Three Little Words
How important are three little words in a person’s life? It seems so often that life changing events hinge on three little words. I have cancer. I love you. You are fired.
Please marry me? It seems strange to me that we can easily say so much in so few words, with an impact that it many cases is immediate and clear. But what about the three words we use that we aren’t aware of. We use them every day, all the time, in books, film, music, the news, television, when we want to make a point or just tell a joke. What we don’t realise is that just as the earlier examples have an impact, so do these words. There are two phrases, each containing three words that are damaging our children in ways that are the spiritual equivalent of taking a baseball bat to them. So what are they? Very simply, to our boys we tell them to ‘Be a Man’, and at the cost of our daughters, we use the phrase ‘like a girl’ and we don’t mean it as a compliment.
This entire subject matter came to my attention when Always engineered the campaign #LikeaGirl; they employed director Lauren Greenfield to direct an empowering advertisement that addressed this negative narrative. The challenge would be to shift the meaning of the phrase to equate with strength, confidence and empowerment. What followed is a short video when Lauren asks some teenage girls, young boys, men and women to ‘act’ out running like a girl, fighting like a girl and throwing like a girl. What followed is an amusing array of what can only be described as over the top ‘faffing’. But once the laughter subsides, the director asks ten year old Dakota to run like a girl and the reality of what we are laughing at hits home. We have totally been suckered into the cultural need to align anything feminine to mean weak. Dakota and the other pre-pubescent girls run with all their might, they throw as if they were pitching for an Olympic cricket or baseball team and they fight like they’ve grown up watching Jackie Chan and the Avengers Assemble. They aren’t worried about how they look their hair or being ‘delicate’. They want to win the race, the fight, the game, and that’s when we feel ashamed. Because when did being ‘like a girl’ become something to be ashamed of? An insult? Why, as one of the young women taking part asks can’t it mean ‘win the race?’
Research carried out by Always and Lauren Greenfield suggests that it is the ages between nine and twelve that our daughters are most vulnerable of realising the ‘truth’ of the insult. This is further supported by recent reports from the UK government that girls start to become disinterested in sport around the age of eight, no longer wanting to take part in PE lessons.
At the most crucial stage of our development in terms of establishing identity, of the loss of innocence that inevitably comes when our children begin puberty, they are being fed a barrage of negative messages about their self-worth and gender roles.
This is not singular to young girls. As I mentioned before the phrase ‘Be a Man’ is equally damaging. In 2011 director Jennifer Siebel Newsoms made the film Miss Representation tackling the damaging depiction of women. Following this film and its’ positive response at the Sundance Film Festival, Newsoms went on to found the missrepresentationproject.org to highlight and challenge the depiction of women in media. In 2013 it evolved to become the Representation Project, working to tackle the issues facing both men and women, with the clear belief that limiting stereotypes harms all of us.
By visiting their site you will be able to view their film The Mask You Live In. This short film features interviews with coaches, teachers, psychologists and young men. One of the people taking part states that the three most destructive words a boy will hear in his life are ‘Be a Man’.
What becomes very clear is that it seems almost the flip side of a coin, with like a girl on the other side. We live in a culture which doesn’t value femininity, where respect is linked to violence and that power is associated with domination. This is what we are teaching young boys. That they shouldn’t cry, because that would be weak. That they have to be big and strong, not feeble and weak. That strength is exerting physical power not exhibiting sensitivity and kindness.
Rather worryingly during a session with some young men when asked what they felt they were constantly hiding, the overwhelming response was anger. In the US less than 50% of boys and men seek help for mental health issues and everyday 3 or more boys commit suicide. In the UK men are 3 and ½ times more likely to commit suicide than women. It has been suggested that this is a result of changing gender roles and the recession, the pressures they feel to ‘Be a Man’ and be responsible for the entire wellbeing of their family. It could also be suggested that our cultural obsession with men not crying, not showing emotion, not talking or expressing themselves could be leading to an unhealthy place for them leaving them isolated and cut off from support. What do we say as a turn of phrase? Oh he’s just a man, they don’t like to talk. Maybe because they’ve never been made to feel that it’s OK for them to talk?
As things currently stand as a society through media, our cultural exchanges and our everyday language we are delivering a narrative to our children about what it is to be a man or a woman and it’s not a healthy narrative.
So what do we do? Is it really bleak? Can you change the discourse of an entire culture? I believe we can and there are so many ways that we can do this.
In the UK there are a number of initiatives being run to empower young women. These include Amazing Young Women, a group set up to help and support 12 – 19 year olds; they are based in North Wales and run workshops, community and residential programmes.
She is You is another group working hard to create an initiative to help young girls feel comfortable in their own skin, based in London.
There are a variety of leadership programs for young people which include young men, such as the Carnegie Trust and Youth Enterprise, however anything specifically for young men and their emotional well-being is harder to find. Young Minds and Action for Children both work hard to provide support to young people’s mental health, but it still doesn’t tackle the issue directly.
There is much debate in the media about gender neutrality in toys and clothes with the #LetClothesBeClothes and #LetToysBeToys campaign, which is great news for all of us. It is certainly part of the wider problem. I would suggest though that until we tackle the very damaging way in which we use language around each other, to our children and what is heard from the media that we will be fighting an uphill struggle. This is why the work by the Representation Project and Always is so important. Creating awareness, public pressure and debate it keeps the reality fresh in our mind. And that is what we as parents and guardians need to maintain, mindfulness of the language we use and an awareness of how precious our words are. Maybe with time they will learn that being a man means many things not just one and that maybe, just maybe being like a girl is something remarkable.