We Can Do Better – Gender Stereotypes, Toxic Masculinity, and Letting Kids Be Their Authentic Selves by Joanne Levy
I’m often asked where I got the idea for FISH OUT OF WATER. I think people assume I know a kid who was discouraged from doing an activity because of their gender. They want to hear that origin story. The truth is, the seed of the idea came from something much bigger: a horrible tragedy I saw on the news that affected me profoundly and made me think, really think, about how we talk to our kids.
Flashback to April 2018: a man in Toronto rented a van and drove it into a busy neighborhood, jumping a curb and hitting the gas, murdering ten people and injuring sixteen others. The city and the country were in shock. What would make someone do this? That was the first time I’d ever heard the term ‘incel’ or ‘involuntary celibate’. I learned there is a whole subculture of men who feel embittered over the fact that they can’t find women to date/marry/hook up with. Their bitterness can, and often does, escalate to misogynist anger and these individuals can become radicalized and fuel each other’s rage when they find like-minded people on the internet.
I should be clear: my book isn’t about a man who mows down innocent victims. But after it happened, I couldn’t stop asking myself, “How are we failing our boys and men that they can become radicalized this way?” and even more: “Where does it begin?” Full disclosure – I am not a mental health professional or even an educator. But I am a human with access to media and I see much of what our kids see:
Girls and women objectified and sexualized by the media, advertisers, musicians, clothing companies.
Men and boys being told that they deserve women. Are entitled to women. That they are owed sex and relationships just by nature of being a man.
That the measure of a man is the woman (or women) on his arm – a trophy of his masculinity like a sports car or a mansion.
Men are strong. Men are competitive. Men take charge and don’t take no for an answer.
Women are less than. Women are subservient. Women are possessions. Women are meant to be thin and pretty and pleasing to men.
Think I’m being hyperbolic? Look at media aimed at teens. Look at music videos. Look at social media. Really look. Don’t see it? You’re not really looking. Here’s a shortcut: Google ‘rape culture’.
But even before kids see a lot of those things that we can all agree are damaging, kids see us. How we interact with each other and them. What we tell them about who they are and what they can and can’t do. This is where I found my story. Before the seeds begin to germinate, I wanted to nip them in the bud, to continue the metaphor.
Fish, the twelve-year-old in my book, is a boy who doesn’t like sports. He watches baseball with his grandfather because it’s expected. He needs to figure out a meaningful charity project he can do as part of his bar mitzvah. When he sees his grandmother knitting, he decides he wants to learn to knit so he can make socks for homeless kids. The problem? He gets pushback from those who are supposed to love and support him most: his grandmother, his parents, even his best friend. Fish is told knitting is for girls. Why would he want to do something girly? Does he want to be a girl? Fish is perplexed: why is knitting only for females? And though he has no desire to be a girl, why is accusing him of being one an insult? It is here that we see the impact of our subtle language, especially when based on out-dated social constructs that have zero basis in fact. Here is where we see the effects of casual sexism and misogyny. Of how we put limits on our kids based on…what? Activities that are arbitrarily assigned as appropriate for a gender? Does this make any sense? And more importantly: is it productive? Is it right? Is it how we want to pigeonhole our kids?
I’m not naïve enough to think that this book will prevent the horrors of terrible attacks on innocent victims and I recognize these incidents are thankfully rare. But I do hope that it sparks conversations with kids, parents, and educators. I hope it makes us all a bit more aware of the damaging effects of phrases like ‘man up’, ‘take it like a man’, ‘boys will be boys’, ‘she wanted it’, and so on.
FISH OUT OF WATER is a reassurance to ALL kids to be true to themselves. That they know in their hearts what’s right for them. But I also want this book to be a gut-check for grown ups. It certainly was for me when I wrote it. I didn’t realize so much of my everyday vocabulary included sexist and hurtful language but I’m working hard to excise it. I hope you will too. We can all do better. We must do better.
*Side note for you educators out there, FISH OUT OF WATER is from Orca Book Publishers’ Currents line – short and accessible books that are great for all kids but especially beginning and struggling readers. They’re typeset with lots of white space in dyslexia-friendly fonts.*
Joanne Levy is the author of FISH OUT OF WATER, DOUBLE TROUBLE, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, and the upcoming SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS. She can usually be found at her computer in rural Ontario, Canada, either creating spreadsheets (sometimes just for fun) or channeling her younger self into books. She loves doing virtual visits, though she warns there’s a good chance students will encounter a cat’s butt on the screen; her cats are often jerks. Follow Joanne on Instagram or find her at joannelevy.com.