Cultural Stereotypes

Are you familiar with the nursery rhyme “What are little boys made of? Snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails”? According to that same rhyme, little girls are made of “Sugar and spice, and everything nice.” Many believe these firmly held stereotypes about boys and girls: boys are supposed to be scrappy, dirty, and violent, and girls are proper and delicate, possessing a sweet disposition. Lately, these old models have been demolished to make way for new ones. However, many people cling to the old models, frightened to admit that the new models even exist. But they do. And that’s a good thing, especially if you’re a teenage boy!

For one thing, you now have many more emotional and behavioral options than you used to. Typically, teenage boys often have difficulty confronting their emotions. The typical “masculine” responses to stress are anger and emotional withdrawal. Some boys cannot express their feelings in words. They’re not socialized to do so, as girls are. According to the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, many boys lack the necessary “emotiona vocabulary”—the correct way of expressing their emotions verbally via any way other than anger or aggression. However, the old model is changing in some ways. In fact, today the average teenage boy usually has the same self-esteem issues as his female counterpart.

Boys’ self-esteem issues often include height, weight, appearance (skin, posture, hair, fashion), and athletic prowess. Recent studies show that boys are just as concerned with their bodies and their appearance as girls are. Males often fall in love just as hard as girls during adolescence. Like their female counterparts, young males desire meaningful relationships, and they are looking for romance—not merely sex—within those relationships. Many boys today say that girls are the ones in the relationship who hold most of the power. Some studies even suggest that young men are more interested in romance and emotional connection than their female partners. There are more emotionally responsive young males out there than we might think.

Who Is “Different”?

If you’re an adolescent male, the likelihood is that the other kids at school aren’t very tolerant of people who are “different.” They’re “weird,” they’re “bizarre,” and worst of all, they’re exposed to ridicule. Teenagers use insults, slurs, and other verbal slings and arrows to psychologically taunt those who are different. But what does it mean to be different?

There are many ways to become the proverbial odd man out. Perhaps you’re the only member of a certain ethnic or religious group in your class. Unfortunately, while most teens know not to sink so low as to resort to ethnic or racial slurs, a small but vocal number of teens might find making fun of someone’s background to be the height of hilarity. These kind of slurs and taunts can also be a desperate and dirty shortcut to social status—one can raise one’s standing on the social ladder by tearing someone else down.

This also applies to homophobia. If you’re a gay teen, you might be the only out gay kid in your school, or maybe you’re still in the closet. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it’s common for teens to use the word “gay” as a synonym for “weak” or “lame.” They often don’t even realize how hurtful their words might be to someone who actually is gay. These slurs are also wildly inaccurate, for there is absolutely nothing weak about gay people. The struggles they face often make them, in fact, stronger and tougher than those people who do not face such daily adversity and lack of acceptance.

In many cases, your peers at school may simply need to be educated about the words they use. For example, just as “gay” can mean “weak” in adolescent slang, there are slurs regarding someone’s intelligence that refer to people with developmental disabilities. To someone who is developmentally disabled—or who has a friend or relative who is—these casually tossed and taunting words can be toxic. Similarly, the smartest kids in class will often be singled out for taunts, due to their “geeky” qualities. So, what do we learn from this?

For one thing, if everybody has something about them that singles them out for potential insults, due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, or level of academic achievement, then what is normal? Who is normal? The answer: no one. And everyone. Because if no one is normal, everyone is. How do you combat the prejudice, the ignorance, the cruel jokes made at the expense of those who don’t realize this?

The first step is to tell the people making those jokes that their words hurt you or people you care about, and that you would appreciate it if they didn’t use that sort of language. If you’ve heard anyone making threatening remarks toward people of a different race, religion, or sexual orientation—or if they’ve made those remarks to you—you should immediately contact an authority figure and tell him/her what you’ve heard. If you fear that you’ll become the victim of the people who made those threats if you report the incident, you should ask to remain anonymous.

Also, it’s a good idea to start a dialogue in your school about diversity of all kinds. Perhaps one of your teachers can help you get the discussion going. The goal here is to get students of various backgrounds to talk about their feelings and experiences and to begin an open dialogue. That way, no one will feel left out. Hopefully, everyone will come to realize that in some way each of us is “different,” that difference is enriching, and it makes the world a far more interesting and stimulating place.

Big Bully

If you’re being bullied, you should tell an adult whom you trust, whether it’s a teacher, coach, school administrator, or your parents, so that they can handle it in a professional manner.
When you’re a young child, the bully is the kid on the playground who punches the smaller, weaker children, steals their lunch money, or terrorizes them with pranks and mischief. A good example of this is the character Nelson Muntz from the TV show The Simpsons. However, as one gets older and enters junior high and high school, bullies tend to focus less on doling out physical harassment and more on figure emotional or social harm. They do this largely by targeting their victims’ worst anxieties. Especially among boys, bullies can zoom in on their targets’ nervousness about sex, sexual orientation, self-image, and perceived physical shortcomings. Adolescent boys—already prone to fears and insecurities about sex, masculinity, body image, and the like—are easy prey for these bullies.

Bullies often target victims because of their physical appearance—they may be skinny and weak or overweight, for example. Yet bullies also often focus on a victim’s race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. For this reason, bullying is a civil rights violation comparable to harassment or even a hate crime (which is a federal offense). As of this writing, forty-five states have adopted antibullying laws. If you’re being bullied, you should tell an adult whom you trust, whether it’s a teacher, coach, school administrator, or your parents, so that they can handle it in a professional manner.