This is a post about masculine expectation and when it starts and how pervasive it is and also kind of where my character Drew Patterson came from in my novella Opening Doors.
The Boy is 11, and ever since he was 3, the first question every new adult (and most new children) in his life has asked him after introductions is, ‘What sports do you play?’
I’m small now, and I’ve been small for my age whatever age I was at the time, plus, I was a girl in the 1980s, which was kind of the advent of women’s sports being taken more seriously, so sports weren’t ever considered a ‘given’ for me, even though I do like sports, and always have. I’m a fan, anyway. I’ve never been a participant. I’m not very competitive or athletic, and while I’ve always admired athletes (men and women), I’m definitely not one. I was never asked what sports I played growing up. Not once. Even though I did play 2 seasons of soccer. And I took dance…tap and ballet…for a couple of seasons too. And I wanted the boys’ solid navy blue athletic shoes when we went shoe shopping, and I wanted the Mickey Mouse baseball shirt, not the Minnie Mouse tea party shirt when I was in preschool, and that was kind of looked upon as weird. I could feel that, even though nobody said it out loud. I wanted ‘boy’s clothes.’
And when The Boy was a baby, shopping for clothes for him, like…EVERYTHING had sports on it. I mean, I was fine with that at the time, because I like sports and always have and I liked those clothes and I always have. I wanted to wear them myself when I was little. But looking back on it now? WHY do such a huge amount of the clothes for little boys have sports on them? We set little boys up from literal birth to be athletes. Even removing the real percentage of boys who *can’t* be athletes because of physical and health limitations…it still sort of starts brainwashing children and parents that boys are supposed to play sports, whether they’re into sports or not.
And now, even now, after Title IX, and the Williams sisters dominate tennis, and the USA Women’s World Cup soccer team being the gold standard, and the WNBA…in an era when almost all of the little girls I know DO play some kind of sport or have some kind of athletic interest…and they do make girls’ clothes with sports themes now too…I’ve never actually heard a little girl asked what sports they play without them bringing them up first. My son is asked this *every time he meets a new adult.* And it’s the first question they ask him. Now, he answers, ‘I play piano,’ which I think is wonderfully smart and shaming to the asker. It’s not even something J or I taught him to do. (The things that make me proud as a mom, I know. But really.)
Boys are expected to Sports. The Boy did a season of soccer, but he just wasn’t into it, and we aren’t the kind of parents who will force him into something he doesn’t want to commit to. We asked him if he wanted to try other sports. No. He wanted piano lessons. He wants to learn things…maybe how to play more instruments in the future. He likes building with Lego and playing Minecraft. He wants to learn how to code computers like J. He wants to learn how to build and fix things like J. He wants to read books all the time like me. And he should be able to do those things and live the way he wants and like the things he likes without feeling like he’s ‘less’ than he’s supposed to be as a boy because he’s not playing the sportsball. Like he’s doing Boyhood wrong because he isn’t playing sports. And as much as we encourage him to be himself and maintain passionate interest in what he likes, regardless of social expectation, there still IS the social expectation, and The Boy is smart and adept enough at human reaction and relationships that he knows when he’s not meeting it. It bums me out that he is still repeatedly asked what sports he plays, before and above everything else he is interested in, and he must answer, knowing on some level he’s missing a mark, even though it’s an arbitrary one.
I’ve written several posts before (and arguably one entire novella) about how much I love sports. Would I like to have a son (or daughter) who was super into sports? Sure. I’d probably be that mom that cried and yelled, ‘That’s my baby!’ in the bleachers. I might even be the mom that gets warnings from umpires. But I’m neither of those moms, because that’s not who my kid is, and THAT’S OK.
I’ve written several fictional children now, boys and girls, and I’m sure I’ll write a few more before I hang it up, but I doubt I’ll ever write another kid…especially another boy…that’s closer to my real life son than Drew Patterson. I won’t spoil the entire book for those of you who haven’t read it, but Drew is an amazing kid who isn’t into sports. He’s smart and quiet and kind and deep. He’s a lot like My Boy.
When I wrote Drew, my son was my major inspiration, and part of what I wanted to write about was how a man who was traditionally into sports would handle meeting a kid like this. What would it take for a kid like Drew to grow fond of a sporty guy? And from the beginning, Drew likes Russ because Russ *doesn’t* immediately ask him what sports he plays. Russ gets to know Drew for the individual kid he is, and doesn’t make Drew believe sports participation is a compulsory piece of masculinity.
There’s a lot written, feminism wise, about the unfair and arbitrary expectations placed on girls by patriarchy, beginning in childhood…maybe even as babies, and all of those things are valid. But patriarchy ALSO places unfair and arbitrary expectations on boys and men. Boys are more than what sports they play, even the boys who are really into sports. Maybe that shouldn’t be the first (or only) question we ask them.