully constructed sentence consists of a mere collection of words. It dominates our dialogues, reflecting the mindset that governs our society, our homes and the misogynistic atmosphere that we breathe.
It is more than just a sentence though. It has become ingrained in our DNA. And each time this phrase is casually used—which is far too often, let me warn you—I try to analyse and scrutinise this four-worded sentence that perpetuates the acceptance and normalisation of patriarchy. It serves as a reminder, every time, that men—no matter the severity of the questionable acts they commit—can always seek refuge behind the shadow of these words: “Boys will be boys.” The statement eventually matures into a more threatening version—‘‘Men will be men’’—which not only poses a threat to women, but also to the collective male psyche.
In the turn of this year, the American Psychological Association issued a set of guidelines meant for psychologists dealing with “traditional masculine ideologies.” They point out the different behavioural patterns that are prevalent at the heart of the male culture that leads to multiple social ills, including destructive activities such as bullying and violence against women.
If we pick a typical household that believes in orthodox upbringing revolving around hyper-machismo, it would appear that the very behavioural patterns this study warns against are prevalent in the way boys are raised in our society. Here, women play subdued roles, with their whole existence revolving around serving men. Little boys grow up seeing their paternal figures maintain a stoic comportment, rarely displaying signs of emotion—except when channelling rage or frustration, especially directed towards the female members. Their little minds are constantly shaped by instructions that demean the dominant traits in girls. “Boys should not cry like girls”; “boys should not wear pink”; and God forbid if they play with dolls and plastic kitchen sets. After all, they should steer clear from every activity that may make them look effeminate.
But do we ever wonder about the ramifications of such conditioning on the male psyche?
Here is what will happen. A boy who has been brought up in one such typical household will grow up suppressing his emotions, which will eventually pave the way for his fragile ego later in the future. He will grow up believing that subjugating women is one of the fundamentals of manhood. Not only will he take women for granted, but in the process, he will automatically objectify them; after all, the roots of masculinity in our social context are still linked to women’s sexuality and the need to dominate them. The rising string of cases of sexual harassment is a testament to the crisis of confidence that many men suffer from when they feel rejected.
Let’s put aside the repercussions this toxic mental framework has on the other gender, for argument’s sake. Men themselves become victims of living within such rigidly defined boundaries of masculinity, as a result of being unable to express themselves. In order to maintain their “strength”, they bottle up their emotions which can blow up on their faces.
Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation reveal that four out of five suicides are committed by men, and yet women are more prone to be diagnosed with mental health problems. This goes to show that men will not talk about their problems even when they suffer. The concept of toxic masculinity reinforces the fact that men cannot have or exude emotions and to do so would only make them appear “weak”. This becomes a problem for them since going against the status quo would lead to other men mocking their so-called feminine attributes and they will eventually become outcasts.
There is no straightforward way of breaking this vicious cycle. Just walking up to a boy and asking him to reconnect with his emotions and open up will not help the cause. A counter-narrative must be established to show boys and men the better alternative, that is growing up with healthy emotions and outlook towards life.
Imagine a home where a young boy grows up seeing his parents sharing equal power dynamics. A relationship that is affectionate and respectful and where emotional connection and communication are encouraged by both parties. He is taught about the importance of consent and how to cope with and respond to a “no”. He is motivated to speak up against immoral acts and unhealthy male ideologies. And finally, he is sure of expressing himself and does not limit himself to societal perceptions about how girls and boys should behave. The product of such upbringing would not only make way for a healthy mindset but would also pave the way for a healthier society.
One factor that is often neglected is the need to include sex education in our education curriculum. But given the socio-political and religious environment in the country, that possibility seems very distant. Owing to its absence, pre-pubescent boys, who are too eager to satisfy their sexual curiosity, get exposed to pornography. If pornography is the main source of information regarding sex, its impact on impressionable minds can be quite harmful. Boys will grow up thinking of women as sex objects. Thus guardians have the responsibility to help boys develop a healthy perspective towards sex.
When the rugged “tough guy” traits become the definition of what a real man should be, it becomes self-destructive. In contrast, there are men who have broken free from these rigid perimeters of traditional masculinity, who are not supporters of female oppression, bullying or violence, but are feminists themselves and are not afraid to reveal their suppressed emotions. It seems like we keep forgetting that boys are not innately predatory but are made to be so. In order to change that, we must address the problem at the elementary level by radically changing the way young boys are brought up in the first place.
Iqra L Qamari is a student of economics at North South University and is an intern at The Daily Star.
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