This is 2020. Today, the youth are definitely more “woke” than the previous generation – a term which simply means that they are more aware and active about movements and issues related to social and racial injustice – and more and more people are questioning society’s troubling history with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and so on. However, gender roles are still thrust upon us from the very day we are born. In India, where sex determination of the foetus is a crime, parents are anxious to find out if it’s a boy or a girl till the baby is delivered only so that they can know if they should paint the nursery blue or pink, or buy a doll or a car. We want to raise boys to be strong, confident, financially capable and heroic while we want girls to be demure, delicate, passive, and submissive.
Gender stereotypes have been prevalent across the globe and gender biases exist in occupations, physical appearances, personality traits and even domestic surroundings. According to Coffman et.al. (2019), gender stereotypes distort our views of both ourselves and others—and that may be especially troubling for women, who are more likely than men to shrug off the praise and lowball their own abilities. The findings from her research conclude that women are less confident than men in certain subjects like mathematics; women discount positive feedback about their abilities; and women hold back on expressing ideas on ‘male topics’.
Patriarchy as a social system hurts men too. Today, “toxic masculinity” is a term that’s fairly common and popularly used. It simply refers to a set of beliefs and expectations which surround men, thrusting upon them the idea of what it means to be “manly” and “how men ought to behave”. Men grow up learning to bottle their feelings ever since they are young because “boys don’t cry”.
Many years ago, I wrote the following story (one of my maiden attempts at flash fiction):
Amrita’s son, Rohan, was soon going to turn five years old.
“Mummy, can I please come with you and choose my birthday present?” begged Rohan.
Amrita agreed but only if he promised to choose one toy out of the many
that were there in the store. After he pinky-swore, she took him to the toy-store which was at the corner of the street. Rohan was delighted to see the various toys that were there on display, and he jumped up and down with excitement. Amrita reminded him once again that he could only pick one toy out of the lot so he should look around and choose wisely. Rohan scrambled around the whole store and finally came to his mother.
“Mummy, I know what I want for my birthday!”
He dragged her to the shelf and Amrita was rather surprised to see where he was pointing. Rohan had not chosen any car, action figure or toy-train set. Instead, his finger was pointing at a big doll, wearing a pretty purple dress.
“Are you sure you want this, Rohan?” Amrita asked.
“Yes, Mummy, I want her! She even opens and shuts her eyes!” exclaimed Rohan.
Amrita looked at his earnest face and, without another word, she bought him the doll. As they were waiting in the lobby for the elevator, Rohan ran into two of his friends. He was smiling and he beamed as he showed them his new precious possession.
“Oh my God, Rohan has got a doll!” his friends exclaimed. “Rohan is a girl!
Rohan is a girl!” they chanted and teased him.
Rohan’s eyes immediately welled up with tears as he looked at his friends and then stared at his doll. As soon as he was home, Rohan burst into tears. Amrita tried comforting him but he was inconsolable. Amrita, then, decided to just let him be and she went inside the kitchen to prepare dinner. After a while, finding the house to be unusually quiet, she came out only to find that Rohan had cried himself to sleep and the new doll was lying on the floor – her head dislocated from the rest of her body.
Amrita sighed as she realized that once people are broken in a certain fashion, they can never be fixed. Unfortunately, no one had told her this while she was growing up, as she struggled to give up her boisterous ways to meet the expectations of her parents that their daughter could conduct herself in a lady-like manner. Even today, she was surprised each time she saw people in her life break one by one. The role of being the eldest son had broken the care-free nature of her husband and transformed him into becoming a short-tempered person, always burdened with responsibility. He did not even seem to have the faintest memory of the kind of person he once used to be. She had always worried about the day when Rohan’s turn would come, and today, her heart felt heavy as she realized that it had, probably, already happened, perhaps a little too soon.
It is not uncommon for parents to feel upset when their boy plays with dolls, or if he dares to cry after experiencing something he did not like. There is no official guide on how to be a man, so trying to provide a definition of what it means to be a man or to be masculine is a highly misleading course of action. Several studies confirm that rigid gender roles regarding family and marriage contribute to men’s use of violence against female partners, and that when men believe or perceive themselves to not be “masculine enough”, intimate partner violence or motional abuse may be used to conform to gendered expectations (Heilman & Barker, 2018; Crowther-Dowey & Silvestri, 2017; Connell (1987).
Today, take some time to consider how gender norms are taught and reinforced. How have gender inequalities shown themselves in your life and those of your loved ones? For instance, think about how some boys are not taught to cook or clean up after themselves, and how some girls are not encouraged to learn or taught driving. What are some stereotypes and belief-systems you harbour regarding your own sex and gender? What are the choices you are willing to choose in order to fill your world with infinite possibilities independent of your biological sex and gender?
After all, we owe it to our boys who will grow up and become men and put out into the world all that the world has put on to them. We owe it to our daughters who will become women who do the same, as well as receive what our men have to offer. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves as a society to build a brave, new, equal world. How does it get better than that? What else is possible?
Coffman, Katherine; Bordalo, Pedro; Gennaioli, Nicola; and Shleifer, Andrei (2019). Beliefs about Gender. American Economic Review, 109 (3): 739-773.
Connell, R.W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Gender & Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Crowther-Dowey, Chris, and Marisa Silvestri (2017). The Gendering of Violent Crime: towards a Human Rights Approach. British Journal of Community Justice 14 (3).
Heilman, Brian, and Barker, Gary (2018). Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections. Washington, DC: Promundo-US.