Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Boys Will Be the Boys We Give Them Permission to Be

"Barbie", Pink and Blue, and the Gendering of Emotion

Key points

  • From birth, children absorb what it means to be a boy through gender socialization.
  • Media has increasingly introduced characters that reject masculine stereotypes, yet this remains an exception.
  • Research by NYU's Niobe Way shows that boys crave “deep depth” friendships with boys.
  • Emotional intelligence, and the sensitivity it enables, is a human intelligence not reserved for any gender.

By Robin Stern, Krista Smith, and Zorana Ivcevic Pringle

Has your newsfeed seemed particularly pink lately? You can thank the summer of Barbie, Ken, and all their Mattel friends. The blockbuster release of Greta Gerwig’s "Barbie" reignited social commentary on the world’s most famous doll and the gendering of everything bubblegum-pink, pomp, and perky. And the movie is a real treat!

Aside from the endless social media content it has inspired, the movie raises an important question: What does it mean to be "Kenough"?

Beyond Barbie’s glamour and gloss lies a necessary conversation about insidious assumptions society imposes on children—not just the gender binary they are expected to conform to, but the "blue" versus "pink" colors they are expected to like and the distinct men and women they are expected to become.

The gender dichotomy has become increasingly outdated in modern discourse. Yet, culture wars and gender-based legislation sweeping the country have proven that in red versus blue cities and states, many are still thinking in pink versus blue against the backdrop of a youth mental health crisis. Links between the endless scrolling of social media, body image, and depression, especially among girls, are well-documented. But centuries of stereotypical masculinity, which reinforce the male imperative to have a strong physique, preserve dominance, and suppress certain emotions, are also compounded by social media and pop culture. Such obtuse representations of manliness underlie trends that expose boys, when compared to girls, to disproportionately harsh discipline in schools, insufficient socioemotional learning, and risk of increased loneliness.

The boys, as they have been classified, are not alright; but how did that come to be?

Blue From the Beginning

Baseball bats, trucks, and confetti in various shades of blue set the stage for a ubiquitous symbol of boyhood in American culture. But somewhere along the way, ideals of strength, stoicism, and dominance seep under the skin with a blunt message: only certain emotions matter; only certain emotions should be expressed. Aggression, anger, and contempt are given the green light, while sadness and anxiety are suppressed.

From birth, children absorb what it means to be a boy and later a man from what they hear and see, directly and indirectly, through a process of gender socialization. In American society, all are participants in social scripts that introduce biological sex with assumed gender identity, which show up everywhere from the sports we encourage children to play to the clothes we assume they like.

While mainstream media has increasingly introduced characters that reject gender binaries or the toxicity of masculine stereotypes by displaying vulnerable, sympathetic relationships (like those seen in Ted Lasso), this form of "soft masculinity" remains an exception. Nonetheless, it depicts what is actually possible for friendships regardless of sex or gender: sensitivity without judgment.

Research interviews by NYU Professor of Psychology Niobe Way show that boys do, in fact, crave “deep depth” friendships with other boys. In early and middle adolescence, they want to share secrets and have trusting friendships with others who will not betray them or laugh at them in vulnerable moments. But by late adolescence, the status quo kicks in and these close, intimate friendships with the same gender become strained and less trusting.

Teaching Boys Through Toys

Despite differences in how we choose to raise children depending on their sex, the reality is that neurologically there are few differences between males’ and females’ capacities for emotional closeness and empathy. However, females are socialized with permission to have and express certain emotions. This permission ignites their empathic trajectory and the embrace and expression of their emotions in a way that males typically do not experience.

Toys remain marketed in a gendered way, and there are consequences for it in how children are socialized to play. And research shows that television continues to portray boys as being more verbally and physically aggressive than girls, as well as prioritizing sex over emotion. The notion that boys desire intimate friendship has been ignored by our culture at large simply because such expressions are categorized in the "pink" bucket of gender stereotypes: emotional intimacy has been assigned a sex (female) and sexuality (non-heterosexual).

For boys to reveal any sensitivity is to implicitly signal that they are queer or girly. Their emotions may matter, but only certain, socially acceptable ones. This ushers in a trend of boys entering school less prepared socially and behaviorally, taking longer to adapt, and experiencing more challenges in learning. In short, boys will be the boys we give them permission to be.

Disrupting the Cycle: Emotions Are for Boys Too

The solution is neither to shame budding masculinity nor an affinity for femininity, but to empower boys regardless. Boys, and all individuals regardless of sex or gender, need and want intimacy; they need and want to feel.

Emotional intelligence, and the intimacy and sensitivity it enables, is a human intelligence, not reserved for any one gender. Emotional intelligence gives us the ability to recognize, understand, regulate, and express emotions for the benefit of close relationships and overall well-being. Friendships for boys, and all children, are a source of self-worth, validation, and connectedness. Thus, naming and harnessing the power of emotional intelligence provides all children with the skillset to connect.

Wondering How to Start?

For parents, guardians, and any stakeholder in a child's life, we have a few tips:

1. Take advantage of everyday opportunities to challenge gender assumptions. Whether you are watching TV, on social media, or at the dinner table with your child, you can speak up and disrupt the cycle of unhealthy stereotypes they may otherwise believe. Call out gender biases whenever you see them and call in actions that defy the status quo.

2. Honor your emotions and your child's. Ask your child how they feel often and validate their emotions. If they are sad or disappointed, be curious about their feelings rather than encouraging them to change their emotion or "suck it up." Welcome all of your child’s emotions openly and without judgment—they will learn from your reaction.

3. It starts with you: Model the skillful use of emotional intelligence. Emotions hold important pieces of data that guide the decisions we make, the people we approach, and the way we respond to daily setbacks or opportunities. Whether you are a parent, mentor, or other stakeholder in the life of a boy, the most important way they can learn to recognize, understand and regulate their emotions is by watching you do the same. We recommend using the How We Feel app, guided by research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Becoming More Than "Just Ken"

Barbie evolved through the years. To challenge stereotypes that the doll once reinforced, she became much more than her pink skirts and ponytail; she became a doctor, astronaut, and presidential candidate. Now, what about Ken?

Everyone has been crippled by stereotypes and patriarchal fiction that enforce a false equation: Less emotion and more suppression equate to worth and success. As psychologist Eric FitzMedrud explains, “Women have articulated many new ways to be a woman. Men have yet to embrace a multifaceted model of manhood.”

Investing in the emotional evolution—or, perhaps, revolution—of our boys is investing in the success of every aspect of their lives; the lives of the fathers, guardians, and mentors many of them may become and all those they will share spaces with.


Way, Niobe (2013) Deep Secrets: Boys Friendships and The Crisis of Connection. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Murthy, Vivek (2021) Protecting Youth Mental Health: The US Surgeon General's Advisory.

More from Robin Stern Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today