If gender is socially constructed, then our definition of what it means to be “all boy” is obviously made up. You and I and everyone in society have developed an unspoken definition, and every boy learns what it means to be a boy. Or at least boys do their best to pretend that they know.
Why can’t a boy have a purse? I remember asking my mom for a purse when I was in grade school, and I was old enough to “know better.” My mom told me as much, but then she took me purse shopping. I certainly didn’t want a feminine purse. What I was looking for was something “masculine” in appearance. I figured carrying a purse was little different than lugging around a backpack, and I found a small all-black purse that had a number of compartments – useful for carrying around pens and candy and gum and army men and so on. As soon as mom bought it, however, I knew that I could never use it, and it ended up being forgotten in the back of mom’s closet.
Why can’t a boy’s bicycle have a basket? My cousin’s son recently asked his dad for a basket. My cousin informed him that “only sissies have baskets on their bicycles.” The boy didn’t argue; he simply nodded his head and rode off on his basket-less bike. He never mentioned his desire for a basket again. I’m sure my cousin meant well. He didn’t want his son to be picked on, but there’s nothing wrong with a boy having a basket on his bike. In fact, my dad told me that he and all the boys he knew when he was growing up in the 1940s had baskets on their bikes. What was “all boy” for one generation has now transformed into “only for sissies.” And it goes without saying that sissies aren’t “all boy.”
When I was a kid, we unfortunately used a slur for “sissy” – queer. In fact, one of our favorite games to play during recess was a form of school yard rugby called “Smear the Queer.” I’m not sure what the rules were, exactly. Basically, one boy had the football, and all of the other boys did their best to murder him. And when the boy with the ball was finally gang-tackled, he had to give up the ball by throwing it as far away as he could. Then the entire herd of boys would race to be the first one to the ball. Ironically, each boy wanted to be the next queer. Trust me: the irony was lost of all of us. None of us thought much about being the “queer” with the ball, but the game did prove one’s toughness. We’d play in the mud and in the rocks, and if your shirt got torn up, or if your pants got holes in the knees, those were badges of honor.
Even in high school, the two-tier system continued. “Real boys” played football, and “only girls” played soccer. I had friends on both the football team and the soccer team, but who knows where I fit in at this point, because I played on the chess team. The chess team was a kind of “no man’s land,” although that’s actually not an accurate description, as it would better be described as a “no girls’ land.” Some football players played on the chess team, which broke some of the stereotypes that chess was just for “nerds,” but chess was certainly an “all boy” game, regardless. And in all honesty, when I look back through my memories of grade school and high school, I have little knowledge about where the girls were and how they occupied their time. For the most part, I lived in an isolated all-boy world. That’s not always where I wanted to reside, but I never found the hidden door into the realm of what interested girls. And believe me, I looked. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, though. Perhaps I spent more time wondering why girls weren’t interested in the things that I was interested in – professional wrestling, heavy metal, chess, and politics. In my mind, all girls cared about was fashion, and how big they could make their hair. It’s not a fair impression, but it’s the only one I had.
What gender-based memories do you have growing up? Did you enjoy “being” your gender? Do you remember ever thinking about what life was like for the other gender? Did you ever wish that you could do something that “only” the other gender could do?
“Boys are beyond the range of anybody’s sure understanding, at least when they are between the ages of 18 months and 90 years.” – James Thurber