During the 2014 Superbowl, Always, makers of feminine care products debuted with a 60-second advertisement that showed how people perceived the phrase "like a girl". The ad won kudos for turning the phrase from an insult to an empowering message. Last year, Dabur Gulabari shattered stereotypes with a social experiment on 'why should tough girls look tough'? The video featured a girl mountaineer, Jahnavi Sriperumbuduru, who had climbed the highest peaks in Africa and Europe.
It's no surprise that India is witnessing the rapid rise and success of the Sindhus, Sanias and Sainas, in their respective fields along with the Phogat sisters, made famous thanks to the Bollywood movie, Dangal. Today, we are more likely to tell our daughters that they can be anyone they want- an astronaut, a boxer and a mother. We are raising them to fight stereotypes and pursue their dreams.
And that's great news!
But are we doing the same for our boys?
The favourite part of being a parent to a 9-year old girl and 5-year old boy is watching movies. Most children's movies, I noticed, are about the journey of a boy (or a male) who beats the challenges and wins. Think Shrek, Po the Panda and Woody the Sheriff. Or Shaktiman, Chotta Bheem, Kisna. If you are a girl, then you are most likely a princess in distress waiting to be rescued, of course by a male.
All this sends a message, that we are locked inside "a man-box". A man-box is a rigid set of expectations and perceptions of what is "manly" behaviour.
Social scientist Keith Edwards describes it as, 'Traditional Hegemonic Definition of Masculinity', a wordy way of describing the external expectations of men that society places on us - being strong, authoritative, competitive, in control and not vulnerable. It is "hegemonic" in that it places men above other genders.
Most of us have lived our lives in a man-box, without even knowing it existed. At a very young age, boys are taught the language and traits that align them with society's concept of what it means to be a man.
Even as we are giving girls more choices for the roles they play, a boy's world is still boxed into expectations placed on them by virtue of their gender. There is a misconception that boys are gender exempt from burdening stereotypes and societal pressures. But in truth, boys face a complicated and more painful conflict - being told to fit into a hyper-masculine and misogynistic mould. They must mask their emotions. "Be a man" and "don't cry" are common phrases handpicked from a basket of ego-damaging constructions. They are discouraged from having interests like a natural love for art, theatre or dancing. If they dare to, they are immediately boxed up and called "sissy".
Who says that boys can't do something just because they are boys?
If a girl loves playing with Transformers and racing cars, why should boys be denied playing with a kitchen set? If a girl wears blue, why should boys be shamed for wearing pink? Gender has nothing to do with toys or the colour of clothes.
The majority of marketing for children's products reinforce these narrow gender stereotypes. A study of advertisements broadcasted on UK television by the Let Toys Be Toys campaign group revealed that ads featuring vehicles, action figures and construction sets featured boys. The children in the ads were shown as active and aggressive, with the language emphasising power and conflict.
The girls appeared in ads for dolls, focused around glamour, grooming and relationships. There was also a contrast in how the girls behaved when compared with the boys, as they were relatively passive.
This study comes after Toys R Us recently dropped gender-based marketing, following similar moves by Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Boots and Sainsbury's.
Similarly, retailers like Target are making changes to their offerings with unisex T-shirts with slogans like "Smart & Strong" and "Future Astronaut." Even Zara launched a collection for teens called "Ungendered" which focuses on basics like T-shirts, sweatshirts and jeans.
Years of stereotyped thinking is hurting us all today. We are encouraging young children to judge and interact with others in highly stereotyped ways.
Why are boys not supposed to cry? As babies, boys and girls cry just the same. If our daughters are allowed to be human beings, then why should boys be robotic and not allowed to express other feelings? The 'Save the boy child' video interestingly addressed gender discrimination with the message 'Save the boy child and our girls won't need saving'.
Why can't boys be in fashion? Sabyasachi and Manish Malhotra have made India one of the most fashionable nations.
Why should boys cook? Tell that to Sanjeev Kapoor and Vikas Khanna, the most respected chefs in something considered a 'woman's domain'.
A recent advertisement from Brooke Bond Red Label cutely takes on this bias with a powerful message - Boys who make tea; are the boys that girls love.
Nishchay Luthra is representing India's hopes in figure skating at next year's Winter Olympics and Amir Shah is hailed as India's 'Billy Elliot'. Both are pursuing their dreams without the customary, 'bleed blue'.
We have begun to raise our daughters like our sons, but it will never work until we also start to raise our sons like our daughters.
It's time to break stereotypes once again... this time for the boys!
(The author is senior vice-president, strategy, Contract Advertising. With over two decades of cross-cultural experience across India and Asia, he is inspired by culture, technology and long distance running. The views expressed are the author's independent views and do not reflect the organisation's or publication's viewpoint.)First Published : August 21, 2017