Krystal Hur: Rejecting gender norms

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 5:23pm

It’s no secret that gender norms are perpetuated in society and have undoubtedly spawned a restrictive set of socially-acceptable behaviors that dictate how people should act based on their gender.

One report conducted by the Global Early Adolescent Study shows the prevailing effects of gender norms globally. The study questioned 450 adolescents and their parents across 15 countries. The participants ranged from 10 to 14 years old. After looking at the results, Robert Blum, director of the Global Adolescent Study and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, concluded, “children at a very early age — from the most conservative to the most liberal societies — quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent.” Blum’s explanation of the study’s results reaffirms the well-known truth that young girls are raised to be meek and vulnerable. Furthermore, young girls are also sexualized from a young age; one paper published as part of the study stated, “Around the world pubertal boys are viewed as predators and girls as potential targets and victims. Messages such as — do not sit like that, do not wear that, do not talk to him, boys will ruin your future — support the gender division of power … In some places, girls come to internalize these norms to even a greater extent than boys.”

Of course, it isn’t just young girls who are controlled by gender roles; young boys, too, are often expected to act in a certain way. An article from The Guardian noted that because boys are expected to be brave and tough since a young age, “they engage in and are the victims of physical violence to a much greater extent than girls; they die more frequently from unintentional injuries, are more prone to substance abuse and suicide; and as adults their life expectancy is shorter than that of women.” In addition, men are often discouraged from expressing their emotions, and are condemned for crying in particular. While shaming a man for crying is sexist because the act is shamed for being too “feminine” (evidenced by common insults such as “crying like a little girl”) there’s no doubt that men are taught that they must not show any emotions that exhibit vulnerability.

Gender roles have also paradoxically created the false assumption that people must reject all qualities of the socially-quintessential man or woman in order to fight gender norms. Choosing not to partake in stereotypically “feminine” activities, such as putting on makeup or shopping, does not fight gender norms. The same goes for men; avoiding stereotypically “masculine” activities such as playing sports does not help in the fight against gender norms. Neither does shaming those who choose to embody certain characteristics that make up gender norms.

For example, many people shame women who choose to stay at home with their kids and take care of the household for having “easy” jobs. In an article in the Huff Post, Michelle Zunter, a stay-at-home mom, discussed how working moms will often say to her, “‘I wish I could stay home like you but someone has to work and pay the bills!’”

As someone who knows several stay-at-home moms, I take umbrage with this statement because I have witnessed firsthand how difficult it is to keep an entire household running, and staying at home should not be conflated with not working. In addition, the assumption that stay-at-home moms don’t do any work shames women who choose to follow gender norms not because they are forced to, but because they want to. It creates yet another standard by which women feel forced to do something, instead of choosing of their free will.

Another example that affects men are the stereotypes associated with men who fit the imposed gender norm of enjoying sports; for example, stereotypes such as the “dumb jock” suggest men who are athletic are not intelligent. And though men are often viewed in society as being superior to women in terms of intelligence, these negative stereotypes that punish those who seem hypermasculine do not help fight gender roles or sexism; they only create another restrictive label. Reducing every man who likes to watch football to a crazed, violent sports fanatic isn’t doing anyone a favor.

I am not trying to champion those who choose to conform to gender roles, nor am I trying to shame those who don’t. However, I do believe avoiding qualities associated with a gender norm is not helpful: Rather, rejecting the association of qualities with specific genders, as well as the negative connotation associated with being masculine or feminine, is what is important. A woman isn’t “masculine” if she works outside the home or is athletic. A man isn’t “feminine” if he prefers to spend time inside or if he expresses his emotions freely. In addition, women who prefer to work at home and men who pride themselves on their athletic abilities aren’t complicit in perpetuating gender norms.

Using labels such as “masculine” and “feminine” is not necessarily bad, but using the terms to perpetuate negative stereotypes or shame others is harmful. The goal of rejecting gender norms is not to create a different set of restrictions, but to allow people to act how they want without being shamed. Therefore, in order to reject harmful gender norms, we must not condemn all of the characteristics that make up a norm and instead get rid of the gendering of said qualities.

This is easier said than done, but we can take steps to work toward abolishing controlling gender norms. We can teach girls and boys that their place is where they want it to be, inside or outside the house. We can stop telling men who are not stereotypically masculine to “man up” and stop telling women who are not stereotypically feminine to act more ladylike. However, because fighting gender norms also means not blaming those who may fit the mold, we must also not criticize women for being “girly,” or men for being hypermasculine. Once again, the point of fighting gender norms is to liberate people, not to restrict them in different ways.

Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.