Toronto Star

May 15, 1999

`The Boy Code' of our culture breeds bullies

by Michelle Landsberg
Toronto Star

TENDERNESS, optimism, empathy, imagination, responsibility, a capacity for love - are those manly qualities, or womanly? They are neither, of course; character is not colour-coded, pink or blue, from birth. It is our culture, not our genes, that insists on brutalizing boys into toughness and straitjacketing girls into the beauty myth.

Oh sure, our chromosomes and hormones may predispose us a certain way. But think of the energy, if not ferocity, that society invests in enforcing these gender roles. Read the birth notices: The babies are just hours old and their proud parents are already hailing them as macho new Blue Jays or beautiful princesses.

I've been thinking about gender conditioning again because, in the weeks since the various high school killings, one word keeps bobbing up from the swirl of anxious discussion:


Bullying played a malignant role in Littleton, Colorado; in Taber, Alberta; in Victoria, B.C. American psychologists estimate that 160,000 children miss school every day for fear of bullies.

This thuggery has long been recognized as a byproduct of what William Pollack, co-ordinator of the Centre for Men at Harvard Medical School, calls ``The Boy Code.'' In his book Real Boys, Pollack argues that boys are forced, early on, to become strangers to themselves. Almost from infancy, they are shamed into denying their own emotions, donning a mask that hides any fear, doubt or neediness. Boys, writes Pollack, are wrenched away from their mothers much too soon, and mothers are disconcerted by the chorus of demands not to ``baby'' their boys. The trauma of a boy's premature separation from mother, at age 6 and again at adolescence, ``contributes to a deep wellspring of grief and sadness'' that may last a lifetime, Pollack says.

Extraordinarily, even after so much lip service about changing gender roles, the cruel and stupid Boy Code remains in force everywhere, even in the most enlightened households and schools, according to Pollack's research. I agree with Pollack that boys are not naturally brutish or violent - they may be energetic and active, but kindness, affection and emotional expressiveness are as instinctive to boys as to girls, until these ``girlish'' qualities are knocked out of them.

By prepubescence, our toys, commercials, movies, songs, TV, games, sports and parental teachings have transformed most youngsters into ardent little gender police, excluding, tormenting and mocking the ``ugly'' girl and the un-cool boy.

Bullying is such a fact of boyhood that you can pick up almost any man's memoir at random and read about schoolyard tortures. Rudyard Kipling was bullied till he got big enough to bully back; Russell Baker, the journalist, was regularly pummelled by a brutish ``loner.'' Edward Ardizzone, one of Britain's most gifted illustrators for children, was, by his own account ``born to be teased and bullied,'' harassed and set upon on his nightmarish journeys from school to home. On the most humiliating occasion, when he was 8 or 9, he was dragged behind bushes, where a gang of boys pressed the hot ends of burnt matches to the tip of his penis.

After I wrote about Littleton and the bully factor, I received some eloquent letters from men who will never forget what they suffered - or how close they might have come to killing if they had had a gun. Robin Wood, an author and retired film professor, remembers being relentlessly persecuted as an unathletic 11-year-old English schoolboy: ``I was reduced to throwing myself on the ground, blocking my ears and screaming hysterically.'' No one ever came to his rescue; adults angrily exhorted him to fight back.

I'm ashamed to remember, as a parent, making the same worse-than-useless response on occasion. Now, finally, all that must change. Schools must take responsibility for the hierarchies of dominance they have helped to create, and begin to practise inclusion instead. Peacemaking programs can go some way toward counteracting our overwhelmingly violent culture. In Norway, a national anti-bullying program in the '80s reportedly cut the incidence in half. (How ironic that anti-violence and anti-racism programs have been cut by the ``strong'' Harris government, even as it plans to give guns to 12-year-olds and ``get tough'' with street kids.)

We have to stop unnerving mothers by constant attacks on motherhood. We need to overcome our deeply ingrained anxieties about masculinity, give boys as much loving nurture as we give to girls, and encourage them to be emotionally expressive.

It's not about making girls more like boys or boys more like girls; it's about helping all children to become more fully human.

Michele Landsberg's column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section. Her E-mail address is

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