Photographer: Chanel Irvine
From a young age we are socialised to believe that boys and girls are fundamentally different in the way they look, act, feel and are treated. A very ubiquitous concept is that “boys are mean to girls because they like them”.
What this implies is that when a young boy kicks, yells at, steals a toy from, pokes, prods or abuses a young girl it is due to underlying affection.
What this implies is that real boys cannot show affection of the romantic and sincere kind because it would be girly to do so and that his emotions are too limited.
What this implies is that real boys and men physically and emotionally abuse the girls and women that they are attracted to.
Rachel Brandt, a freelance writer for Everyday Feminism, shares a story that will feel familiar for many women. “The first week my daughter was in kindergarten, a boy in her class sucker-punched her in the stomach”, she writes.
“Her teacher explained that’s how little boys express their affection for girls they like – by taunting them, pulling their hair, and pushing them on a playground.”
ANU student Bella Dimattina shared a similar childhood experience with me: “In primary school I got bullied by these boys, one of whom was very violent. I was told [by them] that I was worthless and should kill myself.
“I told a teacher and they basically brushed it off; they made sure I didn’t want to kill myself and did nothing. They said the kid liked me and that he had a crush on me. I look back and feel betrayed that they weren’t held accountable for their actions like I always was.”
Brandt and Dimattina demonstrate how such statements have the capacity to affect girls at a young age. Furthermore, their stories highlight the pervasive nature of this concept – both these women live on opposite sides of the world and are members of different generations, yet still share similar stories. When I was looking for examples on the internet I accounted a plethora of different stories similar to these experiences, and similar to my own.
This concept was reinforced in my early life, as I know it was for many others – the interesting thing is that I can’t recall who exactly who said it to me. I feel like people have to know that ideas like this are not grounded in fact, but must think they are harmless; but children are so malleable, so easily influenced and so hungry for information. These are ideas that become so deeply engrained in young girls that they affect the way they grow up and associate with men. It changed the way I interacted with boys, not only as a child, but also as a young adult.
I discussed the issue with one of my friends who admitted to often telling girls: “He is being mean to you because he likes you.” I asked her the reasons behind why she says this, to which she said: “It’s not okay [for boys to be mean to girls] but people just say it to make the girls feel better when the guy picks on them.” I found it very confronting to hear the rationalisation of why my friend utilised the concept – it was clearly such an innocent attempt to console a young girl.
I write this article from a place of concern, and also frustration.
Hand in hand with the justification of boys being mean, is the idea that there are two genders, and that our gender and sex are identical and synonymous and should remain so. We are taught to behave in a way that is compatible with our assigned sex. This results in gender typing and gender stereotypes, which create gender-based beliefs that are transposed in everyday behaviour.
Such gender typing encourages the belief that violence, abuse and disruptive behaviour are inherit aspects of being a man. The idea that ‘boys are mean to girls because they like them’ infers that it is acceptable and furthermore rational for boys to be abusive or violent, because it is the only way they are capable of displaying intimate emotions. Another consequence is that it endorses toxic masculinity by teaching boys that they should be violent, that violence is an inherent feature of masculinity, and that they should be emotionless and incapable of displaying friendship or romance.
Another consequence is that it endorses toxic masculinity by teaching boys that they should be violent, that violence is an inherent feature of masculinity, and that they should be emotionless and incapable of displaying friendship or romance.
This idea also enforces a gender hierarchy by devaluing women and encouraging misogyny. It places men in a position of dominance where they have the right to act hostile to women without consequence. The justification of boys being mean out of affection suggests that women should gladly accept abuse from men – the entire concept is evidently a thinly veiled rationalisation of violence against women. It blatantly enforces sexist values and could be easily considered a tool of the patriarchy to enforce control, where men have the freedom to act without consequence, while women are not only plagued by the consequences of their own actions, but also the consequences of men’s.
But what frustrates me the most is that abuse is presented under the guise of romantic attraction or as a feature of friendship. I cannot stress how destructive this is. It not only justifies the abusive actions of men, but encourages victims to deny that what happened to them was unfair or wrong.
The idea that ‘boys are mean to girls because they like them’ lays the foundations for rape culture and domestic abuse. Some men feel entitled to the bodies of women, and to express themselves violently, because this is a concept that seems familiar to them. Some men do not think they should be held responsible for any harm they commit, because they were not held to account on the playground.
Ultimately, the concept is anachronistic. With all that feminism has done so far, it feels like statements like these force women several steps back.
In my opinion, individuals who use statements like these, even if meant with no harm, are doing a disservice to the future population by ignorantly implementing stereotypes that socialise young girls to rationalise and furthermore ‘understand’ situations where they are abused by boys. I strongly believe that it would require a high level of foolishness or stupidity to knowingly be comfortable telling young girls that abuse from boys equates to love or friendship. It would be an utterly nonsensical and un-feminist thing to do. The key, therefore, is to be wary of the underlying messages in what we say to young children. The best thing is to help them understand equity at a younger age, allowing them to have better lives and for a more equitable future.