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Tomgirl or tomcat?

Until I had boys of my own, I'd never given much thought to how difficult it can be for boys who don't conform to traditional male roles in our society. Some might call them tomgirls. Others might label them gay, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Maybe I didn't think about it because I grew up with a dad who's a nurse (see yesterday's post). Maybe I was just too focused on my own attempts to buck the traditional female roles. Whatever the reason, I started thinking about it a lot when my boys began expressing their own interests.

Even though women are still not paid equally, or always treated equally within society, in many ways they have more freedom than men. We applaud women for breaking barriers (and rightfully so).

On the other hand, acceptable roles for men are much more limited. A man who chooses a career outside the norm (nurse, elementary school teacher, receptionist) faces ridicule, snickers behind his back, and epithets remarking on his sexuality. Possibly, even as we applaud him publicly.

As MaryC so eloquently stated in a comment on yesterday's post, “I think the main qualification for any job should be a passion and talent for doing it.” Exactly, but when will we get there? Probably not in my lifetime.

As a writer, I often worry about perpetuating the male sterotypes. Do I have a responsibility to push back against our society's definition of a “real man”? Will I be proud to show my own boys my work (when they're finally old enough to read it)? If I try to write something different, will anyone buy it?

In my experience (yes, myself included), most readers expect the hero of the story to be a strong, masculine character, worthy of our respect and adoration, and the heroine's love.

He's the typical alpha male, leader of the pack, oozing testosterone, sex appeal, and honor. He likes guns, beer, meat, sports, and sex. He can easily carry a woman over his shoulder while running a five-minute mile, shooting at bad guys, and bleeding from a bullet wound. Even better if he wears a uniform and is willing to martyr himself to save her. Hoo-yah!

If human strength isn't enough, there are always vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, and gods. Talk about alpha male. Eegads. What's a little boy who doesn't like toy trucks, guns, and plastic soldiers to do?

In an ideal world, everyone could like whatever they like without shame. My boys experienced such a world for a short few years while in an excellent Montessori school. It was like a little Utopia where respect for others was demanded of all students, and the children were free to be themselves without ridicule (well not out loud anyway).

But eventually, my boys had to face public school, because the rest of the world is not so understanding. I didn't want them to be sheltered from society forever, because they have to live in it. If they choose to buck it, it'll be with a full understanding of the consequences, fair or not.

I hope my own boys won't be afraid to be true to themselves.

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The Sunday Squirrel: the bet

“I'll bet you a million dollars your dad's not a nurse.”

Belinda didn't know how to respond to the girl she'd just met in her new school. “Then you owe me, because he is. That's why the Army moved us here.”

“Men can't be nurses,” Kelly stated as if she knew what she was talking about. “You mean he's a doctor.” Kelly's friends snickered and bobbed their ponytails in agreement.

“I know the difference,” Belinda said. “My dad's a nurse. He just finished college for it.” It had been kind of boring at Daddy's ceremony, but everyone clapped when he stood up to speak. Mommy said it was because he got such good grades and everyone was proud of him.

Belinda was proud of him too. Her dad was smart, and handsome, and fun to be with. And he was definitely a nurse.

“You're a liar,” Kelly said. “I'm going to tell Mrs. Reardon.” She turned and stalked off, her troupe of friends in pastel skirts following closely.

“Okay.” Belinda went back to doing pullovers on the bar like she'd learned in gymnastics.

Obviously, Kelly was not going to be a friend. Belinda didn't bother with stupid people.

Today's Squirrel was inspired by a conversation I had on the playground more than 25 years ago about my own father, who is retiring from the Navy nurse corps next month. I've had the good fortune to meet many male nurses over the years. They are nothing like the stereotypes perpetuated by the little bit of popular culture that even bothers to consider the possibility. Even the TV show Heroes–which I applauded for having a main character who was a male nurse that wasn't gay, creepy, effeminate, or evil–buckled to social mores and brought Peter back as an EMT in later seasons.

I challenge you to question your own ideas about “men's work”. No one blinks twice at female doctors, engineers, or police officers anymore, but in the so-called “caring professions” where women are the majority, men still have a long way to go to gain social acceptance.

Thanks for reading!

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