Pink is for girls and blue is for boys, right? Well, in this decade its true; but did you know that in the early 1900s pink was the color for boys? You don’t have to take it from me either, a quote taken from The Women’s Journal (around 1905) explains that, “pink being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Anecdotes like this might lead one to wonder about other assumptions we make about gender. Does long hair really suit females better? Are males really more interested in sports and cars than their female counterparts? Are females really more in touch with their emotions? Maybe you even reach a point where you start to question: is there any constant difference between boys and girls?
The answer, of course, is yes; there is one difference (and I don’t think it needs spelling out) that constantly sets males and females apart. Beyond that physical divider, however, studies increasingly show that boys and girls are as inherently different from those within their gender norms as they are from those outside. The differences that we perceive are purely socially created and enforced divides.
The most important thing we need to understand when considering the social construction of gender is the difference between gender and sex. Sex is a biological given – people are born male or female based on their reproductive organs; gender, on the other hand, is a socially constructed set of characteristics and expectations that go along with each sex. Gender is changeable over time, sex is not. Being aware of this can help us to be more open minded to people who attempt to break these gender constructs and be themselves, rather than be an “ideal” girl or boy.
A study done by psychologists Maccoby and Jacklin in 1974 reported that people perceive, “typical boy behaviors [as] being noisy, rough, active, competitive, defending themselves, defying punishment, doing dangerous things and enjoying mechanical objects,” while, “typical girl behaviors were being helpful, neat and clean, quiet, well-mannered, being a tattletale, crying, and being easily frightened.” Now, some may argue that these perceptions have some inherent truth, since they are so often manifested in those of the appropriate sex. Those people have a point, however, they need to consider the following anecdote:
A study conducted in 1969 by psychologists Michael Lewis and Susan Goldberg found that mothers treated their young sons and daughters very differently. They usually kept their infant female children closer to them than their boys. They also touched and talked to their daughters more than their sons. By the age of 13 months, girls stayed closer to their mothers when they played. When the researchers placed barriers between the mothers and their children they found the girls were more likely to cry and motion for help; the boys to try to climb over the wall. Lewis and Goldberg concluded that, in our society, parents unconsciously reward independence in their sons and passive dependence in their daughters.
While it is true that the females and males in the study did display the stereotypical responses that were expected based on their gender it seems quite obvious to me that they did so as a result of their upbringing, rather than some innate female or male personality trait. Thus, if these gender norms did not exist, parents would not raise their male and female children differently, the children would not necessarily be taught to take on stereotypical gender-based traits, and thus children would not be as likely to behave in accordance to their gender roles. Studies like these have proven over the years that, while sex-based hormones play some role in development, the main reason why these gender stereotypes hold true is because we believe they are true and treat others accordingly.
So, whats the problem? I’ll admit that gender may be a social construct but, why is it bad that the construct is continuously supported? One word: marginalization. Although nurture plays a part in development, identities are also cultivate from within and so, often, people grow on their own to display personality traits that don’t “fit” their culturally-constructed gender’s label. These people tend to be treated with contempt and discomfort in society because many cannot deal with individuals who fall out of the norms that they are expected to maintain. When girls don’t fit gender norms they are usually placed into a handful of categories, mainly: tomboy, geek, bitch, or slut. When boys fall short of gender norms they are called many things (pussy, bitch, wimp, sissy) but they generally all mean the same thing, the “ultimate” insult that can be directed at a male… feminine.
Gender norms keep many people from feeling comfortable with who they are, and prevent many others from opening their minds to those who are different from them.
Discuss your own experiences with gender stereotyping in the comments if you’d like, anything said will provide help in shaping the articles I will produce in the coming weeks!