SINGAPORE: Playing with Barbie dolls and a great love for reading got Elliot Tan into a whole lot of trouble in school.
He remembered how he was constantly bullied and ended up being the butt of many jokes.
“As a kid, I loved playing with Barbie dolls. My mom bought me a Barbie doll when I was in Primary 3. I had it for a while until I realised that it wasn’t the manly thing to do.
“They’d make fun of me for the Barbie doll, they’d make fun of me for not playing sports. I was a tiny kid, I didn’t like dabbling in that (sports) and I always lost,” said Mr Tan, now 26.
He recounted how his aggressive peers also used to snatch his books away from him.
“That was one way in which they would assert their dominance. They’d take my stuff and throw it away. Or they would tear up the book in front of me,” he added.
Mr Tan readily admitted that he is the complete opposite of what one would typically consider a ‘manly’ man – masculine, tough and assertive. “In no way was I a manly man, and I don’t think I am still,” he said.
You could call Mr Tan the victim of gender policing, which is the act of imposing gender roles based on one’s perceived sex. It includes pressuring these individuals to adopt certain appearances, mannerisms, hobbies and so on.
In a programme about gender stereotypes, Talking Point discusses the effects of gender policing on boys and whether the traditional notion of what it means to be a man, especially in Singapore, has evolved over the years. (Watch the episode here.)
‘BE A MAN’, DO THE ‘RIGHT’ THING
In Singapore, gender policing is more common than one would think – a recent survey by gender equality group Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research) showed that 9 in 10 boys here experienced some form of gender policing when they were in secondary school, and the most common forms of pressure are being told to “man-up” and to “take it like a man”.
The same boys who had been pressured to be more gender-conforming were four times more likely to commit violence, and six times more likely to experience violence from other boys. They were also likely to have lower self-esteem.
Some 809 boys aged 17 and 18 from junior colleges, polytechnics and ITEs were surveyed on their experiences during secondary school.
The Aware survey - which was conducted after a campaign to end violence against women - found that men, too, “were victims of violence because of gender stereotyping”.
The producers of Talking Point showed a group of teenagers some gender stereotypical statements such as ‘Man up! Stop being such a girl!’, ‘Don’t be weak!’ and ‘Take it like a man!’ and asked if these phrases were used on themselves or on their peers.
Their responses suggested that these phrases were commonly used among teenagers. One teenage boy said: “I see it a lot. It takes a psychological toll on them, it’s not a very nice thing to say and it’s hurtful.”
Another girl recounted that when she was in primary school, she witnessed a boy reprimanding another: “Don’t cry, don’t be such a girl”.
Aware’s head of advocacy and research Ms Jolene Tan pointed out in the survey: “There’s an overwhelming connection between boys facing the pressure to be ‘manly’ and boys using physical violence as well as verbal and social cruelty on one another.”
CONFUSED, THEY BECOME AGGRESSIVE
Mr Muhd Haikal, a clinical psychologist with ImPossible Psychological Services explained that when boys are told not to cry or behave like a girl, they may go to the other extreme - by bottling up their emotions and even becoming aggressive.
And while gender policing has been around for a long time, teenagers these days face the added pressure from social media. “There’s this competition which the previous generation did not have,” he added.
Parents and teachers play a crucial role. “I would suggest… telling them that there is a time and place for everything. There is a time where you can cry, there is a time where you can seek help. There are times where you can be strong and be a determined person,” he said.
They are trying to achieve their sense of identity. They want to feel good about themselves. But try to not do it in a way where it would cause harm to someone else.
Family and marital therapist Mr Benny Bong advocated an attitude of acceptance. "And acceptance might also mean that though you might be different from me, this doesn’t mean you are wrong."
GENDER ROLES CHANGING?
Indeed, gender roles have blurred as society progresses, with stay-at-home dads, men in make-up and SNAG (sensitive new age guys) becoming commonplace.
But have our men broken free from the traditional ‘manly’ attributes and roles or are they still bound by gender stereotypes, ingrained from young?
In the programme, five children between the ages of 10 and 12 were each asked to draw a person with the following traits - strong, tough, brave, powerful and doesn’t cry.
Interestingly, 4 out of the 5 children associated the traits with men. Qayyum, 11, who drew a picture of Captain America, said: “I drew a boy because they watch horror movies a lot, exercise and they do not get terrified easily.”
The exception, Collin, a 10-year-old girl, said she drew Wonder Woman because she’s very brave and strong, adding that “I feel that girls are very strong and independent”.
For Mr Fandy Razak, the decision to be a stay-at-home dad for his two sons raised a few eyebrows, especially with his mother-in-law who was initially uncomfortable with the arrangement.
It’s kind of hard. Initially, she threw funny looks at me and I could feel it,
“She was wondering why was this guy always at home and he’s always in front of the computer and it seems like he’s not being very productive,” said Mr Fandy whose wife, a teacher, is the main breadwinner.
Aside from the weekends when he works as a photographer, he takes on the default parenting role on weekdays, ferrying the kids to school, playing and doing their school work with them.
He certainly feels that his sacrifice has paid off, with ample time to bond with his kids. And over time, his mother-in-law has also learnt to accept the couple’s arrangement.
“My wife has explained it to her carefully. Now she understands the nature of my job and I think she appreciates me being around. I enjoy being with my sons so much. I wouldn’t have it any other way, that I get to shape them in their formative years,” he said.
Mr Fandy feels that there’s less stigma against his kind of role today compared to the past where most men would not choose this route.
“Everyone’s kind of having a hard time trying to keep up with the cost of living and creating opportunities for their children and families.
“I think now, we don’t have time to think about our egos or about our typical role that we are supposed to play,” he said.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes every Thursday at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.