It is only human to crave acceptance – and perhaps those who crave it most are young people facing often uncertain, changeable and seemingly inaccessible futures. It is this desire that the concept of being ‘one of the boys’ taps into. It seemingly offers the sense of safety that comes with belonging to a group: not having to make your own weekend plans (because after all, just as you can’t ‘dog the boys’ once you’re in, they can hardly dog you either), never worrying who you’ll go the next college party with, and never needing to consider who you’ll eat lunch with. However, as much as I can see some of the appeal of jokes about “cracking open a cold one with the boys” or “yeah the boys”, it doesn’t make me hate them any less.
Internet culture is inextricably linked with the ‘real life’, day-to-day experiences of young people existing in the world. “The boys” memes tap into a tangible, real-world need for security and acceptance – one that is, almost ironically, probably most prominent amongst constantly marginalised women and non-binary people. At first glance, appropriating these jokes and their language, or taking it further and joining friendship groups who define themselves as ‘the boys’, appears to be a way of escaping their own patriarchal oppression by gaining access to the masculine spaces and conversations they’re so often excluded from. Scratching the surface, though, this facade quickly falls away. Like so many other institutions, even a concept of ‘the boys’ that explicitly allows non-men to participate is a problematic reproduction of existing prejudices and patriarchal power structures. That is to say that allowing non-men honorary membership of ‘the boys’ is only an extension of the exclusive, sexist tropes this concept – alongside the memes and popular culture it produces – represents. It is not a solution.
From the outset, the language of ‘the boys’ is inherently exclusive, and it represents and reproduces underlying social bias that consistently preferences and promotes cis men as leaders and represents their experience as the norm. This language means that non-men enter these spaces already on the back foot, already owing something to the men in the group for making an ‘exception’ for them. They can expect to be the butt of jokes – or maybe even to make them themselves, in the self-deprecating way we’re so socialised to – about their honorary status. This line of humour is demeaning and belittling, keeping non-men in their peripheral place within these groups and dangerously veering into binary and transphobic assumptions about the biological essentiality of gender identity.
By perpetuating the trope that the non-men, and specifically women, who enter these spaces “aren’t like other girls”, memes about ‘the boys’ reinforce the concept that if you’re not a man, empowerment in our patriarchal world can only be attained by emulating traditional notions of masculinity. This means drinking a lot, often too much, or being teased for your inability to ‘keep up’. It means laughing at the misogynistic and transphobic jokes made by your peers, and certainly never calling them out for their language. It means sacrificing, or at least suppressing, parts of yourself – your courage, your competency, and perhaps your own gender identity – for the comfort of the men around you.
Even though your disadvantage in the group is overtly a byproduct of your gender, you are expected to act as though this is an incidental or irrelevant component of your identity. But we know that in so many ways, for so many people, gender identity and perceived gender identity are anything but peripheral to the ways that we experience the world. While pretending to ignore gender, ‘the boys’ memes, or real-life groups of the boys, perpetuate toxic binaries of gender. The notion of “dogging” the boys suggests that to spend time in this male space is inherently more desirable than other activities or company. This concept is particularly harmful in relation to romantic relationships. Maintaining close friendships outside of a romantic relationship is incredibly positive, however, the heteronormative and misogynistic notion that spending time with a woman you’re in a close and supportive relationship with is less valuable than – and, in fact, an inconvenient diversion of time away from – hanging out with ‘the boys’ is not.
Traditional and limiting binary gender roles are often perpetuated in these spaces too. Non-men are unduly burdened with performing emotional labour, as they become confidants, or take on ‘mothering’ roles by default. They provide important support, such as taking care of ‘boys’ who’ve had too much to drink or counselling them on their relationship problems, but tend not to be offered reciprocal care. This is both because men are not traditionally expected, or allowed, to perform this unpaid emotional labour, and a non-man exhibiting the vulnerability required to ask for such emotional support could dissolve the very image of gender neutrality and rejection of stereotypical femininity that group membership is predicated upon. This is particularly destructive when something goes seriously wrong – sexual assault allegations are made, or the community in which this group exists experiences a particularly nasty incident of homophobia, transphobia or sexism – because the position of a non-man in the space precariously balances on their continued illusion of assimilation.
It would be so easy to directly blame this on the women and genderqueer* people who participate in this form of social organisation – but that too would be a dark perpetuation of the patriarchal oppression they face. It is the structure, not the individual, who is to blame here, as non-men try to make the best of the ultimate bad situation: patriarchal oppression. Members of any gender in these groups need to reflect upon the social reproduction they represent, and ultimately acknowledge the actively negative repercussions of any form of social organisation based on an explicitly-masculine group identity.
Let’s leave ‘yeah the boys’ in 2016. Let’s find a way to foster and encourage mixed-gender groups which are open to all forms of gender identity and expression, and acknowledge the diversity of experiences these expressions entail.