Gender roles. Gender typing. Gender stereotypes. Gender expectations.
Did they affect you growing up? Do they affect you now, and if so, how so? Do you embrace traditional gender roles or the stereotypes of your sex or do you find them constricting and off-putting?
While I don’t wish to shame the people who prefer traditional roles in society, I find gender stereotypes generally discouraging. We are much more complex than the neat little categories and labels we use to confine each other to the oftentimes stale ideas of how a woman should act or what a man should do. To do so lessens the significance of what it means to be people, wonderful, multifaceted, both “feminine” and “masculine” human beings.
The following notes are little things I’ve picked up on since college, little personal tidbits and anecdotes that could perhaps make one stop and contrast them with his or her own experiences, or could make one compare them with how one has been treated or would like to be treated or would like to start treating others. After all, little things are where and how the big things begin.
(So these are from the perspective of a woman experiencing certain expectations because I am a woman, but I would love to hear from the gentlemen out there about their experiences with social expectations, as well as from other women, transgender individuals, etc. You are all welcome to share your stories if you wish. Candidness is welcome and appreciated here.)
Now I notice…
- When I was little, my grandmother expected me to be quiet (generational thing? Probably, but did that matter to you when you were little?).
- It was implied that I was expected to get my ears pierced and get into makeup. (I didn’t—heaven forbid—and I usually only blot foundation.)
- Over the Internet someone told me and another user, “Girls, girls, you’re both pretty” to end a discussion we were having about predicting feminist reactions to a canceled children’s show. I wouldn’t call what we were doing arguing, yet someone still thought he or she could silence us by complimenting us. Isn’t that benevolent sexism? I don’t believe I’ve heard of telling men they’re handsome to get them to stop discussing something. Anyway, I’d like the person to whom I’m talking to finish listening to my side, so I can take in his or hers. There is plenty more to a woman than trying to sway her to be silent by catering to her (assumed) vanity.
- Again, over the Internet, a person alluded to me that I am essentially less of a person because of a condition I have that may eventually render me unable me to bear children (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). I gather statements like these may just come from the raging ignorance that plagues some who use the Internet or, in this person’s case, a radical scientific mind, but the fact that someone felt the need to assert to me that some women are invalid and depreciable because we may not be able to have babies? As they say on the Internet, “lolwut”? A woman is much more than her uterus just as a man is much more than his sperm count. You can contribute to life without furthering your own bloodline. An adoptive/foster parent is still a parent.
- Once, for an experiment for psych class, I wore a dress on campus. It was mostly purple and knee-length and even pinned to hide my ample bust, and all my male companion could tell me was why he couldn’t understand why I didn’t dress like that all the time or why I wasn’t more focused on what I looked like rather than my personality. Are you kidding me, son? Why don’t I wear dresses all the time? Because I don’t want to. Because it’s not what I’m comfortable in. Because this is not the 1950s. Because it’s cold. Are those not acceptable answers? Evidently not to him. Why? Because women are expected to be pretty and adhere to what others want them to look like?
- Also on campus, on the bus, I experienced what I believe to be an instance of sexual harassment. I had the window seat and a young man sat down next to me and proceeded to lean against my shoulder, to press himself up on me and invade my personal space. Crushed against the inner armrest, I kept looking ahead, trying to ignore the fact that he’d turned fully to face me, but out of my peripheral vision, I saw his eyes crawl up and down my neck and profile. I squirmed, he frowned and I resigned to sitting there, his X-ray eyes all over me (and for anyone who says what I was wearing must have enticed him, I was in a hoodie and sweatpants). I was surprised, because objectification doesn’t happen to me often, and even more surprised at my lack of gusto…disgusted in fact. I was sure I was blowing it all out of proportion—even now I feel that way recounting it, but I remember how acutely uncomfortable I was. I was furious at him for putting me in such a position and even more so at myself for allowing myself to endure this, but I remained silent…and ashamed. I should have said something, should have stood up for myself, be it politely or pointedly, screw his response. But I didn’t and when I very briefly thought about doing so, I decided not to because I didn’t want to make a fuss. The bus was packed; people surrounded us and I didn’t want to deal with anyone else’s eyes…their judgments.
Seriously, though, no one who’s experiencing unwanted contact should be worried about drawing negative attention—he or she should be concerned about getting the person to back the heck up. My women’s psych class tells me one reason I did nothing might have been because social cues teach women to be try and be polite and apologetic while these same cues can inform men that they are more or less entitled to space and “chiller,” for lack of a better term, behavior. You could call bull on this and just call me a coward in the moment, and I could understand that too. But if anything, it does make me think. There were only a handful of times when a guy dropped down next to me on the bus and left me enough room to leave my legs uncrossed—most of them splayed their legs wide apart, like they were about to give birth. Pfft. It’s no secret I’m a big gal—size 14, wide shoulders, hips. I need space too! If our legs had been distanced an equal width, we’d both have been comfortable, wouldn’t we? Hmm.
Well, now that I know how ashamed I’d feel, I’m fairly certain I’d never let that happen to me again…
Or would I? Who knows. It’s hard to unlearn the things we’ve taken in from society. But if you want to make up your own mind badly enough, you’ll find it to be worth a try…
I suppose a lot of beliefs boil down to consideration, to another shout-out from something we learn in our youth: treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s an oldie, but it’s a keeper.
Who doesn’t want respect? And man or women or someone in between, who doesn’t deserve the chance to earn it?
I want to be treated with respect, and I hope my art will garner the same. I want to turn some gender expectations and stereotypes on their head. I want guys who cry and women who drink. The strongest of my superhero team is female and I have on the backburner a teen father who takes care of his baby as well as an asexual male character. And why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t the different spectrum of all peoples be represented? One of the most beautiful things on this planet is when people learn, when they broaden their perspectives, and to try and give someone the gift of that new sight is one of the greatest reasons to answer your calling as an artist.
So go on. Show ’em something they don’t expect.
Show ’em something new to respect.
For anyone interested in exploring the effect of gender expectations and media portrayal of women, I recommend the documentary Missrepresentation on NetFlix or even its 2:40 preview on YouTube, or even the gender-reversal videos on the online channel BuzzFeed. They may prove interesting…or infuriating, depending on your outlook on the subject.
If you wish to share a personal experience of how public or private expectations have perhaps shaped you—for either better or worse—please leave a comment or anecdote below. Thank you.