In that masterwork of the western cannon, Fox TV’s That 70’s Show, the main character Eric Foreman is a wimp. The viewer knows he’s a wimp because of numerous running gags, including his friends mocking him for his action figures and Spiderman sheets. He is derided for his childish things, unlike another member of the gang, Jackie (a woman), whose obsession with unicorns is considered cute. This running gag is telling of a larger phenomenon, that men are expected to move on from childhood more quickly than women. While the adage, “boys will be boys” is often use to justify boys’ immature and often immoral behavior, there is another adage that I think should be used to describe a man’s relationship to adulthood: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” Boys get more leeway when it comes to issues such as inappropriate behavior, but at the same time they are expected to grow up faster than their female counterparts.
That women are infantilized by a patriarchal society is hardly a new idea, but it is most often examined from the perspective of how women are treated: the discussion focuses on instances when women are treated as children, thus denying them their agency. How the infantilized female role affects expectations for both men and women, is less often examined.
For example, it’s not uncommon for girls to have their stuffed animals through their late teens, while it’s quite rare for their male counterparts to keep their stuffed animals past the age of twelve. My bed is smattered with my collection of Webkinz from fifth grade, whereas my younger brother has a minimalist setup on his bed. His only toys kept from childhood are his collection of Legos. Girls often keep their dolls and other such toys until they move out of their parent’s homes, but boys (such as Eric Foreman) are mocked for still having action figures or toy trains from childhood. Films such as Frozen have a cult following amongst the teenage girl demographic. I have multiple friends my age who, in their free time, dress up like Disney princesses. It is perfectly appropriate (and almost expected) for teenage girls to have and do childish things.
It is apparent that our society views the feminine as childish, and vice versa. In That 70’s Show, Jackie wants to put a large number of stuffed animals in her boyfriend Kelso’s van. His response is not, “that’s childish,” but rather, “that’s girly.” Conversely, many behaviors prescribed by a traditional male role aren’t seen by men who conform to them as “macho.” Instead, they simply see them as part of being an adult.
So why do girls get to keep their childhood through their teen years but boys do not? There are two separate but related explanations. The first is the “boys don’t cry” reasoning. Boys hear from a young age that they need to be strong and grow up. Therefore, when they reach puberty they throw out “baby stuff” like stuffed animals. The second is that the male role is more “adult” than the female: men are expected to be self-sufficient, to hold productive (and preferably lucrative) jobs, and to protect and take responsibility for others, including the women they date and marry.
Either reason, the result is the same: Men throw away childish things while women are permitted to hold onto them. This inequality raises a question: are women being held to a lower standard in a sort of “sexism of low expectations,” or are men being asked to uphold an unnecessary and harmful standard?
The expectations that we have for men certainly seem to go beyond merely enforcing adult responsibility, and enter into the territory of toxic masculinity. It’s safe to say that men are being held to a needlessly high standard, and that this might be putting them under pressure to project a stressful and maybe harmful façade. On the other hand, there is something decidedly off-putting about the way women are permitted to behave childishly. Allowing women to behave childishly and avoid taking up the mantle of adult responsibilities reinforces cultural stereotypes and expectations of women as helpless, dependent and ultimately subordinate. If we are to uphold a gender-neutral standard for adulthood, a happy medium might be to permit everyone their childish idiosyncrasies, but require all adults to be able to function independently in society.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Eigerman, Elisabeth. "Man Up." 15 June 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 13, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/man-up>.