Invited to speak at various Boys conferences, Jeff Perera shares some stories of taking the White Ribbon message on the road to speak with boys from Grade Four to Grade Eight. He also shares what happened when he spoke with hundreds of young girls on how society creates ideas of being a man and how that in turn impacts girls as well as boys.
Shirts like this one below can be found at any local retail mall. It seems that anything offensive towards women or girls is the only openly accepted form of ‘trendy-offensive’ content, I don’t remember it ever being any different.
Messages towards boys and young men come from all spaces in society. They begin at an early age and keep coming
They come when you recieve gifts…
…from that weird uncle and other family members
…and continue when you ‘grow up’
A portion of pretty much every public talk, presentation or workshop I’ve done regarding the White Ribbon goal of encouraging healthier ideas of masculinity, touches on messages young boys receive from all four corners of society. Impossible ideas of manhood are carved out of the same stone that leaves us with devaluing women and all things labelled ‘feminine’. Working with youth for me began years ago when I started participating in facilitating workshops at the Annual YWCA Toronto ’Common Ground’ conference. This event gathers high school students from across Toronto who want to make a change towards more gender-equitable spaces in their hallways. Since then I have had the pleasure of speaking with youth of a wide variety of ages.
Tuval Dinner is Youth Programs Manager at White Ribbon and has been doing this for years across Canada. He shared the Gender Remixer website with me, which I now like to show during sessions with people of any age. The site allows you to mash up the audio from commercials geared to boys and the video from commercials geared towards girls, and vice versa. Go ahead…you know you wanna take it for a spin.
(note: Flash option is there at the top right when you click the link,
it works with Firefox or Chrome).
Whenever I use this site and mash up TV commercials for an audience of young boys or girls, they first burst out in laughter and then erupt in conversation.
They get it.
They understand how products are marketed to them…soft, high-pitched voices for girls inviting them to be friends….aggressive adult voices calling boys to join them in battle.
I showed the site to fifty Grade 4-6 boys in two workshops sessions during an Equity conference by the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. Afterwards, I asked them to get into small groups to write a list of the things they like, and do not like about being a boy and then present their list to the group. This is an exercise I do with people of all ages, usually going around the room as an introduction/icebreaker.
When I ask young boys to name things that they like about being a boy, we are really unpacking and understanding male privilege. When we look at what they don’t like, we are really discussing the direct costs of patriarchy for men and boys. The boys will mention a wide variety of things, from how they fear losing to a girl for the ridicule that follows to how people expect them to be able to fight or be good at sports/physical contact. This last one is a usual response, as they don’t like how boys are so competitive which leads to fights or cheating or bullying etc. When a boy’s self-worth and value is partially defined by accomplishment, being a ‘winner’ and that being a successful in everything you do (i.e. don’t need help, ‘not weak’) is their sense of identity, we end up with these unhealthy competitive situations and attitudes.
It is fascinating how many young boys and girls don’t stay at the surface with their answers, many dig deep with their response and can already identify pressures and expectations.
Here is the list from one breakout group of those Grade 4-6 boys:
As you can see some of the boys pointed out pressing pet peeves like how ‘boys smell bad’ or ‘grow hair everywhere’. With some of these answers, however, the boys go deeper. Many usually share thoughts such as how they don’t like that boys get very competitive, leading to aggressive behaviour or cheating to be labelled a ‘winner’. In all respects, it is all about being a winner for boys, sometimes at all costs. Some will talk about how boys always are in trouble, as one boy indicated here with ‘…an automatic bad reputation’.
The item on this list which stood out to me that day was the first one: ‘not being able to be a mother’. I asked the student to explain what he meant. A small, articulate Grade 4 boy stood to talk and put his palms on the table, the same boy who said he wanted to ‘be a politician when I grow up’.
“Did you mean that you can’t give birth since you are a boy?” I asked. Usually one of the standard responses from boys of all ages during this exercise is how they like that ‘we don’t have to give birth’. He explained that he thought of it after watching the mash-up exercise which included video of a girl’s commercial for a ‘Baby Alive’ doll. He shared his thoughts on how ‘boys aren’t shown playing with babies’ and aren’t encouraged to raise children. My mind raced as I wondered just how many of these fifty boys were raised by emotionally-present fathers (those who had present fathers) who did a bit more than throw the ball around.
Some of the other pieces we discuss include how boys are pressures to assert their maculinity and prove their manhood in everyday activites everyday all day. This leaves us with a world of boys and men pretending: trying to achieve an unattainable state of manhood.
Ideas of being a man also include enforced notions and perceived ideas of masculine sexuality. I vividly remember being 12 years old and an adult calling a bunch of us around to join him to drool and ogle at the bra section of the Sears catalogue. We stood around as if participating in a no-frills manhood-rite-of-passage, awkwardly knowing to nod and smile approvingly on cue. Ideas of Social norms and cues come from individuals in our lives as well as from the world around us.
Narrow and shallow examples orbit feverishly around in cyberspace for young boys and girls via constellations of film and music and television.Children today float through ultra-explicit sexual images and mainstream pornographic videos, accessible to anyone with internet access and (at best) terrible spelling ability. They are learning to handle situations that people 3x their age are still trying to understand. While girls struggle to understand how to handle the attention that comes with developed breasts or long legs: Boys struggle to understand what it is that they are supposed to be and not be in romantic, sexual and everyday encounters.
A clever witty headline that plays on the phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ and also refers to the ‘Gender Box’, ‘Man Box’ or ‘Act- Like-A-Man’ box. Paul Kivel first shared this exercise, since then folks like Tony Porter and even myself at TEDxRyersonU 2010 have give talks pointing out the narrow, impossible box men and boys are forced into by society. At White Ribbon we speak about these gender boxes, in particular for men and boys, in pretty much every session we do.
Discussing the Gender Box which girls are subject to is important as well. for both are created with the same stroke. For example, encouraging (enforcing) girls to be ‘more lady like’ and more sugar and spice, leaves them struggling to raise their voice when they face injustice. “now now…be more lady like!” We could talk about this for days…
Many public schools across Ontario have been holding Girls conferences for years now, creating important spaces for young girls to explore issues such as self-esteem and body image. The White Ribbon Campaign approached the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario with the model of creating Boys Conferences. White Ribbon ETFO conferences are now spaces where they can explore discussions around anti-violence, enthusiastic consent and healthy relationships. While these are all great opportunities to connect with young men and boys, one experience really stood out for me, and it is an experience I hope to have again and again.
I had an exciting opportunity at Cheyne Middle School in Brampton, Ontario, Canada: I was invited to speak at both their Boys and Girls conferences. I had 250 boys for my morning keynote speech and then 250 girls in the afternoon for my closing keynote at their conference. In between that, I got to facilitate workshops with thirty Grade 8 boys and then thirty Grade 8 Girls respectively. Cheyne Middle School is a diverse space with students from many different racialized communities. I touched upon how power and lack of power in society impact the path of establishing identity for men and boys of colour (and in turn, realities for women and girls of colour).
For the workshops, I delivered almost exactly the same session for the boys as I did for the girls. I talked with the young women about the pressures and expectations placed on boys to walk, talk and act a certain way and how that impacts upon girls and women. I showed a video of spoken word artist Shihan performing Love Like and we discussed their reactions to seeing a male who is excited and enthusiastic about love and being in love.
Watch Shihan in action.
I asked the girls what would happen to a boy who expressed enthusiasm about love in their school hallways, during recess or in the neighborhood: a boy not trying to play it cool and act all hard, but openly enthusiastic and happy? They said he’d be made fun of. I asked If they would laugh at a boy who acted or felt this way, half of them put their hands up. I asked if this was an example of how they would want their partner to feel about love and being in love.
All thirty girls put their hands up.
I then showed a favourite video of mine to use in sessions with everyone. It is Tupac Shakur at 17 talking about how to approach a woman and respect a woman. This was shot before violence wrapped its hands around him and pulled his life, body and soul apart and ended his life. I have written before in details about this video as being a breathing snapshot of young men at the crossroads of embracing or rejecting destructive concepts of manhood and masculinity.
Watch the video below.
After the video, I asked the girls what would people say at school about a boy who sounded and talked like this in the hallway or out in the field or in class? Someone who was being himself, respectful and wearing his vulnerability on his sleeve?
They said he would be…
called a Fag.
Half of the girls admitted they would laugh at him as well. I then asked the girls if any of them would consider this an example of an ideal partner or want to be in a relationship with someone who acted and talked this way.
All thirty girls put their hands up.
Earlier, when I did the same workshop for thirty boys, I asked them “what would happen to you or to any boy who talked that way?” They similarly said that they would be harassed, made fun of, called gay or a fag and that most boys would not consider this what a girl wants to see either. We all know of the pressures they face outside the classroom from external sources to conform to strict ideas of being a man as well. One boy sitting in the back defiantly stated that he would not harass or harm such a boy, but would respect someone who talked and acted that way because he was being real and he was courageous enough to be himself. The teacher afterwords explained in amazement to me that this was ‘a troubled boy’ and was blown away that he, of all students, shared that comment with such sincerity.
I was invited to speak at one Girls Conference in Toronto before, but the invitation was declined when organizers later decided that it would be better for the young girls to hear female voices. I agree that we need to hear women’s voices and encourage young girls to raise and value their own voice. Male voices are always placed at higher value that women’s voices, but hearing how these issues impact ‘the other side’ from a male voice can be a key piece in some spaces of discussion as well. After presentations in co-ed spaces, many girls will come up to me after to share words of thanks. Many offer appreciation for a male bringing up these conversations and creating spaces where boys can hear girls discuss their everyday realities as well as a space for girls to hear and understand the pressures boys are under to be a certain way. These aren’t just women’s or girl’s issues, they are ALL our issues to hear, learn, understand and help address.
After my keynote for the girls conference at Cheyne, one girl said to me “You know, It’s great that we have these conversations and discussions about body image and learning to love ourselves for who we are as young girls. I realized today we need to do the same thing with boys”. She flexed her arms and pointed to her biceps. “I realized I need to think about how I think of boys, what I think is attractive and what I want in a partner.” She said that she realized that a man doesn’t make for a good partner or is capable just because they’re physically strong or look a certain way. Finally, one soft spoken girl approached me and, under the safe cloak of a one-on-one conversation, asked me.
“Do you think girls can help change what boys think and feel?”
My enthusiastic yes was met in the middle by her widening smile.
Together, we can change this world.
The world we live in is the world we shape.
Find our more about the White Ribbon Campaign
Higher Unlearning is an online space for us to discuss how ideas of manhood & masculinity affect us in everyday situations and scenarios. Created by Jeff Perera of the White Ribbon Campaign. Higher Unlearning allows for folks from all walks of life to contribute interactive articles, stories, testimonials, essays, photo essays and videos on how ideas of gender limit and impact us all in a variety of ways. Watch Jeff’s TEDx talk ‘Words Speak Louder Than Actions’.
Let’s encourage men to embrace being the positive influence they can be in a child’s life.
About It Starts With You
It starts with you. It stays with him. is an online-based, social media campaign developed by the White Ribbon Campaign to inspire men to promote healthy, equal relationships with the boys in their lives. Helping young people achieve consent, set boundaries, value people of all genders and use respectful communication in all their relationships is something we can all do. Learn more about the tips, tools and resources, e-modules and digital stories available online for free at www.itstartswithyou.ca
“Transformed people transform people.” – Fr. Richard Rohr