Boys Don't Cry
Updated: Apr 30
The narrative of our identities starts before we’re born, based heavily on whether we are a boy or girl. Early classification of gender allows us to immediately position infants in gendered contexts (clothes, colours, toys, etc.) that reflect the adult world they will one day join. This strong emphasis on gender difference is quickly adopted by children themselves who increasingly pay attention to same-sex models and imitate gendered behaviours as they grow older (Smith, 1994).
One notable consequence is the gendered socialisation of risk-taking versus help-seeking behaviour, which begins in early infancy. Restrictive emotionality in infancy reduces the ability to identify and communicate emotion (alexithymia) later in life (Kraemer, 2000; Möller-Leimkühler, 2003; Cusack Deane, Wilson & Ciarrochi, 2006); in contrast, less restrictive emotionality encourages greater help-seeking behaviour and less risk-taking behaviour, ultimately lowering mortality rates.
Suicide is 3 to 4 times more common in men than in women and yet men are less likely to be treated for a mental health problem (see Samaritans, 2009; GRO-Scotland, 2011; isd-Scotland, 2011; Mental Health Foundation, 2012; Scot-PHO, 2012). It could be that men are simply under-diagnosed (Mental Health Foundation, 2012), being that they are less likely to disclose emotional information, and negative emotion in particular, such as sadness, anxiety, fear, and depression (Cross & Madson, 1997). Major depression underlies the majority of suicides, but its association with femininity discourages men from seeking help. Stereotypes of masculinity, defined in terms of competition and independence, simply do not allow for the expression of depression (Cross & Madson, 1997; Möller-Leimkühler, 2003).
Thus, rather than seek help, ‘male-appropriate’ behaviours such as anger, aggressiveness, impulsiveness, and drug and alcohol abuse are often adopted (Möller-Leimkühler, 2003) – also major risk factors in suicide (NHS Choices, 2011). 80% of British people dependent on alcohol are men, as are almost 75% of those dependent on cannabis, and 69% on other illegal drugs (Mental Health Foundation, 2012).
It is the attitude that males are inherently more resilient than females, or must be made to be, that leads to these maladaptive coping strategies, and greater suicide rates – a function of the male reluctance to expose and explore their emotions (Kraemer, 2000; Möller-Leimkühler, 2003).
Most at risk are the “boys who don’t talk.” They become “ashamed of being ashamed,” and try to stop feeling anything … leading to misjudgement of risk.
(Kraemer, 2000, p.1610)
‘Male-appropriateness’ is rigidly enforced, resulting in less flexibility when it comes to cross-gender behaviour relative to girls (Lobel & Menashri, 1993). Consider, for example, how people respond to boys that play with girls’ toys: reactions are often negative, ranging from pity to ridicule to anger, to the extent that to encourage ‘feminine’ qualities in a boy is believed to amount to child abuse. Meanwhile, dual experience of male- and female-appropriate toys, activities, and clothes is largely accepted in girls, reflected in adulthood.
Though studies have reported no actual emotional differences between males and females in the first year of life (Möller-Leimkühler, 2003; Donovan, Taylor, & Leavitt, 2007), adults tend to perceive differences in the same behaviour based simply on the label ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ (Condry & Condry, 1976). This reflects a confirmation bias because the same behaviour is interpreted differently, in accordance with gender stereotypes. Crying, for example, is often deemed more acceptable in females and tends to be perceived as evidence of vulnerability (Donovan et al., 2007). Negative emotion in males is met with less recognition and response, which underpins the gendered socialisation of emotion, i.e., the tendency for females to express more emotionality, whilst males become more constricted and tend to greatly inhibit the expression of emotion with age (Donovan et al., 2007).
What is the sex of the child depicted in this picture? If I told it was male, would that influence how you perceived the facial expression? Evidence suggests that it would.
To examine these expectancy effects on perception, the labelling technique, which involves dressing an infant in gender-neutral clothing and labelling it either male or female, has been adopted (Donovan et al., 2007; Pomerleau, Malcuit, Turgeon, & Cossette, 1997).
Condry and Condry (1976), for example, attempted to determine whether adults would rate an infant’s behavioural responses to toys differently based on gender label. An infant labelled a boy was perceived as gaining more pleasure and as less fearful. Adults rated negative emotion as anger, but when the infant was labelled a girl, rated it as fear. Manipulating gender label was sufficient to affect how emotional responses were interpreted, with males observing larger differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ infants.
But what about actual infant behaviour? Burnham and Harris (1992) labelled two male and two female infants according to their actual sex, and two male and two female infants according to the opposite sex, predicting that both real and labelled gender would influence judgements of infants. Infants given male names were described as more masculine and stronger than infants given female names. Appropriately labelled male infants were perceived as less sensitive, more playful, more of a ‘problem’, and more mature than appropriately labelled female infants. In a separate study, Burnham and Harris (1992) asked participants to make gender judgements about unlabelled infants. Participants were correct about actual gender 75% of the time, showing that infants display sex-typed characteristics from a very early age – though no conclusions are drawn here about the biological versus social causes of such differences (see here, here, and here, if you're interested).
Despite evidence of key differences in the way boys and girls are socialised, assumptions continue to be made about the biological roots of gender differences. It can be argued that it is the assumption that “boys will be boys” that leads to higher mortality rates and the tendency to ignore male vulnerability and stressors (Kraemer, 2000), many of which might be reduced if appropriate emotional expression was encouraged rather than ignored. The current assumptions about sex and gender place males into roles that discourage help-seeking behaviours and encourage risk-taking behaviours. Even when help is needed and available, men resist seeking it for fear of losing status, control, and autonomy, damaging their male gender identity (Möller-Leimkühler, 2003).
If healthy expression of emotion can be encouraged, it could reduce premature death and suicide rates in men. Most important is that we understand that to strip males and females of gender stereotypes is not to make them gender-neutral, and more specifically, does not make males ‘weaker’, but encourages the tolerance of otherwise sex-typed behaviours and emotional expression in both sexes.
For the record, that picture is a picture of me, and I'm female.