Most of us, boys and girls, grew up with a little pre-assigned conviction on what we are and what we should like. If you’re a boy then you were probably taken to soccer training and expected to help in the backyard, to know what is the right tool to use, to build, to ride your bike, and to not cry like a “girl.” If you’re a girl then it has been the other way around for you. You were probably taken shopping, you were bought dolls, your mom wanted you to help around in the kitchen, and everyone expected you to at least give ballet a shot. Perhaps these gender stereotypes are not as obvious for the younger generations. But only a few decades ago, the gender of the individual played the main role in deciding how they were brought up, what job they could have, and how they deal with relationships. Many countries still judge a person solely on their genitalia, allowing a certain gender certain privileges and denying the other gender certain rights. Whether we like to admit it or not, gender roles are still stuck in the back of our heads, in our media campaigns, and even in our choice of toys for our kids. In this article, we will study the social factors of gender stereotyping across history and in different cultures.
|SEE ALSO: About Stereotyping|
What Is a Gender Role?
Gender role is a set of behaviors and personal traits that are deemed socially acceptable by a specific culture for a specific sex. These gender roles can be viewed in the context of family or society and are not the exact same across the world. People argue whether gender-specific characteristics are a result of social and cultural factors or the biological differences. Most cultures expect males to be more independent, rational, and physically stronger. Females are expected or trapped into the stereotype of a quiet submissive individual, who is more sensitive, kinder, and more domestic than their male counterparts.
Many cultures also define a third gender. The names “male, female, and third gender” are mostly based on the biological organs that define each of them. Gender expression, on the other hand, refers to the gender identity that can be displayed through masculine, feminine, gender variant, or gender neutral attitude, clothing, hair style, or physical attributes (like facial hair and a more muscular body type on men and breast development on women).
Gender roles are often more than a society approved stereotype; they can be a means to oppression or discrimination that a whole culture deems appropriate.
Gender Roles in Society
It is theorized that a child grows up with a sense of “correct” gender identity through a process of reward and punishment by his society. A behavior that a society considers appropriate for the child’s gender is rewarded; other behaviors are punished, either by directly informing the child that they shouldn’t act this way or by publicly shaming those who do. For instance, school or equally closed communities can be very cruel to those who don’t stick to their gender norms. A male child who chooses to engage in an otherwise feminine activity, like dancing for example, is bullied and harassed and has his masculinity questioned. Conservative communities across the world shame women for dressing, talking, or simply styling their hair like a man would. Consequently, the majority of the youngsters grow up with a built-in inner voice that guides how they present themselves to the world. A male feels the need to act tough, to not let out his emotions, to not be such a “girl,” as if being a girl is in anyway an insult. And a female grows up with the obligation to be a lady, to avoid certain behaviors that would stain her delicate femininity, and to give up on her dreams if her society assigns these dreams exclusively for men.
Traditional gender roles in society are still intact in many areas in the world: males are still fully responsible for providing for their families where females are required to stay at home and care for the offspring. It is argued that these roles were inherited from our primitive ancestors where males were responsible for the hunt and pregnant females would remain hidden in caves to avoid predator beasts or other dangers. Conservative societies still give males supremacy over females for the previous reason. And because a female’s purpose in life, for them, is to provide the family with children, concepts like “honor” and “female virtue” end up controlling a girl’s life since the minute she is born. Girls then grow up with this innate fear of committing any mistake that will deem them unfit for marriage and thus never fulfill their dream of bringing a child to the world. Honor crimes and underage marriages are a direct consequence of this.
But despite the wide spread of traditional gender roles in society, some communities have utterly different rules and are more tolerant or even completely familiar with what our societies would traditionally consider abnormal. A few cultures favor women over men. Homosexual communities are more accepting of gender variant attitudes or clothes. Across history, many cultures didn’t stigmatize same-sex relationships. Accordingly, public display of affection was normal and didn’t receive any negative attention.
Are Sex and Gender the Same Thing?
In our quest to understand the legitimacy of the claims on male gender roles and female gender roles, it is important to understand the difference between sex and gender. Sex is restricted to biology. If you have male sex organs then biology defines you as a male. If you have female sex organs then biology defines you as a female. In rare cases where the same body displays some of the female reproductive organs and some of the males’, biology either calls the individual a “third gender” or medicine intervenes to give the body a unified sexual identity. Gender is different and is not entirely dependent on biological anatomy or the exerted hormones responsible for secondary sex characteristics. For a society, gender is the masculine attitude that makes a male a man and the feminine attitude that makes a female a woman. So while sex identifies the body, gender identifies the brain. Gender is often called the sex of the brain. Gender identity doesn’t always align with the biological sex. If an individual has a masculine body but a feminine gender, or vice versa, the result is usually a transgender individual.
What most communities don’t know is that a particular sex is not enough to define how a person should feel and perform at life. The set of rules for each gender role not only are restrictive and limiting but could also cause serious psychological damage. Who a person is can never come down to a list of premade adjectives. Humans are complicated and what constitutes a person does not constitute another, even if they share the same sex, the same gender, the same nationality, and even the same job. If someone makes a statement where he describes all lawyers as righteous, we would call him strongly misguided. Because while they all share the same occupation, they are each their own person and no single adjective can describe all of them. Apply the same rule when thinking of sex or gender. It’s not logically possible that billions of men out there are all the same just because they share the same reproductive system.
Despite our firm belief in individuality, there are a few characteristics that are influenced by a person’s biology and are thus differentiated among males and females. According to Child Psychology, the following distinctions exist:
- At birth, girls are more “physically and neurologically advanced” than boys.
- Boys develop more mature muscles but are more vulnerable to hereditary diseases.
- Girls are better at verbal skills while boys are better at visual-spatial and math skills.
- Boys are “more aggressive” while girls are “more nurturant.”
- There are no obvious gender differences in achievement, sociability, self-esteem, or conformity.
You can easily notice how these differences start at birth and are thus deduced to be influenced by biology. But we cannot exclude the social factors either. Boys and girls grow up differently. Their experiences are not the same and the surroundings and external factors can play a great role in their gender distinctions.
Imagine this: if you grow up in a world where a certain quality, say recklessness, is consistently praised, and you eventually become a reckless adult, are you reckless because you are or because you were taught to be? The question of nature versus nurture is complex but can hold the answer to gender differences. We can safely say that a woman’s submissiveness in a conservative society is more a result of external effects than it is an innate trait she was born with.
Traditional Gender Roles in America
Gender roles in America are divergent due to the culturally diverse nature of the United States. The roles also change as the political and economic status of the country fluctuate. A striking example of the change is the transformation of American families from a single-income family to a dual-income family. That is, fathers were first responsible for earning money while mothers stayed at home and cared for the house and children. At a point, it wasn’t socially acceptable for a woman to provide for herself. Now families are supported by both parents and, in some cases, the father is a stay-in dad and the mother is the provider. It is not a new social structure as much as it is liberalism or an economic necessity. Nowadays, family members can, at leisure, make the decision of who supports the family and who cares for the children. They can both perform the two tasks and they can both pursue their careers. So from segregation within a family America moved to integration. The father figure is also no longer as dominant as only a few decades ago. The society itself is no longer patriarchal. Both parents have a say in how they manage their house and their underage children. Despite the fact that more and more women are in the workforce now, they are still expected to be the primary caregivers for their children.
In the United States, more and more occupations are available for women. Women are now enrolled in the army and are police officers and judges. These positions were almost a feminism dream in the past century. Women are also less shamed and paraded for their personal life choices. Society now refrains from condemning a woman for a romantic relationship she is involved in. In many areas of the world, these facts are still rights women fight and struggle for: to have equal job opportunities, to not be oppressed by a male figure in the family (father, brother, etc.), and to have her personal freedom.
Despite the great progress, gender roles in America can still be seen in the little things: like a family’s choice of toys or sports for their children and the favorite gender-specific traits in long-term partners. David Buss conducted a study that eventually revealed that men still favored “beauty and youth” in their partners whereas women valued financial security and social status.
The world has gone a long way in its war against oppression and intolerance. More and more minorities are fighting and earning their rights just as you read this. No one can ever deny that we are different; we will always have our differences. There will always be different nationalities, different religions, different colors, and different sexual orientations. We live in a big vast world and there is a little of everything, and it is beautiful. Instead of banishing all that is different or waste our limited time on this planet on pointless fights for supremacy, we should learn to accept and tolerate and understand. Individuality is the greatest gift you could give to your child, to let them be themselves, to allow them to grow up with no social pressure to become someone else. What we are is what we are; there is never a manual to follow.