Boys will be Boys: Talking to Boys about Girls Part 2

May 28, 2013 at 10:58 pm 5 comments

HugoBBOn April 26-27 I participated in the second Annual Sacred Friendship Gathering. This year’s gathering focused on Bold Boundaries: Expanding Friendship between Men & Women. We discussed friendship between men and women from many angles and I participated in a Roundtable on Modesty, Beauty, and Friendship. I presented a session on how we talk to girls about boys and how we talk to boys about girls – and how we talk with our teens about friendship with God. One of my favorite sessions was Hugo Schwyzer speaking on the “myth of male weakness” – an idea we hear embedded in such expressions as, “Boys will be boys.”

As I mentioned in the first of this series of posts, I often wonder, what is the root of the objectification of women we see played out in rape culture, beauty myths and modesty doctrines? Is it the remnants of ancient cultures treating women as property for millennia? Is it the influence of TV and print media in the context of capitalism that uses sex to sell everything? Is this oversexualization and objectification of women and girls a new thing or is it just a new instance of an old, old story replayed on the stage of women’s lives today?

Here are a few possible connections to some old stories that keep running into each other in my head:

  • Adam and Eve and the blame game – “it’s her fault …”

    • “Woman, you are the gate to hell.” -Tertullian, Early Church Father, d. 225

    • “Women should not be enlightened or educated in any way. They should, in fact, be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in holy men.” -Augustine, Early Church Father, d. 430

  • Patriarchy as a system of ownership – women and children are property of men and exist to serve them and further their cause, purposes, desires and name

    • “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.” -Augustine, d. 430

    • “[Woman] was made only to assist with procreation.” -Aquinas, d. 1275

    • “A woman’s place is in the home.” -Calvin, d. 1564

    • “Woman was made for only one reason, to serve and obey man.” -Knox, d. 1572

    • Combining the above and other teachings, we get the ideal that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom.

      • Separate and distinct gender roles limiting women’s roles in church and the home (the development of separate spheres is much more complex, but these ideas contributed to the formation of the ideal)

        • Media representations of women as consumables and objects of male sexual pleasure (detailed in the documentary Killing Us Softly 4)

        • Christian marriage relationship “experts” advising women to make sure they look good for their husbands, “After all, the whole idea is to be attractive to him.” (His Needs, Her Needs first published in 1988) and the implication that women who “let themselves go” are partly to blame if a husband strays. (Rachel Held Evans comments on this idea here

brain-connectionsThis list is just a sneak peak into some of the ways I connect things in my head. I am not trying to make a scientific argument for the connection of these ideas, and there are many other points on the grid connecting these ideas over time, as well as outliers who have spoken up for equality over the centuries. I have only noted a few of the dominant ideas regarding women’s roles in Western Christianity and their connection with culture. Others are doing serious scholarly work in this area, like Mimi Haddad of Christians for Biblical Equality who reminds us in a Priscilla Paper’s article from 2012, ideas have consequences.

How we think about the differences between men and women, and why those differences exist, has consequences. Modesty doctrines, rape culture, beauty myths and sex trafficking did not develop in a vacuum. We can see the power of cultural messages and genetic memories of patriarchy as even respected theologians and heroes of Christian faith found it difficult to escape the influence of those powerful ideas.  Research relating to neurological changes caused by long-term exposure to ideas and behaviors is a growing field. The scientific term for this is neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity is complicated and we have yet to understand its implications for society, but on a surface level it may offer hope for the future. A simple way of talking about neuroplasticity is through using route terminology. Neurologically speaking, routes exist in the brain that determine how we respond to certain stimuli. Scientists once thought most routes were quite permanent. But, this idea of neuroplasticity is revealing that our brains are more malleable than we once thought and that pre-programmed routes can be changed. In short, our brains are changed by our experiences, our attachments, our communities and other forces outside of ourselves and often outside of our control.

So, when we talk about ideas like, “men are visual” and “women are relational” we often speak of them as “this is the way it’s always been” or “this is the way God made us.” And then we justify harm with expressions like, “Boys will be boys,” and minimize a husband’s cheating with comments like Pat Robertson’s, “Stop talking about the cheating. He cheated on you. Well, he’s a man. O.K.”  If that’s the way God intended men to be, then I’m not sure I want to follow such a God!

But, the idea of neuroplasticity, or the malleability of the brain, make the idea that men or women are hard-wired permanently to behave in certain ways hard to hold onto. Instead, it gives rise to the possibility that this is the way we have become – perhaps men have evolved as more visual, but also have evolved as viewing women as possessions after millennia of cultural conditioning.  Many Christians look to the Genesis story of creation in the Hebrew Bible to try to understand “the way we are made,” including the making of the differences between men and women. Interpretations of these differences have run the gamut and arguments for the continuing oppression and subjugation of women have been borne out of certain interpretations while arguments for equality and mutuality have also been brought forth from the narrative.

Rather than try to re-interpret Genesis narratives of human origins to understand gender differences, I’d like to look at a few interpretations that connect with ideas of neuroplasticity. Theologian Kathryn Tanner argues in Christ the Key that what it means to be human is to be shaped and formed by forces outside of ourselves. Tanner writes, “to an unusual degree, human nature takes shape in conformity to what helps it grow.” She goes on to argue that we were made for a strong attachment to God as our source of growth and life. For Tanner, Christ is the Key to our ability to be shaped and formed by our Creator God. But,  instead of being shaped by God, perhaps over time we have been shaped by other powerful forces outside of ourselves.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer imagines the separation of humanity into male and female as an affirmation of our creatureliness and our limitations – God is our source of life, our loving relationship with others reminds us of our limitations as we are interdependent upon one another for the sustaining and flourishing of life. We need outside sources in order to “know good and evil.” In Bonhoeffer’s interpretation, God intended to be our shaping and defining source, but humans chose to try to become the source of the knowledge of good and evil for themselves. Bonhoeffer sees the results of imagining that we can be our own best shaping and defining influence to have it’s most tragic consequences in the context of gender relationships. He writes in Creation and Fall:

that one person claims a right to the other, claims to be entitled to possess the other, and thereby denies and destroys the creaturely nature of the other person. This obsessive desire of one human being for another finds its primordial expression in unbridled sexuality. The unbridled sexuality of the human being who transgresses his or her boundary is a refusal to recognize any limit at all; it is a boundless obsessive desire to be without any limits. Unbridled sexuality is a passionate hatred of any limit.

It’s hard for me to imagine God’s intentions for what it means to be male and female, feminine or masculine, woman, man, boy, or girl from such a short narrative. Perhaps the Genesis narrative speaks more about our inability to connect to Creator God and Creator God’s shaping and forming influence? Without a strong connection with our creator, we never really learned how God intended for us to be human in the variety and differences of  our human forms. Instead, perhaps our differences have developed as a result of patriarchal systems of ownership and cultures of entitlement – such systems and cultures that set one one kind of human over another and imprison us all in boxes that limit our ability to connect with God and with one another?

gift-boxWhen I first met my husband, I was tightly wrapped in the “good Christian woman” box – I was all covered up, with edges perfectly taped so the seams wouldn’t show, and bound with a multitude of ribbons and decorated with ornamental bows. Even though I had aspired to be the first woman president when I was seven years old, all that was part of my past, and I was learning to be the quiet, responsive, “true-love waits as a re-born virgin” kind of woman. I had worked long and hard to fit into that box, and with the help of mentoring by elders’ wives and pastors’ wives, I thought my odds of snagging that up-and-coming pastor or church leader were greatly increased. While I was willing to remain single and aspired to go to the mission field (after all that’s where single women who are leaders go, right?), I still made a list of what I was looking for in a potential husband. Pastor, leader and missionary were at the top of my list. But, the odds were not in my favor.

We met at work and he was not a professing follower of Jesus. He had only been to church a handful of times, and half of those were for weddings or funerals. We became good friends through group cycling outings with co-workers on Saturdays. We worked at a software company and my department worked on PCs, while he worked in the UNIX department. The joke around the office was that I was trying to convert him to Christianity and he was trying to convert me to UNIX. The happy ending is that we were both converted – he now believes that Jesus is Lord and I am convinced that UNIX is a far superior operating system.

In the midst of our developing friendship, I fell in love. But, it wasn’t until after I fell in love that I decided to rip up my list. As the door was closed on yet another opportunity to serve as a missionary, I met with my pastor and told him about the man who was pursuing me at work. His only question was whether Ken would fit in the “good Christian man” box – could he be my spiritual leader? From the outside, my husband looked like he would fit well into my man-box. Even though he was a new Christian, I was sure he would learn and grow to become a strong leader. I knew he was a man of character and would stand up for what he believed. After all, he became a card-carrying Republican at age 18 and still carried that card even after attending UC Santa Cruz, one of the most liberal colleges on the planet! We talked a bit about how he would be a spiritual leader in our pre-marital counseling, and our counselor suspected we were a good fit for one another. It turns out, he was right – but it’s taken a while for us to figure out how we best fit together – something we are still figuring out even to this day!

We tried to relate to each other from within those boxes (I kept bursting out and having to retie the ribbons and restick the bows) and it didn’t take long for me to notice that my husband really didn’t fit in the man box I had created, but that didn’t stop me from trying to force him into it. One of the manifestations of my woman box included a serious disdain for The Simpsons. Marge was as far from the ideal woman as I could imagine, and I don’t think they even make Homer-sized man boxes! And my husband was a huge fan of The Simpsons! Our conflict over The Simpsons was in some ways a depiction of many other conflicts. We began to find it increasingly difficult to relate to one another from within those constricting boxes, and even struggled to relate to God. I kept feeling guilty about my ravenous hunger for understanding the Bible and theology. And I kept pressuring my husband to relate to God in the same way I did – because he was the one who was supposed to be teaching me these things. But he didn’t connect with God in that way. He connects through serving, and he enjoys learning about the historical aspects of the Bible. Besides, he had no interest in teaching me anything. Especially since I was already such a know-it-all! 😉

Me Simpsonized

Me Simpsonized

As my husband and I began to break through our boxes and the Holy Spirit began to unbind the constricting ribbons from our souls, we learned to enjoy each others differences and uniqueness in a variety of ways. We have learned that it’s OK that Ken is better in the kitchen and I am better at leading family devotions. Our family enjoys God so much more when each of us is expressing our authentic selves and loving and serving one another in community out of our own passions, desires and abilities. I still work in the kitchen, and my husband still leads prayer in our devotional time – our passions do not exempt us from serving one another even out of our weaknesses. But, we are not shaming one another anymore for not fitting into some imaginary man or woman box! These imaginary boxes are not created not by God, they are created by the unseen powers of the systems of this world that are not in alignment with God’s Kingdom vision of unity in Christ. Man boxes and woman boxes only serve to build up barriers and create a greater divide between us. They intensify our differences instead of unite us in our common humanity. Jesus’ prayer for us is to be united in community as Father, Son and Spirit are united in relationship in the Trinity.

My husband Simpsonized

My husband Simpsonized

One of the most constricting ribbons that had to be loosed from my imaginary woman box was my disdain for The Simpsons. I had to unloose my literalism and fear that by watching The Simpsons we would somehow become The Simpsons. As the ribbons unraveled and the wrapping came loose, I learned to understand the satire of The Simpsons and appreciate it’s constructive social criticism. And, my husband has not become Homer, my kids have not become Bart, though I think one of my girls might be a bit like Lisa. And the only time I’ve resembled Marge much was on Halloween. We regularly watch The Simpsons together as a family and then we do family devotions together. We teach our kids to think critically about culture and the world around them, we teach them to read their Bible critically and seek understanding within the context of family and community. And, we pray for one another and for others.

It’s easy to try to put people in boxes. It’s easy to accept these boxes uncritically as “natural” or “what God intended” or “that’s the way we are supposed to be.” There are a variety of man boxes and woman boxes, and some are more harmful than others. When talking to boys about girls, we need to help them see the boxes they might be stuck in. Tony Porter’s TED Talk does a good job of exposing one of the most harmful man boxes that we need to help deliver young people from.

In my next blog post in this series I will write about how we can help young men and women see the boxes they are constructing, or have been constructed for them. I will also suggest some ways we can deconstruct these imaginary boxes within the context of families and the church.

Entry filed under: relationships, sexuality, talking to boys about girls.

How Did We Get to Steubenville?:Talking to Boys about Girls Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess


  • 1. Melanie  |  May 29, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Wow, Elizabeth. This is rich, thoughtful, good stuff. I love the way you work through your thinking here. I’m beginning to believe that the “role” language we use is completely limiting, kind of like the man and woman boxes about which you write. I’ve tried to take that language out of my vocabulary, and instead talk about gifts–I think that also connects us to the creator God in ways that “roles” cannot.

    Also, how do you get yourself Simpsonized? I find the Simpsons to be an important cultural critique, and a great way to teach my kids the nuances of satire. Too many folks these days don’t appreciate the power of satire, including students in my classes and people who respond to Anne Lamott’s FB posts. 🙂 Being able to catch satire is also a gift, one I hope my kids can learn well.

    Thanks for your post. It’s clear you put a lot of thought into this, a challenge to me to do the same with mine!

  • 2. Elizabeth Chapin  |  May 30, 2013 at 9:19 am

    Melanie, interesting connection between roles and boxes. I agree, both are limiting and the boxes I describe are similar to the idea of sex role. Perhaps the box metaphor can be useful to draw together the ideas of roles and stereotypes and show their limitations.

    I think talking about gifts is a good move, but I wonder if it minimizes our participation – our choosing and autonomy in relation to our creator? While we are gifted by God as passive recipients, we also have the capacity and freedom to develop skills and interests that help us participate in the creative goodness of life with God.

    Unfortunately, the “Simpsonize Me” website is no longer around. It was a promotional thing when The Simpsons Movie came out in 2007. It was really fun – you would upload a picture of yourself and then it would generate a cartoon character from it and you could customize the look afterwards. I’m glad I saved the images – I have used them often. 😉

    BTW, did you see the brilliant recent Simpsons episode, “What Animated Women Want” that aired on April 14? I imagine you could write a lovely blog about that one 😉

    • 3. Melanie Springer Mock  |  June 2, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      I didn’t see it, but will go searching. Our Sunday nights, at least through April, are reserved for The Amazing Race, and we don’t DVR. But that episode is bound to be somewhere!

      I will need to think more about gifts and autonomy and agency. Thanks for asking about that; I think you’re right, and will need to include this in my expanding paradigm of how I understand my Self!

  • 4. Peter  |  July 19, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    I found your first two posts excellent, and I better understand what’s wrong, but I’m still struggling with what to tell them about girls. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series!

    • 5. Elizabeth Chapin  |  July 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement, Peter. One thing to start with is to remind them that girls are human too. The earlier we help our young people to treat others humanely, regardless of how they are different from us, the better. And a step in that direction is to help them become aware of the unspoken biases and stereotypes. I will write more about this in the next post.

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