Co-authored with Krista Smith, M.A.T. and Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D.
In my Psychology Today blog, I recently wrote about the question plaguing pop culture all summer: What does it mean to be ‘Kenough’? Aside from endless social media content it has inspired, the Barbie movie raises this important question.
Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film reignited social commentary on the world’s most famous doll and the gendering of everything bubblegum-pink, pomp, and perky. So, if your newsfeed seemed particularly pink lately, you can thank the summer of Barbie, Ken, and all their Mattel friends.
But beyond the doll’s glamour and gloss lies a necessary conversation about insidious assumptions society imposes on children - the gender binary they are expected to conform to, the ‘blue’ versus ‘pink’ colors they are expected to like, and the distinct men and women they are expected to become. Although gender dichotomy has become increasingly outdated in modern discourse, culture wars and gender-based legislation sweeping the country have proven that in red versus blue cities and states, many are still thinking in pink versus blue. It is also no secret that American kids are plagued by a crisis of mental health. Links between endless scrolling through social media, body image, and depression, especially among girls, are well-documented. Yet, boys, when compared to girls, disproportionately experience harsh discipline in schools, insufficient socioemotional learning, and risk of increased loneliness. Centuries of stereotypical masculinity have been compounded by social media and pop culture, reinforcing the male imperative to have a strong physique, preserve dominance, and suppress certain emotions.
The boys are not alright, but how did that come to be?
Baseball bats, trucks, and confetti in various shades of blue set the stage for a ubiquitous symbol of boyhood in American culture, but somewhere along the way ideals of strength, stoicism, and dominance seep under boys’ skin with a blunt message: only certain emotions matter and should be expressed. Anger, aggression, and contempt have permission to be felt, while anxiety and sadness generally do not.
Gender socialization is the process by which children absorb what it means to be a boy and later a man from what they hear, directly and indirectly, and see. In American society, all are participants in social scripts that introduce biological sex with assumed gender identity, from sports we encourage children to play to clothes we assume they will like.
While mainstream media has increasingly introduced characters that reject gender binaries or the toxicity of masculine stereotypes by displaying vulnerable, sympathetic relationships like that seen in Ted Lasso, this form of ‘soft masculinity’ remains an exception. Nonetheless, it depicts
what is actually possible for friendships regardless of sex or gender: sensitivity without judgment. Research interviews show that boys do, in fact, crave “deep depth” friendships with other boys. In early and middle adolescence, they want to share secrets and have trusting friendships - other boys that will not betray them or laugh at them in vulnerable moments. But by late adolescence, the status quo kicks in. American culture, specifically, prides itself on hyper-masculinity.
While signs of affection and platonic intimacy between men may be common in other regions of the world, such scenes are affronts to masculinity in the United States. Thus, boys become increasingly distrustful and shed their friendships in favor of emotional isolation as they near adulthood.
Toys That Teach Boys How to ‘Be Boys’
American gender politics are fraught with tension and opinion. Other countries such as Canada and Denmark have made strides in integrating the nonbinary into their everyday life, while America continues to suffer setbacks from the politicization of gender. Regardless of differences in how we choose to raise children depending on their sex, neurologically there are few differences between males’ and females’ capacities for emotional closeness and empathy.
Females are socialized with permission to have and express certain emotions. This permission ignites their empathetic trajectory and emotional skill sets in a way that males typically do not experience.
Furthermore, there are consequences for the ways in which toys are marketed based on gender and how children are socialized to play. And research shows that television continues to portray boys as being more verbally and physically aggressive than girls as well as prioritizing sex over emotion. The notion that boys desire intimate friendship has been ignored by our culture at large simply because such expressions are categorized into the ‘pink’ bucket of gender stereotypes: emotional intimacy has been assigned a sex (female) and sexuality (non-heterosexual).
For boys to reveal any sensitivity is to implicitly signal that they are queer or girly. Their emotions may matter, but only certain, socially acceptable ones. Thus ushers in a trend of boys that enter school less prepared socially and behaviorally, take longer to adapt, and experience more challenges in learning.
Altogether, this sets the stage for any boyhood to falter under the weight of societal messaging and pressure, and it will take parents, educators, and stakeholders alike to support our children through it.
In short, boys will be the boys we give them permission to be.
How to 'Disrupt The Cycle'? At the end of the day, emotions are for boys too. The solution is to neither shame budding masculinity nor an affinity for femininity, but to empower them regardless. Boys, and all individuals regardless of sex or gender, need and want intimacy; they need, and want, to feel. Emotional intelligence, and the intimacy and sensitivity it enables, is a human skill, not reserved for any one gender. It is the ability to understand, regulate, and express emotions to the benefit of close relationships and overall well-being. Friendships for all children are a source of self-worth, validation, and connectedness. Thus, naming and harnessing the power of emotional intelligence provides all children with the skillset to connect.
Getting Started With Emotional Intelligence
For parents, guardians, or any stakeholder in a child's life, we have a few tips:
1. Take advantage of everyday opportunities to challenge gender assumptions. Whether you are watching TV, on social media, or at the dinner table with your child, you can speak up and disrupt the cycle of unhealthy stereotypes they may otherwise believe. Call out gender biases whenever you see them and call in actions that defy the status quo. You can champion what it means to Think Equal.
2. Honor your emotions and your child's. Ask them how they feel often and validate their emotions. If they are sad or disappointed, get curious about their emotions rather than suggesting they change how they feel or ‘suck it up’. Welcome your child’s emotions openly and without judgment, and they will learn from your reaction.
3. It starts with you: Model skillful emotional intelligence. Emotions hold important pieces of data that guide the decisions we make, the people we approach, and the way we respond to daily setbacks or opportunities. Whether you are a parent, mentor, or other stakeholder in the life of a boy, the most vital way they can learn to understand their emotions is by watching you do the same. We recommend using the How We Feel app. Guided by research conducted at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, this app helps all individuals identify specific emotions and use regulation strategies.
Beyond ‘Just Ken’
Everyone has been crippled by stereotypes and patriarchal fiction that enforce a false equation: less emotion and more suppression equates to worth and success. As psychologist Eric FitzMedrud explains,
Women have articulated many new ways to be a woman. Men have yet to embrace a multifaceted model of manhood.
After all, Barbie evolved. To challenge stereotypes that the doll once reinforced, she became much more than her pink skirts and ponytail; she became a doctor, astronaut, and presidential candidate. Now, what about Ken?
Investing in the emotional evolution - or, perhaps, revolution - of our boys is investing in the success of every aspect of their lives; the lives of the fathers, guardians, and mentors many may become, and all those they will share spaces with.