This week we are doing the “Choose Respect” initiative at several youth serving agencies. One of the plays (activities) we do is called “What Role Will You Choose?” This activity looks in to how stringent gender roles can be harmful and promote unhealthy attitudes, disrespect, and violence.
So what do I mean by Gender Roles?
A gender role is a term used in the social sciences and humanities to denote a set of behavioral norms that accompany a given gendered status (also called a gendered identity) in a given social group or system. Gender is one component of the gender/sex system, which refers to “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed needs are satisfied” (Reiter 1975: 159). Every known society has a gender/sex system, although the components and workings of this system vary widely from society to society. (Wikepedia)
And the problem?
From the get go, boys and girls are treated differently by almost everyone. They learn the differences between boys and girls, women and men and the expectations of both. This happens in every culture all around the world. While gender roles themselves are just a part of life. Stringent adherence to strict gender roles is not.
Children start facing norms that define “masculine” and “feminine” from an early age. Act like a man! Act like a lady! Boys are told not to cry, not to fear, not to be forgiving and instead to be assertive, and strong. Girls on the other hand are asked not to be demanding, to be forgiving and accommodating ,“ladylike” and social, girls are allowed to be overly emotional and in constant need of rescue. We also go so far as to assume what each sex is supposed to enjoy. Boys like sports and cars and construction, they do better at math and science, they like dogs. Girls like baking and Barbies, shopping and poetry, girls are not supposed to go flashing their brain around, but if they do it had better be a subject like art or language. Girls like cats. (Only) Boys are perpetrators and (only) girls are victims.
See my issue?
Everyone is supposed to “act like” something, not just be who they are. Boys have to stuff their emotions and girls’ emotions are negated. Personal preferences, abilities, talents, and characteristics are masked. Boys are aggressors, girls are victims.
So what do we tell the kids?
To be themselves! To see others for who, not what, they are. Look for the characteristics of friends and dating partners, don’t just assume you know who they are based on their sex. Also, they must look at themselves. Are there characteristics they project, not because of how they feel, but because of gender roles? Do they feel like they can act out because of their sex? Do they feel they must hide attributes because of their sex? Are they the stereotype? Should they stereotype? What other stereotypes do we use?