We all have the right to develop in any way we like, outside of gender standards from yesterday or today or tomorrow.
Do you enjoy being told, “Since you are a woman (or man) you’re supposed to be (or do)…”
For many years now, I’ve been trying to makes sense of the expectations thrown on myself and other men like, “You have to be strong, have money, conviction and always be confident (even when you don’t feel confident)”—just because I’ve been tagged a “man.”
“These gender stereotypes are not just descriptive,… but they are actually prescriptive. Women SHOULD be nice, they SHOULDN’T be ambitious. Women are penalized for showing male traits (and vice versa).” ~ Cordelia Fine, author of ‘Delusions of Gender’
In our culture, “Who you have to be” as a man or woman is implied and sometimes stated outright, depending on your subculture. Some people believe that you are born with a certain biology and that it comes with a certain behavior pattern that you’re stuck with.
What makes more sense to me is that our culture gives us ideas about how to behave and we follow suit—because we get punished if we don’t. I was punished for not being strong as a young boy by getting pushed into lockers at school.
From what I understand, I got off easy.
We have to wonder, when a parent sees their son and daughter playing in the mud and they run over in horror to save their little daughter from making a mess…who gave them the right to decide that Sally couldn’t get dirty but Tommy should? Is the parent acting out of a fear that their daughter’s biology is somehow scrambled, or are they reinforcing an idea that their daughter and son must adhere to? Because if said parent doesn’t get the gender role-playing right, their kids will be punished for not fitting in.
Kids don’t miss that kind of thing—that message in the moment is loud and clear, and tends to stick around for a while in that tiny vastness of subconscious land. The message may be received as something like, “boys are tough and strong and don’t need to be saved, while girls are weak and need a hero’s rescue.”
When boys fall short of that ‘tough’ standard by showing a perceived weakness, or girls don’t match up by acting tough, our culture encourages push-back. It’s as if we walk around with an authoritative voice (like we’re still in high school) that says, “Don’t let them get away with that sh*t.”
I assume most parents have good intentions and aren’t trying to mess their kids up for life. Of course you start out by doing whatever mom and dad did for you, and the auto-pilot turns on before you can think through your options. It happens to everyone—except Jesus.
Here’s an idea: when you realize how you push people back into culturally stereotyped roles, just pay attention and see what you feel compelled to do once you know you have choices.
Since the invention of the mirror, women have paid close attention to their appearance—and as women they’ve been asked to play the role of “object of desire,” whether or not they want to, and layer on top of that, they don’t even get to choose the standard for what’s desirable—someone else tells them!
Even men are starting to be sold on the importance of their appearance, and “metrosexuals” as we call them, are buying. Men who associate with fashion, appearance, and aesthetics, tow a line between flaunting themselves as objects of desire (and therefore crossing a gender boundary—insert applause here) and potentially taking on some of the typically female shame around not meeting a standard of beauty (depending on your subculture, the metrosexual man could be a sign of Doomsday or an ushering in of The New World.)
Standards for male and female behavior need to go away; they create a separation where their needn’t be one. I recommend a “We-are-the-World-approach,” where a range of behavior is available as a human being’s choice.
By the way, I’m not down on all standards—just the ones intended to manipulate others.
Whether you identify (or have been identified) as a man or a woman doesn’t matter—what matters is that you have a free range of choices when it comes to how you speak, act, dance, dress, how you deal with heartache, etc.
In any case, I have a theory that when I dress up and bring attention to my appearance—with my clean shave, my hair gel, my ‘nice’ threads and any male-approved jewelry—it will at least appear that I have some cash. And as a man, when I appear to have cash, I’m meeting one of the original requirements of the “man” identity; showcasing my money-power (a good substitute for muscles, by the way).
So as a man, I can flex the “What I choose to wear” option and it sort of works either way. I’m not expected to look hot in the same way that a woman is supposed to look hot. Although I bet a lot of people would disagree, because in fact, that seems to be a trend in some subcultures. The logic here seems to be if women have been pressured to look hot, then men may as well have to look hot too. And if the bar stays high enough for men and women, well, that’s just good for the economy!
In the broad cultural view (i.e. what appears in mainstream media), men today are still expected to prove that they have money or muscle power in order to fit the male role expected of them. Somehow, that makes them “real men” in the eyes of many; except there’s nothing real about that “real man.” This “made-up man” is the reason I got pushed into lockers. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who’s faced some hardship just because of a fictitious ideal, either.
This buff-bodied, financially strong, willfully sharp and intellectually confident character is just that: a character. A figment of our imagination and a vision that does a huge disservice to both men and women.
I’m not saying that nobody should aspire to those things; I’m saying that nobody should be pressured to aspire to them or be punished for not playing the role well enough. And if men are all those things above, it implies that women can’t be.
What kind of bullsh*t is that?
Show me a man who has found success in only those man-centered areas (buff-bodied, financially strong, willfully sharp, and intellectually superior) and I will show you a man who has no meaning and no real relationships; in essence, an empty man with no heart or soul. “I did the real-man thing,” he might attest. “I did what I thought I was supposed to do, and yet I feel like I’ve done nothing that truly matters.”
Shame on a gender game giving out rules that inherently misguide people into one-dimensional fractions of themselves.
This happens to women, too.
As a culture, we’ve essentially been saying to women, “Don’t worry about making money or being like, smart, or anything like that. The guys have got that covered. Instead, you’ll have a lot of insight around feelings and you’ll totally wanna talk about your emotions. And you’ll have this kind of wisdom, like you’ll just always know stuff and you won’t know how you know it. I mean, that’s pretty good, you know? If you got your stuff covered, including the looking ‘damn-good’ part especially, someone else will take care of you and buy you anything you need.”
No matter which way you slice it, one-dimensionality is horrible. I believe that this is what we (as a culture) are implying through our images, actions, inactions, etc. This gender game is in the air and not going away unless we stare it in the face and choose for ourselves how we will relate to these ideas that men are and should be one way, and women another (which lets us all off the hook for being sexist).
What do women who want to break the glass ceiling do when female assertiveness is not an option because it’s too man-like? What do men who want to open up to their guy friends do when male vulnerability is not acceptable because it’s too woman-like?
This gender game hurts everyone.
A gender game that leaves us with rules on who “men-are-to-be” and who “women-are-to-be” is a no-win scenario. Do you really think women can’t rock out with a new hot rod or men can’t access an inner wisdom of their own? Answer for yourself. If you don’t agree with what I’m saying here, no worries; the game will go on either way. And when it’s time to stop the game, the game will stop.
Ladies, gentlemen and the rest of you lovelies, I believe we all have the right to express who we are without being punished for not fitting into our ascribed gender roles of “man” or “woman.” We all have the right to develop in any way we like, outside of gender standards from yesterday or today or tomorrow.
Please consider leaving the blinders off, putting the rules aside and making your choice for you; not for any gender standards set up outside of you. Be sensitive to those around you who might worry you’ll be part of the punishing crew. And please, don’t be part of that crew—that crew sucks.
Honestly, I believe men and women are not from distant planets, but they’re both from the same place. I like to call “Earth.”
It’s catchy, right?
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[ a version of this article first appeared on elephantjournal ]