If I were a boy, even just for a day
Is the grass always greener on the other side?
But wait, let's get all this straight. Gwen Stefani's 2004 song was actually a takeoff from the 1964 play "Fiddler on the Roof," a historical musical about poor Jews living in Russia at the turn of the century. Gwen's mediocre version is solidly ironic, but the original song was an actual lament about the struggles of poverty.
Likewise, songwriter BC Jean's opening line isn't really about wanting to be a boy. Like the line in "Fiddler on the Roof" where the impoverished main character imagines being a rich man, the lyric uses a hypothetical ("If I were…") as a way to highlight what the singer is. In "If I Were a Boy," the writer imagines being a boy as a way to talk about how she feels as a girl. What's more, it becomes apparent later in the song that she isn't singing about being just any boy—she's actually addressing a particular boy who has broken her heart. If BC Jean (real name: Britney Jean Carlson) had written a literal song, the line "If I were a boy…" would actually read more like "If I were you…"
This is a fine example of why good writers aren't always literal in their approach. "If I were you" would be a less lyrical line to open a song with, and also a less loaded and less interesting line. By imagining herself as "a boy," BC Jean opens up the possibility that the song is also about gender in general, not just another heartbreak song. She's able to talk about a specific relationship, but also about the gender dynamics in that relationship. In other words, she uses "If I were a boy…" to emphasize that she is singing as a girl.
I'd kick it with who I wanted
And I'd never get confronted for it
'Cause they'd stick up for me
This is a strong statement about gender, suggesting that men can get away with more than women can.
Plenty of people would disagree with BC Jean's choice to generalize here. In the context of the song, this line suggests that boys can do whatever they want and go wherever they want, and face no consequences for it. Their friends even stick up for them when they misbehave.
Girls, on the other hand, don't have this kind of freedom—at least, that's what this line is suggesting. The message is sort of like the inverse of Madonna's 2001 song "What It Feels Like for a Girl," in which Madonna openly addresses men with the message that they don't understand what women go through.
Although they lean on stereotypes of both men and women, there is probably some truth to what Madonna's and BC Jean are saying. It's generally agreed that for a long time, there has been a double standard in Western societies, which allows men to be more openly and freely social and sexual than women. Its origins date back to times when married women were technically their husbands' property. Take the scathing treatment of Hester in The Scarlet Letter, for example. It's the woman who suffers all the consequences of an adulterous relationship (until the man involved, in this case a priest, fesses up…but that's another story). Or even take the public attitudes toward Bill Clinton for his less-than-committed marital behavior. Would Hilary Clinton be able to be as successful as Bill if she had been the one caught cheating?
The double standards that allow boys to get away with more than girls are exactly what women's movements and feminism have tried to challenge and change. But even Fox News' in-house "sexpert" said in 2009 that a sexual double standard persists these days. Does BC Jean have a valid lament?