Masculine stereotypes cripple boys, says Michele Landsberg

Michele Landsberg, who has spent so much of her award-winning journalism career as a crusading feminist, urged future teachers to counter pervasive and “toxic” masculine stereotypes when educating boys.

“Teaching is a transformative art,” the honorary degree recipient told Faculty of Education graduands at York’s Tuesday afternoon convocation. “In the last two decades we’ve helped transform the way girls are acculturated in schools.” Thanks to the women’s movement, teachers began confronting sexism — from sports to math to medicine – and girls have soared in achievement. Now there is a political backlash and calls to “remasculinize” schools.

Right: Canadian journalist and activist Michele Landsberg

“We in Canada don’t seem to realize that our popular culture, one that sneers at intellectuals and glorifies hockey, worships competition, sanctifies wealth and exalts consumerism, is toxic to boys learning,” said the children’s advocate and social justice crusader to a round of applause under the big white tent. “Masculinism, the need to be tough, be macho, be unattached emotionally, be competitive and aggressive and identify only with physically dominant heroes, that’s crippling to boys,” she continued. “No boy is born that way. Boys may be born with exuberant physical energy but it’s not energy to dominate others until we teach them to be that way,” said the mother and grandmother. “I know so many boys and men who are nothing like the masculinist stereotype — men who love music, books, their friends; men who work for social justice and in caring for the young. Why do we allow crude macho stereotypes to prevail without question when they are a travesty of maleness in a way we would not permit stereotypes of women as, say, blond bimbos?

“Since our four-year-old grandson has been in nursery school, we’ve been thunderstruck by the aggressive subculture of middle class boys, the dominance of competitive team sports and violent role models like Power Rangers,” said Landsberg, wife of Stephen Lewis, special United Nations envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and mother of filmmaker and journalist Avie Lewis. “It’s fueled strictly by commercialism. Parents can tell you that you can’t buy a pair of toddler’s underpants or pajamas that aren’t emblazoned with ferocious football or hockey players or scowling superheroes,” she said. “I believe these heroes are a torment to little boys who desperately seek to live up to them and then get scolded and punished for trying to emulate the examples we so carelessly put before them.”

Left: Landsberg is congratulated by York University Chancellor Peter Cory

“The last thing we need to do is add more of this toxic brew of violence to the school environment,” concluded Landsberg. “Researchers in England have already shown that conscientiously anti-sexist teachers who do everything in their power to deconstruct and demolish gender stereotypes for both sexes are the best possible instruments for positive change.

“Gender or racial stereotypes of any kind are a straightjacket for the minds of the young,” she said. “You will have the power and the possibility to set those minds free.” She challenged her audience: “Use your power with kindness, imagination and empathy and all of society will be in your debt.”