Clementine Ford: For Pete’s Sake, Let Your Boys Drink Pink Milk

During a conversation earlier this week, I heard yet another example of how patriarchy works to break men.

I had flown to Brisbane to speak at an event for the Queensland Teachers Union. Over lunch, talk turned to our children and the responsibility we felt to navigate them through the social pressures we’d experienced as adolescents, particularly in regards to gender stereotypes.

Heartbreakingly, one woman told me that her six-year-old son had recently stopped asking to take strawberry milk to school because some of the other boys were teasing him -- strawberry milk is pink, you see, and that shit’s for girls.

That shit's for girls. (Image: Getty)

It’s not the first example I’ve encountered of patriarchal paranoia around the expression of masculine identity. In my second book, Boys Will Be Boys, I explored the vigorous policing of male identity that leads to the denigration of anything perceptibly feminine; the boys who are shamed for liking flowers, butterflies and dancing, and exposed later on to what the American ethnographer CJ Pascoe calls "compulsive heterosexuality".

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Those boys who fail to fulfil the demands of cisgender, heterosexual, ‘red-blooded’ masculinity quickly become targets for ridicule and hostility, and all too often this occurs within their own family structures. For most, the only option they have for social (and sometimes physical) survival is to strip themselves of anything perceived even remotely as feminine and turn their backs on things that make them happy.

And we wonder why men have such high rates of depression.

When I’ve written about this practice of masculinity annihilation before, I’ve been accused by some of trying to force femininity onto men. Stop trying to make men hug each other! I’ve been told, by the same men who also think it’s women like me who are responsible for the devastating rate of male suicide and not, y’know, the fact that mainstream society informs us that Real Men Don’t Cry But They Do Eat Meat.

Cue downfall of civilisation.

Yet, I have always maintained that patriarchy oppresses men too and that feminism is the movement seeking to liberate them from this harm. It seems to me that there’s an intense fear that masculinity may be discovered to be far more complicated than it is, and any attempts made to explore that will be vigorously shut down. The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

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I wanted to know what other men’s experiences of this policing have been like, so I shared the story of the pink milk on Twitter and asked for men’s responses. The replies have been a mixture of depressing, heartbreaking and rage inducing.

Men of all ages talked about the various ways their masculinity has, over the course of their entire lives, been vigorously scrutinised. Some of their experiences reveal the absurd paranoia that informs social expectations of manhood, like the ridicule they’ve received for preferring hot chocolate to coffee or fruity alcoholic drinks to beer.

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Others expose deeply gendered views of physical prowess, like men being shamed for playing netball or hockey instead of football, or pursuing dance classes or music lessons. Men talked of being teased for wanting to take drama at school, or enjoying reading books.

But the stories that broke my heart the most were those that revealed the source of this shame came as the people children should be able to rely on the most for support, unconditional love and the strong formation of self esteem: their parents and family members.

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When the most senior male figure (or figures) in a boy's life uses shame and ridicule to undermine that child's humanity, it has profound and devastating effects. This trauma is solidified when that practice is endorsed by the support of the women in that boy's life.

The message being sent here to these children is that they are somehow flawed and broken; that they are wrong in some fundamental way, and that their failure to be the kind of boy their parents (and fathers in particular) can be proud of will threaten their future prospects of becoming men other people respect and fear.

There is a deep irony in the fact we live in a world where masculinity is heralded as being powerful and stoic, stronger and more robust than femininity, yet so fragile it can be undone by the consumption of something like pink milk.

How many men have given up things they enjoyed -- things that made them feel happy and human, that lifted their spirits and gave them some glimpse of the divine, or that they just appreciated the taste of -- because they were taught to fear what other men and some female enforcers thought of their choices and desires?

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How much better and healthier we would all be if we lived in a world in which men were encouraged to pursue things that brought them peace and contentment rather than placed them in constant competition and anxiety about their perceived status in the hierarchy of Real Men!

This education begins with our youngest boys. Too many men have had to sacrifice beautiful things because patriarchy demanded it of them. But it's not too late to change this and give the boys of the future what we denied the boys of the past.

Pink milk is just the beginning.