Gender Stereotypes: My Son the…Sallygirl?


What is the male equivalent of a Tomboy?

If we were to give it a term, I suppose we could use the same formula as “Tomboy”: a generic male name, followed by “boy”, but put a feminine spin on it. Janegirl, Nancygirl, and Sallygirl were the first few that came to mind. So, why don’t we use terms like this when referring to boys that like “girly” things? Well, in my experience, calling a boy a Nancy or a Sally is seen as an insult, whereas calling a girl a Tomboy can be endearing. I grew up as a tomboy, and I thought that meant I was tough, ruggedly outdoorsy, and I spoke my mind.

I don’t remember ever being put down for being a tomboy, and I was never made fun of for the way I dressed or the toys I chose to play with.

Now, I have a son. A boy who loves to play with trucks, dig in the dirt, and collect bugs. He also loves to paint his fingernails, try on my high heels and play with dolls. In the almost-five years he has been alive, my son has been free to express himself without fear of how others will perceive him, or fear of rejection. He has played dress-up at daycare with his closest friends, most of which are girls. He also loves to watch Care Bears and My Little Ponies, and isn’t ashamed to pick out books and stuffed animals of these characters. My son has been able to be who he wants to be, even if that means he likes things that go against gender norms.

target sign, 11, building sets
Can you point me to the Boy Barbie-doll aisle?

There has been more open discussion about breaking gender stereotypes in the last few years, especially in how it effects our children. And while I applaud the discussion, and the action taken by stores like Target to remove the gender-specific signage associated with children’s toys, I still feel like there is more work to be done. I say this because I’ve begun to notice how my son is perceived by others when they see him do, play or act in a stereo-typically female way. I’ve had family members make snide comments about his colored nails. A stranger at a bounce house laughed at his pink socks.

And more recently, he has become self-conscious about what he takes to school for fear of the other kids picking on him.

boy, colored beads, rainbow hat
“Mom, if I wear that hat to school, the kids will make fun of me”

As adults, we hear a lot about gender inequality, especially in the work place. I undoubtedly support women’s rights to fair wages, as well as the belief that women can do whatever job they set out to do. Our country has made great strides in women’s rights, and I believe it was recently published that more women will graduate college and attend graduate school than men. I mention this, because it is intriguing to me that, in general, we are less likely to think of men in traditionally-female roles (nurse, social worker, etc), than we are to think of women in traditionally-male roles (CEO, engineer, doctor). As a feminist, I think this is awesome! As a mom of two boys, I wish there was a more equal association among genders and careers (and interests in general!).

ben stiller, male nurse
Anyone remember how much crap he took from Mr. Focker for being a male nurse?!

Studies have shown just what I described-that gender stereotyping is more restrictive for males than it is for females.

This is being called stereotypical gender asymmetry. An example I can think of deals with clothing options; if a girl was sent to school in a cowboy hat or a shirt with ninja turtles on it, she probably can go about her day without getting teased; however, if a boy went to school wearing a tiara or a Strawberry Shortcake shirt, he is at risk of getting taunted and harassed. This isn’t right, and it makes me sad for all the boys out there who love “girlish” things. I also find it interesting to note that girls exhibit greater gender stereotype flexibility than boys. (And I have a feeling this is why my son has made more female friends than male friends).

Why do these stereotypes seem more rigid for males? Is it because of sayings like “It’s a man’s world”, and we wouldn’t want our boys to stray too far from the “superior” gender? Is it related to fear of homosexuality? I know in some communities it is.

And I hate to break it to those people, but a 3 year old boy wearing a dress does not mean he is or will be gay.

I hope we can allow our children to be who they want to be, and to express themselves in ways that they feel comfortable. I know I plan to love and support my sons, with the ultimate goal of raising caring and thoughtful members of society.

two boys, pink carriage, pink seat, frills
Just two boys. Hanging out in their pink frilly ride.


  1. Tears came to my eyes as I read this article. Thinking of Elliot, extremely intelligent, and loving, I had to smile. He is truly his own “man” and I believe he will always be that way. His emotions run deep, and he isn’t afraid to try new things. We, as parents, have a responsibility to help our children reach their full potential, no matter what that might be. I applaud you, Emily, for recognizing a very important issue, but more importantly for writing about it in a very candid manner. Your boys are fortunate to have both you and their dad to guide them into manhood; certainly not an easy task in the world we live in presently. Believe in yourselves, and ask the Lord to guide you with strength and dignity.


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