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A Reflection on Gender Norms


A Reflection on Gender Norms

Scott Lilleston

Gender behaviors are learned through socialization.

We can see this clearly when we look at how males and females are treated differently in different cultures. As we look across cultures we can see there are a diverse array of norms.  For instance, in India it is very normal to see heterosexual men holding hands as they walk through town, even if they are just friends. But in Western societies, the same behavior is perceived differently. It is likely assumed that the two men are romantic partners.

It is true that in western society today, there is a wide range of what is considered “appropriate behavior” for males and females. Dressing and behaving in a “metrosexual” way, for instance, is considered perfectly socially acceptable in many communities (particularly urban) today.

However, there are certain traditional examples of how men are expected to conform to the masculine role. Boys are not encouraged to embrace their nurturing side. They are taught to separate themselves from their feelings—to “suck it up.” Boys aren’t supposed to play with dolls, to dress up, to play house. Females, conversely, are encouraged to role play as wife or mother in childhood with their dolls. They might be discouraged from playing “rough and tumble.”

As we begin elementary school and become more socialized, our peers have a strong influence on the process that our families started. If you are male, perhaps you recall someone yelling at you, “You throw like a girl!” In this way, youth perpetuate the cycle of pressuring each other to conform.

By the time we reach adulthood, the impact of society—the media in particular—has solidified our gender identities even further. Perhaps we remain unaware of how this affects our lives, but no one is exempt from the impact. We keep close watch over our behavior. A woman may wonder, “Am I being too assertive, too dominant or too masculine by the requests I am making at work?” A man may question whether or not he is too emotional.

We become comfortable in these roles. They are predictable and keep us “safe” in the eyes of society. But without bringing awareness to how these roles impact all the corners of our lives, we are likely rejecting an essential part of ourselves.

It is important to ask ourselves if we have disowned an essential part of who we are in order to conform.

Some may overly identify with gender-conforming behavior, and some may overly resist. Either way, we are not honoring our entire being.  

For this reason, awareness of our behavior and how we each participate in a gender-normative culture that perpetuates a painful and alienating cycle is essential. Whether we resist or conform, gender roles become a key player in how we perceive ourselves and others. It can either separate us or connect us.