Gender and Its Social Influence
When looking at societal issues that dominate the 21st century, one of the most glaringly obvious and controversial topics is the topic of gender. According to Merriam Webster, gender is defined as being the behavioral, cultural and psychological traits typically associated with one’s sex. Although gender is conventionally thought of as being the same thing as sex (male or female), it is actually quite different and raises several serious questions about our relationship with gender and how it is enacted in society today. Gender serves as a “template” for the expectations assigned to our sex by society and serves as the standard that society believes we must uphold to “truly” represent our sex. This societal pressure forces millions of people to fear expressing their true selves, due to the potential backlash of performing an action that may not conform with the societal expectations of your sex. This results in many people hiding their true identities and personalities and conforming to gender norms that they do not identify simply to protect themselves from social backlash and potentially even social isolation.
The Difference Between Sex and Gender
One of the biggest problems when it comes to the debate surrounding gender is the common misunderstanding of the difference between sex and gender. Sex, refers to the biological differences between a male and a female, such as genitalia or genetics. Gender on the other hand, is the cultural, behavioral and psychological differences that we typically associate with one’s sex, such as one’s style of dress and the activities that someone likes to participate in. While sex directly refers to the physical and genetic differences between a male and a female, gender refers to the way in which someone should generally behave in any given situation. For example, young children are frequently told that boys like blue and girls like pink. Although there is no biological explanation behind this logic, the idea is still enforced, which in turn forces many young boys who like pink and many young girls who like the color blue to contradict themselves. From a very young age these kids are shamed into believing that certain sexes HAVE to wear certain colors and that if they don’t they are not portraying the most manly or womanly version of themselves. Not only is this incredibly oppressive but it also creates a massive identity crisis that can affect individuals, their confidence and their personalities for the rest of their lives.
The Development of Gender Roles and Their Impact
As we grow and develop in our society, we are introduced more and more to the societal expectations of our sexes. These expectations develop into a general stereotype of how both sexes are supposed to behave and becomes what we call gender roles. Similarly, to gender, gender roles define the widespread expectation of different sexes and their behaviors in everyday actions. A good example of gender roles, is the cliché concept of the domestic housewife that cooks, cleans and takes care of the house. Although we as a society have moved beyond the widespread belief that women can only belong in the domestic space there is still a massive amount of people that conform to this expectation, but would rather choose not to vocalize it. These gender roles serve as a manner for controlling societal interactions and to create a power structure between the two sexes. There is no more biological reasoning behind assigning domestic chores to a woman, than a man and above all there is no moral reasoning.
Along with forcing people into the societal expectations that may or may not fit them (usually they don’t), gender roles also have a massive role in developing our actual personalities. Because we fear the potential social backlash of not conforming to our assigned gender and because we are made aware of our assigned gender almost from birth, gender roles and gender has a massive impact in the developing of our personalities. As a young child, I really used to like painting my nails. After finding out that painting nails was an activity generally associated with women and that the societal expectation of women is to be dependent on the man, I stopped painting my nails. Because I feared the repercussions of liking an activity associated with women and because I was a male, I steered away from these colors and in turn left a piece of my personality that day. Even though this is example is of something as minor as a painting nails, it serves as an example for even more important and crucial forms of self-expression that are often oppressed and bullied out of people by traditional gender roles.
Another element of gender roles and the impact that they have on the development of our personalities is through the strong social connections and the way in which people buy into the concept. Because there is such a huge societal backlash for performing gender roles outside of our expectations, many people learn these roles and abide by them strictly. What can result from this is the development of individuals and personalities that strictly conform and represent to these gender norms on an exaggerated level. This performance is called hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity, with both being heavily exaggerated versions of their sexes gender roles. This can become problematic because these different styles of personality are often very overbearing and cause problems within that individual’s relationships. This is also problematic because hypermasculinity represents extreme dominance, while hyperfemininity represents extreme submission. This often results in direct conflict, usually in romantic relationships, where the hypermasculine male is more likely to be abusive, while the hyperfeminine female is more likely to be abused. Even though both the hypermasculine male and the hyperfeminine female have become what they are today due to some of their own personal choices, I believe that it also serves as an example of the cruelness of gender roles in our society. Both groups of people try their best to conform to gender roles and rid themselves of potential social backlash, and as a result their personalities and entire lives revolve around repressing their desires to maintain their image. What may have stemmed from the confusion of being told “pink is a girl’s color” is the exaggeration of what gender is perceived to be at a level that is unnatural and often at war with that person’s true feelings and desire. This creates a double edged sword that highlights the negative effects of conforming with gender roles simply to fit in to society.
Even though there are still many points of debate and issues surrounding gender, the discussion we have been able to have in the past couple of years and especially recently has been incredibly constructive and has paved the way for new perspectives on the issue. Social movements and other various events have made it possible to have a discussion about gender as a social construct, the effects of gender, and how gender directly impacts our ways of self expression. Although there are still many issues surrounding gender, I believe that we are taking the right steps to realize its impact on our lives and how best to free ourselves from its oppresive shackles.