Like a lot of British kids some of my first reading material was comics – the Dandy, the Beano, the Eagle. More than a half century on I don’t remember any female characters. I remember Dan Dare, of course, Dennis the Menace, Lord Snooty and the boy who had the toy soldiers that he could command and control. I know that Minnie the Minx surfaced at some point, but couldn’t tell you when, and she did boy’s stuff anyway, being naughty.
My dad a soldier, my mother was ‘his wife’, and her expectations remained traditional despite their divorce half a century ago. She did change my perceptions, though not deliberately, coping with ‘male’ tasks because she had to, and when I first heard a man deprecate ‘women drivers’ I had, at the age of 10 or so, an almost overwhelming desire to kick him, so patently stupid – even to me (in a home without a car) – was his argument.
I was frequently a disappointment to my late mother because she did not find me courageous enough. She attributed to my father in his absence the belief she actually entertained, that I wasn’t enough of a ‘boy’.
I played with soldiers, inevitably, and Dinky tanks, cars and warplanes, watched a diet of westerns and war movies, and read books in which boys and men were heroes. It was a cornerstone of boys’ fiction, it seemed to me, that boys would at some point in a story be humiliated and despised, only to be vindicated by an act of heroism.
I yearned for the opportunity of an act of heroism to validate myself, to be respected for what – I kept learning in so many ways – I really ought to be.
It never came. The humiliations did, the bullying did, my mothers acid-tongued venom did.
But I absorbed that men and boys should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the women in their lives, whether fighting on the Western Front or giving up one’s dreams when one’s mother or partner found them inconvenient.
Remember the ‘seven stone weakling’ ads? I do. I spent pretty much my entire life identifying with the kid who would always get sand kicked in his face. I remember GI Joe, too, and the characters in the war comics, broad-chested, hard and manly. I knew I was never going to be like that, that I was never going to be a ‘real man’. Seemingly ever inadequate I envied those who had gone to war and especially those who had died.
There was nothing in the toys and games, nothing in the comic strips, the boys’ magazines, the movies or the books for me to identify with. There still isn’t, for the most part.
Girls’ toys, girls’ magazines, would have been anathema to me, even if anyone had made me aware of their actual existence. It isn’t so much that I was directed away from such things as that I was simply never anywhere near them. Christmas and birthday gifts were boys’ toys and books, girls toys and magazines were in separate areas of display and I knew well enough, very soon, that boys did not go in for girly things.
The one irrevocably pink thing in my life depended between my legs – or rather jutted, in those days, like a miniscule faucet, and it meant I was a boy.
There was something rather awful about being a boy too. Clearly there had to be, since boys couldn’t share girls’ toilets from the time they knew that separate facilities existed, and there came that time when my mother saw that same little pink tap through a gape in my pajama trousers and told me ‘she didn’t ever want to see it again’ because it was rude.
I didn’t learn shame about nudity from any God, though it was from one I worshiped.
Typing wasn’t taught at the Boys’ Grammar School I went to, nor was ‘domestic science’. I taught myself the former, one of the most useful workaday skills I’ve ever acquired, after leaving school and had to build up my experience of the latter through young adulthood. They weren’t ‘boy’ skills, just bloody useful ones we were directed away from.
I’m a good man, now, despite having fucked up from time to time. And I am no coward. The women I meet, who tend to be ‘women’s women’ tend in general to like me and I’ve had little opportunity to sleep alone, whilst the men I meet who are men’s men are of precious little interest to me. I don’t think my dick is very big, but I know it works and can give pleasure, and whether the dick-measuring is literal or subsumed into the size/model of one’s car, the job/income that one has, the physical attributes of one’s partner or the league success of one’s sports team, I really find the whole thing boring.
Most of these boring men, of course, have been raised on boys’ toys and all the rest.
I never learned to be homophobic, estranged from the locker rooms and buddy chats in which the boys-aiming-to-be-traditional-men discuss such things, and I never learned to despise women either, perhaps for a similar reason.
I find it easy to love, now, and to accept – even to accept that there may be some mildly homoerotic element in my soul. But I was raised as a boy insofar as anyone who could influence that did so – my mother, my relatives, my teachers, the school bullies and the other kids, my toys, my books and magazines, my movies.
The consequence? I was raised to a profound, sometimes suicidal loneliness in childhood, in adolescence and in manhood, raised to consider myself less than other men who – I in time discovered – turned and ran when faced with the things that I, as a whole man, have faced.
Remember that what appear to be your children’s choices are not necessarily their own, not necessarily unaffected by things around them you may not even be aware of. Don’t let those choices be led and fed by those who would exploit them, who still see gender roles in destructive, narrow terms.
You think they don’t? Go to Amazon and key in ‘Toys for Girls’ and ‘Toys for Boys’.
Good bless you.