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Why a Boy Can't Be More like a Girl: Dave Hill's Son Wore Mauve and Was Roundly Denounced for It, as He Would Have Been for Shedding Tears or Studying Hard. How Can We Stop the Playground Gender Cops?

By Hill, Dave | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

Why a Boy Can't Be More like a Girl: Dave Hill's Son Wore Mauve and Was Roundly Denounced for It, as He Would Have Been for Shedding Tears or Studying Hard. How Can We Stop the Playground Gender Cops?


Hill, Dave, New Statesman (1996)


He was four at the time but my son Conall was already a garrulous quester after intellectual truths: "Isn't it two add two is four, Daddy? Isn't it letter 'b' goes buh?" He'd also acquired a taste for leaping from high places, and it was when about to plunge from the giddy highest point of the playground climbing frame that he realised he'd transgressed an unwritten social rule.

"That's a girl's shirt," said a voice. It belonged to another boy who neither Conall nor I knew. He too was small, though not as small as Conall. Yet the impact of his comment owed little to their difference in size. There was no heavy hostility. Rather, it was his zeal I found disturbing: the unvarnished, expressionless, almost robotic certainty of his intervention. Conall's response, by contrast, was inflamed.

"It's not a girl's shirt!'

"It is."

"It isn't!"

Actually, it was. My boy had personally picked it from the girls' racks at Adams, the children's clothing chain. It was a pastiche of a rugby shirt, complete with white collar, v-shaped opening at the throat and hoop design. It was, however, a "feminised" version of this enduring sporting style, by which I mean simply that the colours of the hoops were white and mauve. It seemed to be the latter hue on a male person that so troubled the other boy. And now Conall was troubled, too. Time for Dad to intervene.

"It's not a girl's shirt," I said, protectively. "Boys can wear purple if they like."

This was a cop-out. The mauve of the hoops was as mauve as mauve gets, yet a voice in my head told me to name it purple instead. What reflex propelled me? A defensive one, I'm afraid, even though my opponent was barely three feet high. Spinning the colour in question towards the spectrum's darker end made it easier to justify.

Mauve is Unmanly, straight from the Forbidden Palette where it sits, lisping and preening, next to Poofter Pink. Did I read the situation right? It seemed possible, with hindsight, that the colour of the shirt was not the central problem: the other boy may have been familiar with the strict designations of Adams's merchandise, or simply seen the same shirt on a girl. But the basic point remains. At that moment it didn't matter that Conall also wore cool Cica trainers, or that he was being daring and athletic as proper boys are meant to be. Even at his tender age the other boy saw that my son had crossed a frontier it was his business to patrol. With the nation's pupils' heads lowered over examination papers and the annual inquest into superior distaff outcomes bound to follow, the deeper implications of Conall's T-shirt selection are worth thinking through.

What is the "boy problem" exactly? Perspective is vital here. Girls achieved a C grade or better in 62.4 per cent of GCSE entries last year, compared with 53.4 per cent of boys, dashing hopes raised in 2001 that the disparity was shrinking. At earlier testing stages, too, boys have consistently trailed girls, notably in reading skills at the end of primary school. However, the difference at A-level is less marked, suggesting that the core of the issue is not so much boys in general, as the sorts of boys who could but don't secure the sacred five GCSE A-Cs, and those who don't even get close, vocational qualifications have been revamped with difficult male youths in mind but, whatever the virtues of these, in the context of the struggle to raise boys' academic standards they smack almost by definition of defeat.

There is no shortage of theories as to why this bored, unmotivated, often disruptive group exists, but few convincing solutions. Rampant laddism has been cited by education leaders since new Labour came to power -- Stephen Byers did it back when he was schools minister as did the head teachers' leader David Hart last year -- but there is not much public discussion of where laddism might come from or how to combat its effects.

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Why a Boy Can't Be More like a Girl: Dave Hill's Son Wore Mauve and Was Roundly Denounced for It, as He Would Have Been for Shedding Tears or Studying Hard. How Can We Stop the Playground Gender Cops?
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