Editor’s note: This op-ed originally appeared on USA Today.
At the height of the recent holiday gift season, I stopped short leafing through a newspaper circular from our local Kohl’s department store.
As an early childhood educator with 40-plus years of experience, I caught some not-so-subtle messaging coming through in a Carter’s T-shirt ad for toddlers and young children.
There was a cute little girl in a pink shirt with a cat imprinted on the front. In a shot beside her was a little boy with a cocky expression whose Tee announced him, in blue print, as “Mr. Macho.”
Last year will be long remembered as the one that unleashed a torrent of accusations about sexual abuse against women. Men from all levels of government, entertainment, sports, media, finance and even academia have been exposed as sexual predators. This behavior, which has left untold numbers of women feeling violated, is also destroying the careers of many men — some in the prime of life.
Granted, newspaper circulars are an innocuous outlet — most people toss them into the recycling bin. And not every item made by Carter’s is pushing gender stereotypes. But the boy’s posturing, along with the message on his shirt, conveys “future master of the universe.”
Many adults — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — will have bought the shirt as a present for a boy they love, turning a young child into a walking billboard for the type of boorish behavior and self-regard that has led to many a predatory encounter between the sexes.
Consider what lessons these messages could instill in our children
Consciously or unconsciously, parents and relatives may encourage macho behavior to go with the shirt:
- Are the boy’s other birthday and holiday gifts, however lovingly given, toys that promote war and violence?
- Do his favorite video games denigrate girls and women?
- Does he bond with the males in his family by watching extreme contact sports such as hockey, boxing and football?
- Is crying frowned upon as a “girlie” thing? Can he cuddle with his mom or grandma without being teased?
- Are friendships with girls encouraged — or frowned upon?
Unchecked biases and prejudices evolve
Move ahead a few years and little “Mr. Macho” is now in high school and on the football, basketball or soccer team. He’s a jock and feels powerful:
- Girls gravitate toward him — he is an alpha male. He can choose among the prettiest and feels free to disparage those who don’t meet his standards.
- His coach revs up his ego and encourages and rewards his aggression on the field. Parents and friends cheer him on and bask in his success.
- He gets the feeling that if he can keep winning, he can do no wrong.
No matter his needs to be nurtured or what he feels inside, his “Mr. Macho” image is what he is compelled to present to the world.
If he is fortunate enough to go on to college, “Mr. Macho” may join a fraternity. As a freshman pledge, he may undergo vicious hazing, learn to equate drunkenness with having fun and continue to view young women as sexual objects to be conquered.
If college is not feasible, he may find a job. Most likely, the sexist attitudes formed at home and in school will follow him into the workplace. Factory jobs, as well as those in restaurants, construction and sales all perpetuate the objectification of girls and young women. In many workplaces it has long been OK to comment on their appearance, make lewd remarks and even grab at body parts, all in the name of good fun.
But, it’s not good fun. Objectifying girls and women is harmful to both sexes.
Sexism also negatively affects men in their relationships with co-workers, partners, wives and daughters. It’s a ‘no-win’ for all of us.
“Mr. Macho” is certainly not all boys, but he is one type of boy. His journey to becoming a male predator did not suddenly begin in adulthood or even adolescence; it started in his early childhood years. It’s up to all of us to lead our sons on a better path.