Photo courtesy: sdminor81
“The man on the Clapham Omnibus” is a phrase that’s used to refer to the hypothetical reasonable person, the individual whose views represent those of the average man or woman on the street. It’s shorthand for the voice of public opinion.
If that’s the case, it seems to me that a conversation I recently witnessed while sitting on a London bus (though it must be said, not one going to Clapham, or between two men), has alarming implications for society’s attitudes to boys.
Opposite me was a heavily pregnant mother, who looked to be in her early 30s, sitting next to her was her son, who I’d say was about seven or eight years old.
Beside me was an older woman, perhaps in her 50’s. The two women were chatting away about this and that, the little boy sitting quietly, occasionally gently touching his mum’s heavily pregnant stomach.
'Girls are nice, sugar and spice'
After a lull in the conversation, the older woman turned to the little boy and said: “Would you like a brother or sister?”
Without hesitating, the boy replied confidently: “A sister.”
The woman replied: “Girls are nice,” then rubbing her eyes mockingly, “boys cry all the time, bleuurgh!” before adding: “Girls are nice, sugar and spice.”
The mother agreed, telling her friend: “You’re right, too.”
Simply common sense?
The older woman then turned to the little boy again and said: “But I’m sure if you have a little brother, you’d like him too.”
The boy sat quietly as the two women began chatting again about work.
As I listened to the exchange, and watched the little boy quietly absorbing it, I wondered what impact this must have had on him?
The conversation between the mother and her friend was so casual -- as if they were simply discussing a matter of common sense – that it seemed reasonable to suppose it wouldn’t have been the first or the last time he’d heard the sentiment.
How would he process this constant drip-drip of the idea that his “boyness” was somehow inferior and something to be ashamed of?
I also tried to turn the conversation on its head, to re-run it as if it were a father and his friend discussing an unborn daughter.
I was struck by my own reaction to this thought experiment -- the idea of two men openly discussing in front of their daughter how unpleasant girls are, was immediately offensive.
In contrast the women clearly felt their conversation was one that was perfectly acceptable to have in public, something you wouldn’t expect anyone to disagree with.
It can be a dangerous game to cherry-pick overheard conversations and use them as evidence of deeper cultural undercurrents, but at the same time, there are things that people simply do not say openly because they realise the condemnation they’d open themselves up to.
And the fact that the “What are little boys made of?” nursery rhyme is both so long-standing and trips so easily off the tongue, suggests that their conversation does have a deeper significance.
There are also high-profile mothers who have been happy to publicly express disdain for their unborn sons.
In 2012, Esther Walker wrote in the Daily Mail about her grave disappointment on learning she was to have a baby boy.
'Boring, selfish men'
She wrote: “Please don’t condemn me. I know very little about boys, coming from a family of all girls, but what I have seen I really haven’t liked. Boys are gross; they attack their siblings with sticks, are obsessed with toilets, casually murder local wildlife and turn into disgusting teenage boys and then boring, selfish men.”
Then in June of this year, Z-list celebrity Josie Cunningham said she kept on drinking and smoking heavily during her pregnancy, because she found out her baby was to be a boy -- comparing having a boy with driving a Ford, while having a girl was like owning an Audi.
Without doubt, there’s a huge element of prurience and deliberate provocation to both of these stories, but it’s hard to imagine any male columnist writing about his disdain at the thought of having a daughter, and neither story triggered any particular outrage as examples of ingrained sexism, which they surely would have done had the genders been reversed.
It goes without saying that the vast majority of parents are thrilled with their pregnancy and new-born child – regardless of gender.
And neither is it unusual or reprehensible to have a quiet fondness to complete a family with a baby of the opposite gender of the one already born, or for a father or mother to hanker after a baby of their own sex to share their own gendered experiences with.
But what’s disturbing is the openness of the disdain expressed in each of these examples -- the fact that it seems somehow more publicly acceptable to feel and think this way about boys.
The most dangerous prejudices are the ones that go un-challenged.
If boys are already expected to be “a problem” before they are even born, how will this affect the way they are treated by parents and teachers as they grow up?
By Dan Bell
What do you think? Are there unchallenged and unrecognised prejudices against boys? Does society expect less of boys than girls? Does this have an impact on how boys see themselves? Tell us what you think in a comment or a tweet.