Boys will be boys and girls will be girls – or so the saying goes. But what if you’re a girl who loves cage fighting? Or a boy with a passion for ballet? A series of books champions alternative role models
Heroic dragon slayer, cheeky prankster, dreamy Prince Charming… The role models that boys encounter in books tend to fall into these sorts of boxes. But what if you prefer books to swords? What if you want to cry when you’re feeling sad? Or like the idea of wearing a dress?
Ben Brooks knows what it’s like to live under the pressures of gender stereotypes. “The men I knew generally tended to be quite big guys with tattoos and big watches who liked going to the pub,” he says. “But that seemed alien and a little bit terrifying to me: I never had any illusions about the kind of person I was going to grow into.”
The 26-year-old author, who lives in Berlin but grew up in Gloucestershire, was at secondary school when he went from being “outspoken, loud and fearless” to being quieter, more anxious and inward-looking. He felt unable to share how he was feeling and the difficult emotions built up and resulted in him doing “stupid, destructive things”.
Brooks’ book, Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different, went straight in at the number one bestseller slot when it was published in April. He followed it up with Stories for Kids Who Dare to be Different.
While women have long faced discrimination about what sorts of jobs they can choose, for example, he believes that men have been presented a narrow definition of what constitutes manliness. Strength and anger are OK, indecision or emotion: not OK. Both books are about giving young people the courage to reject peer pressure and go against the grain.
Making up the 100 or so entries in Boys Who Dare are famous and not-so-famous examples.
There’s cross-dressing artist and sculptor Grayson Perry; ‘Tank Man’ – the unidentified man who blocked a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989; gay US political pioneer Harvey Milk; young Dutch ocean clean-up entrepreneur Boyan Slat; and poet, writer and musician Benjamin Zephaniah.
Meanwhile Kids Who Dare features Icelandic singer, songwriter and producer Björk – “She’s always been so boldly herself,” says Brooks – and US actress, writer and director Greta Gerwig. “She’s very inspiring as someone who wasn’t allowed a traditional entry into an industry and has instead just done it herself.”
Brooks has noticed a shift in the way people talk and think about gender. “Mums of boys who are quieter or a little ‘strange’ – who don’t quite fit in at school – have got in touch to say they were relieved to find the book,” he says.
“We seem to be re-evaluating as a society what gender means, how it impacts our lives and how much of it is constructed and how much, if any, is innate. It’s a really positive change.”
We seem to be re-evaluating as a society what gender means, how it impacts our lives and how much of it is constructed and how much, if any, is innate
The intention with the books is not to disparage more traditional role models – super-masculine sports stars for example – but to create a richer mix. How would society look if the role models that young boys, for example, see were more diverse?
“I hope it would lead to men being more empathetic, partly because they’re more comfortable in themselves and less repressed,” says Brooks. “And partly because maybe it could become less accepted to be only strong and standoffish, and cooler to be generally kinder and more loving.”
Daring to be different: alternative male role models
All illustrations are by Quinton Winter and taken from Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks