By Kai Teo
Daddy, the ultimate man
Growing up a boy in a conservative Chinese family, I’ve always looked up to my Dad and uncles as role models. I watched in admiration and awe whenever they did manly stuff like unclog the sink, change lightbulbs, climb tall ladders, and fight tigers in the forest.
I remember countless evenings when my dad would come home from a hard day of labour at the refrigeration factory, smelling of sweat, grease, and further embellished with fresh cuts or burns on his arms caused by power tools. Before dinner, he would always take a quick shower and emerge from it with the refreshing scent of the cheap bar of Palmolive soap, which he used on both his hair and body, of course. He would eat noisily, using his hands whenever it was more convenient, and slurp his soup from the bowl.
These early childhood experiences shaped my ideal of a real man. My dad never cries, is not afraid of pain, works hard for his family, knows how to fix everything at home, gives us everything we need, and is always right (even though Mom is, actually always right, he seldom admits it in front of us).
So, accompanied by my other role models such as Bruce Lee, The Ultimate Warrior from WWF (now WWE), Megazord from Power Rangers, and the blue guy (because Player 1 is always blue and Player 2 is always red) in Super Nintendo’s hit Contra, I formed my own picture of manliness.
Boys play fighting, girls are boring
At big family gatherings, all the 30 cousins would play as the adults sit around and gossip about some neighbour’s kid who married a wife who was disrespectful to her parents-in-law. Gender roles were very clearly defined, and we were always reminded of how to behave as boys and girls.
The boys always imitated our favourite wrestlers and pretended to fight on the thick spring mattresses, ran around with plastic guns, and played with fireworks and toy cars. The girls would sit around and pretend to drink tea out of plastic cups, role play as mothers to bald dolls, and cry when a boy accidentally hit them.
It was simple. The boys never cried, and we never questioned why. Boys don’t cry. Only girls do that. We wore shorts, they wore dresses. Even when we managed to get hold of the girls’ barbie dolls, we used them to fight, breaking their arms, legs and brutally decapitating them. Because that’s how boys play with dolls.
I never thought that I was being conditioned, or treated differently, because of my gender. It was just the way it always had been. It wasn’t my parents’ decision. It was a force that was larger than them. They never had the information, nor the luxury, to question it. Because that would just be weird. They grew up ok, the kids were growing up ok, so why rock the gender boat? Why make things complicated?
Because not all boys like blue
I was lucky. I never crumbled under the crushing pressure of “being a man”. Everything that was expected of me – the academic excellence, the performance in sports, the tough “don’t fuck with me” attitude, having a masculine, muscular body, and all that bullshit that boys were supposed to be into – came almost naturally to me.
But I noticed how this wasn’t every boy’s thing. To fit in in an all boys’ school, we had to be tough, we had to be rough, and we had to let all the other boys know that they shouldn’t fuck with us. Being slightly feminine, showing any signs of “girly” emotions, or even being a mama’s boy, meant that your teenage years would be made a living hell by boys like me.
I noticed how they found it difficult to fit in, but since I wasn’t the victim, I took part in the bullying. Not because I enjoyed watching the other boys suffer as we locked them in the cleaning closet, hid their school bags, or stripped them bare naked and let them run around in the classroom, but because it was easier to belong to the “cool” gang. I didn’t want to be the party pooper, or the scared-of-breaking-rules kid that had no fun.
Homophobia, talking about girls only as sexual conquests, throwing punches to solve conflicts, and calling any cowardly behaviour as “being a pussy”, are all everyday occurrences, normal, and even somewhat righteous. We were only 14.
Boys will be boys. These were the rules of our game. And I was a winner.
I honestly never knew if the victims of our constant bullying were scarred for life. I think I’m too scared to find out, too guilty to ask. I’m not sure if I had dared to admit that I had been a part of someone’s disturbed teenage years. I’m sure we made an impact, a negative one.
Today, almost two decades later, I realise my foolishness, and I feel deeply sorry. This is why I want to send a strong message to today’s young boys and girls, and their parents, about the dark, sinister side of patriarchy that is not so often addressed.
According to the study “Suicide in the World” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, male suicide deaths are three or four times that of females. Male victims of domestic violence are often not taken seriously, or even reported, because of the binary gender stigma that a man who is abused by his wife is a weak one, coupled with the misconception that “he could have easily stopped her if he wanted to”. Fathers during custody hearings are also less likely to be granted as the primary caretaker because of the same patriarchal mentality that women are, by nature, better caregivers than men, even when they might not, in actual fact, be.
We could choose to explain away these observations as an attempt to once again, bring back the attention to men. Or we could start including these real problems in Feminism’s fight against the patriarchy, and its quest towards true equality. Because this thought system of strict, binary gender differences, roles, and hierarchy inevitably creates macho men who conform to the male roles that this system dictates, and in the process, shaming all other “non-bros” and even intentionally hurting them. And many times, many of our male counterparts do not even realise that they are victims of an irrelevant mindset that doesn’t have its place in today’s world.
Even then, the struggle to constantly be the manly man is an unnecessary and harmful fight to maintain a facade that robs our young boys today of deep emotional connection with other human beings, and their ability to express their fears, pain, and vulnerabilities to their peers (their strongest support group). With the patriarchy, we take away a man’s right to choose his own way of expressing his gender, we restrict their freedom to behave the way they really want to behave, and we put the non-heterosexual man into a spot where he is shamed, attacked, and even hated.
The future is female, and male, and everyone else in between and outside
We don’t deny that our non-male members of today’s society are severely disadvantaged in the work place, in the family setting, in their social roles because of the patriarchy. That’s why we’re all calling it Feminism – because let’s focus on restoring the rights, recognition, and freedom that females deserve. And I’m proud to be a feminist. Just as I’m proud to restore equality to all genders, all races, and even all species.
I’m happy to come out of this patriarchal madness unscathed. Today, I wear dresses, nail polish, makeup and identify myself as a simple guy who just wants to love the world. But as I watch everyday at the teenage angst that goes on around my neighbourhood – the boys that don’t hug each other but give manly pats on the back, kick and punch each other for fun, and put on the “I’m so tough” impression to their peers – it makes me wonder, that in our fight for equality, have we forgotten about our next generation of men, and are we going to continue saying, “Boys will be boys.”?
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