New Research Debunks the Myth of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’
The phrase “boys will be boys” is used rather liberally to justify toxic male masculinity. From normalizing aggression to passing lewd comments, everything is allowed because it’s just typical male behavior that won’t change. If you say something enough, it begins to sound a lot like the truth, compelling people to police their own behavior than expecting others to change.
So here is a timely reminder around any and every claim along the lines of “boys will be boys” or “girls are girly”: these are mere cultural myths based on generations of patriarchal mores. A new study even goes as far as to add a scientific lens to this rhetoric, showing by way of experiments and statistics how untrue these purported truths are.
Published in the European Journal of Personality, the study found that, contrary to popular belief, there are hardly any “girlish girls” or “boyish boys” existing around us. They are merely oversimplifications of the “gender binary,” which itself is a myth, of course, by virtue of gender not being a binary construct.
The researchers based their findings on an analysis of the personalities, values, cognitive abilities, academic achievements, and educational tracks of more than 4,100 16-year-olds from Finland. The objective of the study was to find out whether one being gender-typical in one way also translates into them being gender-typical in other ways. The conclusion: no, it does not.
“There were no prototypically boyish boys or girlish girls… At the level of the individual, some boys will be very boyish in more ways than one, but there are no general population-level trends that would give credence to the ‘boys will be boys’ phrase,” said Ville-Juhani Ilmarinen from the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki, who was the first author of the study. “[B]oys who were very boyish in terms of personality were not more likely to be very boyish also in terms of their values, school grades, educational track, or cognitive profile. Our results can contribute to the discussion on… what is considered gender-normative and non-normative,” Ilmarinen added.
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The phrase “boys will be boys” then has no truth to it; it’s more of a weapon in the arsenal of rape apologists, than a scientific fact. Similarly, a “girly girl” is also mostly a mythical construct — much like unicorns. Perhaps, this is something Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was unaware of when she said on Koffee With Karan she prefers to hang out with male friends simply since she can’t bring herself to have “typically girly conversations” with women.
The one area where the participants tended to be most gender-typical was in academics — or, to be more specific, in their tracks for secondary education. One explanation for this might be the fact that gender stereotypes in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field — which is often considered a “manly” domain — actively discourage women from pursuing it, as research has shown. The gender-conformity in one’s academic choices, then, seems more to do with cultural stereotypes than biological factors.
Interestingly, one discovery that emerged from the study was that a girl was more likely to be “girlier” — or align with traditional constructs of femininity — than a boy was to be “boyish.” Explaining this finding, Ilmarinen said that “boys had more variation in how boyish or girlish their values, cognitive ability, and grades were. This means that two randomly selected boys would be more different in terms of how boyish they were in these areas, with two randomly selected girls being more similar in the extent to which they were girlish.”
Whether women are more gender-conforming is a result of more pressure on them to be ‘”proper,” which itself is considered more “girly.” This is a loaded word, associated with more feminine traits like modesty, passivity, and people-pleasing. But this aspect was largely unexplored in the research; it is entirely possible, though, that women are conditioned to be more “girly” than being wired to be so.
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As Dr. Teyhou Smyth, therapist and professor at Pepperdine University, had explained, “The pressure that women feel to be people-pleasers is very real… Young girls are told to be quiet and pleasant, to be orientated towards others, to not speak up for what they want, and to please others. These gender-based stereotypes are continuously reinforced in our society.”
Men, too, are expected to subscribe to toxic ideals of masculinity — like being “stoic, strong, hard workers, and protectors.” But whether or not the pressure to adhere is lesser — even marginally, given that we live in a patriarchal society that seeks to advantage men, after all — is yet another fact that wasn’t explored by the researchers. Further research could, perhaps, shed some light on it to check whether it is at all a viable hypothesis for the variance in gender-conformity between cis-gendered men and women.
“…there are plenty of Neanderthals who believe that men are innately aggressive and driven by some sort of Darwinist need to conquer and dominate — women, and other men. That it is the natural order,” Kristi Faulkner, a founding partner of an organization that rates companies’ commitments to equality, had written in Forbes in 2019. The present study’s value, perhaps, lies primarily in debunking this pervasive idea.
And so, it’s high time we retired the adage of “boys will be boys” and attempted to move towards a world where there is greater accountability and less expectation of gender conformity.