“When I Was a Boy”: Gender Norms and What’s Lost

A year after starting this blog with a therapy-related song by Dar Williams, it feels fitting to post another of her creations—“When I Was a Boy” from The Honesty Room. Why? Because it’s appealed to so many hearts and minds over the years with its message about gender.

In the mid-90’s when it was released, Scott Alarik wrote this about Williams and this song in Performing Songwriter Magazine:

‘When I was a boy,’ probably her best-known song, uses the obviously clever hook and some delicious reminiscences of an unfettered and proudly eccentric childhood to plaintively remind us that, once, we were all unfettered. Then, as society intrudes on our innocence, we learn how to be less than our whole selves, to strap ourselves into inhibiting clothing and even more inhibiting mores.

Since then Williams has performed this affecting song over and over, striking a chord with people of all sexual and gender identities. It has the quiet power, you’ll see, to make a grown woman mourn—for her boyhood—and a grown man cry—for his girlhood.

In an interview Laura Lasley did with Williams (Guitar Noise), there’s this exchange:

LL: It’s a wonderful song! As you listen, you remember those feelings. When I was a little girl, I was a boy, I played, I did this. And the ending is so endearing, when this man says “when I was a girl.” It’s a wonderful story to tell and it’s also an empathetic type of a song.

DAR: I’m very glad that was the effect, because I think there is a lot of empathy between men and women, and they want to share, but they get polarized by these debates. I didn’t want to feel that I was arguing against men, especially since men get shafted so much by their roles. Actually a lot of women that I speak to who would have been the separatists, they feel sorry for men. They don’t feel like men are the enemy, they feel like men are the victims of these roles.

If you don’t already know the lyrics, keep in mind as you read them below that these are the words of an adult female about her youth:

I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check.
I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each other’s lives out on the pirate’s deck.

And I remember that night
When I’m leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me it’s not safe, someone should help me
I need to find a nice man to walk me home.

When I was a boy, I scared the pants off of my mom,
Climbed what I could climb upon
And I don’t know how I survived,
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew.
And you can walk me home, but I was a boy too.

I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, I didn’t care who saw.
My neighbor came outside to say ‘Get your shirt!’
I said ‘No way! It’s the last time, I’m not breaking any law.’
And now I’m in a clothing store where the sign says less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them not more for me.
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat.

When I was a boy, see that picture that was me,
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees.
And I know things have gotta change, they’ve got pills to sell
They’ve got implants to put in, they’ve got implants to remove.
But I am not forgetting that I was a boy too.

And like the woods where I would creep,
It’s a secret I can keep
Except when I’m tired, except when I’m being caught off guard.
I’ve had a lonesome awful day, the conversation finds its way
To catching fireflies out in the backyard.
So I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived
And I say ‘Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won.’

And he says ‘oh no, can’t you see?
When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked,
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could cry all the time, now even when I’m alone, I seldom do.
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too,
And you were just like me
And I was just like you.’

Here’s a rather low-key performance of the song by Williams (but the best I could find):

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