What Does 'Boys Will Be Boys' Really Mean?

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By Deborah M. Roffman
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Three of my seventh-grade students asked the other week if we might view a recent episode of the Fox TV cartoon show "Family Guy" in our human sexuality class. It's about reproduction, they said, and besides, it's funny. Not having seen it, I said I'd have to check it out.

Well, there must be something wrong with my sense of humor, because most of the episode made me want to alternately scream and cry.

It centers on Stewie, a sexist, foul-mouthed preschooler who hates his mother, fantasizes killing her off in violent ways, and wants to prevent his parents from making a new baby -- until he realizes that he might get to have a sibling as nasty as he is. Then he starts encouraging his parents' lovemaking. At one point he peers into their room and tells his Dad to "Give it to her good, old man." When his father leaves the bed he orders him to "Come here this instant you fat [expletive] and do her!"

Of course I know that this is farce, but I announced the next day that no, we wouldn't be taking class time to view the episode, titled "Emission Impossible." When I asked my students why they thought that was, they guessed: The language? The women dressed like "bimbos"? The implied sexual acts? The mistreatment of the mother?

Nope, nope, nope, I replied. I didn't love any of that, either, but it was the less obvious images and messages that got my attention, the ones that kids your age are less likely to notice. It's not so much that the boy is always being bad -- sometimes that sort of thing can seem so outrageous it's funny. It's the underlying assumption in the show, and often in our society, that boys, by nature, are bad.

I said I thought the "boys will be bad" message of the show was a terribly disrespectful one, and I wouldn't use my classroom in any way to reinforce it. It was a good moment: Recognizing for the first time the irony that maybe it was they who were really being demeaned, some of the boys got mad, even indignant.

You can hear and see evidence of this longstanding folk "wisdom" about boys almost everywhere, from the gender-typed assumptions people make about young boys to the resigned attitude or blind eye adults so often turn to disrespectful or insensitive male behavior. Two years ago, when Justin Timberlake grabbed at Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime, he got a free pass while she was excoriated. As the mother of two sons and teacher of thousands of boys, the reaction to that incident made me furious, but perhaps not for the reason you may think: I understood it paradoxically as a twisted kind of compliment to women and a hidden and powerful indictment of men. Is the female in such instances the only one from whom we think we can expect responsible behavior?

That incident and so many others explain why, no matter how demeaning today's culture may seem toward girls and women, I've always understood it to be fundamentally more disrespectful of boys and men -- a point that escapes many of us because we typically think of men as always having the upper hand.

Consider, though, what "boys will be boys" thinking implies about the true nature of boys. I often ask groups of adults or students what inherent traits or characteristics the expression implies. The answers typically are astonishingly negative: Boys are messy, immature and selfish; hormone-driven and insensitive; irresponsible and trouble-making; rebellious, rude, aggressive and disrespectful -- even violent, predatory and animal-like.

Is this a window into what we truly think, at least unconsciously, of the male of the species? Is it possible that deep inside we really think they simply can't be expected to do any better than this? How else to explain the very low bar we continue to set for their behavior, particularly when it comes to girls, women and sex? At a talk I gave recently, a woman in the audience asked, only half in jest: "Is it okay to instruct my daughters that when it comes to sex, teenage boys are animals?" Do we stop to think how easily these kinds of remarks can become self-fulfilling prophecies, or permission-giving of the worst kind?

Thanks to popular culture, unfortunately, it only gets worse. Not too long ago, I confiscated a hat from a student's head that read, "I'm a Pimp." This once-derogatory term is a complimentary handle these days for boys whom girls consider "hot." I asked the boy whether he would wear a hat that said "I'm a Rapist." Totally offended, he looked at me as if I had three heads. "Duh," I said. "Do you have any idea what real pimps do to keep their 'girls' in line?" Yet the term -- like "slut" for girls -- has been glamorized and legitimized by TV, movies and popular music to such an extent that kids now bandy it about freely.

Just as fish don't know they're in water, young people today, who've been swimming all their formative years in the cesspool that is American popular culture, are often maddeningly incapable of seeing how none of this is in their social, sexual or personal best interest.


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