Another insightful piece by the wonderful Celia Walden, Piers Morgan’s wife:
Boys will be boys. Once a benign platitude, the phrase is now instant cancellation material: an offensive and outrageous statement at the heart of every new incarnation of our gender war. Because whereas those words once conjured up the image of a tousle-headed, snub-nosed Just William jumping in muddy puddles, they are now symptomatic of everything that is wrong with society. The modern interpretation being: boys will be violent and vile predators. And you’re telling me that’s OK?
Indeed, the teacher who sparked protests at Lytchett Minster School in Poole, Dorset, on Friday – when she told girls who had complained they had to cover their backsides with books as they walked up the stairs that “having your skirts too short is going to tempt boys to say silly things, isn’t it?” – may as well have said “boys will be boys” given the explosion it prompted.
After the one minute and 25 second clip from a school video designed to “challenge the unacceptable language being used by some of the boys towards a number of girls” was circulated on social media, head teacher Andrew Mead was forced to send a letter of apology to all parents and students.
To suggest there was a cause and effect involved in the wearing of uber-short skirts and boys “saying silly things” was “victim blaming”, pupils felt, and Mead was right to say that “it was a mistake to link the two issues”. Because certainly at this precise moment in history, in the midst of a countrywide MeToo moment for schools and the age of trial by TikTok, putting out a sexual harassment video that included such a sentence wasn’t a bright idea.
But the worry is that whatever the context of that teacher’s statement, the reaction would have been the same. And I know this is subversive, but let’s first consider what was admittedly a clumsy turn of phrase, rather than the sinister subtexts and dark implications immediately ascribed to it.
“Having your skirts too short is going to tempt boys to say silly things.” It’s not going to “make” them do bad or potentially criminal things, but it might just “tempt” them to “say silly things”. Things like “I can see your knickers” or “I can see your bum”. Maybe even just titter in the way that schoolboys do at the very notion of bottoms. Silly.
That the unnamed teacher then went on to point out that “you are in school and the school uniform says that skirts must be longer,” has been airbrushed out of the debate. Never mind that almost every school I know of has policies involving the length of skirts and hair, body piercings and the like as part of a general, hilariously old-fashioned principle of decorum, and you know, the thing of you being there to learn. But fine, boys aside, let’s accept that it is a girl’s fundamental right to wear a skirt too short to climb stairs in should she so desire, and move onto the “silliness” in question.
When the phrase “boys will be boys” was first recorded in 1589, it was said to have originated from the Latin proverb: “Children are children and do childish things.” Had the phrase not morphed into its later form, and been used flippantly to excuse violent, predatory and sexist male behaviour in boys and men, it wouldn’t be so problematic. And perhaps it no longer matters that the teacher in question was probably trying to capture that sentiment: “Young boys do and say childish things.” Because boys grow up to be men, and silliness should be discouraged from the outset if we’re ever to stamp it out.
Can we though? We can stop boys voicing those silly comments, sure, but when standing behind a girl in a micro-skirt on the stairs, won’t they always be thinking “I can see your underwear”? For centuries anthropologists (currently mired in their own gender-related conflicts) have insisted that the most basic differences between men and women are “natural”, “innate,” “biological”.
I’m no anthropologist, but I am a parent and I have watched my little girl go through a ferocious pink princess phase despite everything I did to counter it, just as I’ve witnessed the awestricken look on my nephew’s face when he first saw a digger by the side of the road, aged two. Is it helpful to pretend those differences don’t exist?
Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham seems to think so. On Sunday, a report appeared detailing its new list of banned words and phrases, which include “let’s go guys”, “man up” and “boys and girls”. Why? Because “sexism is a spectrum”, says head teacher Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, “which extends from a teacher using the word ‘guys’ and not meaning anything harmful by it… to the rape, torture and murder of women.”
Well you know what I think is harmful? How casually we now put those things in the same sentence.
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