When we talk about gender roles, we are talking about culturally assigned norms for men and women. These culturally assigned norms can be things like how we look, how we talk, what we do, or even what we like. What it means to be a man or a woman is closely regulated by society. This is problematic because it limits almost every aspect of our lives, and society can inflict harsh penalties on those who do not conform. This is at the heart of the gender equality movement. Women are restricted in employment opportunities and bodily autonomy. And because the male and female gender roles come with the requirement to be straight, the LGBT community faces a great deal of discrimination, and not just in who a person can marry. This whole concept of gender roles is a false dichotomy and damages everyone’s conceptualization of a self, but we can change this cultural construct.
I will be using the metaphor of packing a box when I talk about constructing and deconstructing gender roles. The box metaphor is well-known and simple to understand. Think about a particular box as a role we all play in society. We all have many roles. I play the role of woman, mother, wife, educator, etc. What goes into the box is our perceptions about that role and how we choose to play that role. We can pack the box ourselves or society can pack it for us. Normally, both are happening, but children who are categorically constructing their understanding of the world do very little packing of their own. And this is where I want to begin(and end), with children.
Packing our boxes
It’s important to point out that we all naturally categorize and stereotype. It allows our brains to work efficiently So children will naturally place many of the things I mentioned above in their metaphorical boxes. Let’s look at these roles: female (includes woman and girl), male (includes man and boy), mom, dad, teacher, and doctor. These roles are a large part of a young child’s life. What goes in each box? Let’s consider the questions I presented earlier regarding roles: How does someone in that role look? How does someone in that role talk? What are some things that someone in that role does? What are some things that someone in that role likes? Let’s look at them from a child’s perspective.
- looks: long hair, wears make up, wears dresses, looks pretty
- talks: asks permission, looks for affirmation of ideas
- does: talks on the phone, shopping
- likes: make up, clothes, shopping
- looks: short hair, wears jeans or pants, looks rugged
- talks: assertive, gives orders like a boss
- does: fixes things, goes to work, drinks beer
- likes: beer, sports
A mom will take on all female roles in addition to anything she does for her child. So some extra mom roles could be cleans the house, drives me to soccer practice, plays games with me, takes care of me when I’m sick, gives me a timeout when I misbehave.
A dad will take on all male roles in addition to anything he does for his child. So some extra dad roles could be plays video games with me, yells at me when I misbehave, wrestles with me, teaches me about fixing things.
- looks: wears colorful clothes
- talks: gives directions, asks me to be quiet
- does: gives me things to do, talks to me about my behavior, reads to me
- likes: frogs (a favorite animal), being at school, reading
- looks: wears a uniform, serious facial expressions
- talks: gives orders, talks with authority
- does: chases bad guys, shoots a gun, rides around in a car
- likes: drinking coffee, shooting bad guys
Children pack each box based on what they observe. Moms are female, so the mom box goes inside the female box. Dads are male, so the dad box goes inside the male box. What about teachers? Elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female, so the teacher box goes in the female box. Police officers are mostly male, so the police officer box goes in the male box. This is how our brains categorize and organize information, and this is how children construct the different roles each person plays in society.
But there’s more to packing a box than what a child observes passively. There’s what we and others say that reinforce or introduce a gender restriction like: boys don’t wear pink or girls don’t play baseball. In addition, there’s what we don’t do. As children observe our actions and make generalizations, so do they observe what we do not do, and then they make generalizations. For example, my mommy never plays video games, so mommies don’t play video games; my daddy never cooks or does the dishes, so all daddies don’t cook or do the dishes. In addition to what we don’t do, we can pack the box for our children by what we don’t encourage. Never buying anything pink for a boy or encouraging a girl to play volleyball instead of baseball sends the message that these things aren’t for certain genders. Consequences are another way society packs the box for a child (or person) who steps outside of a gender role. For example, if a boy wears pink or has a doll, a friend might make fun of him. If a girl tries to play baseball with other kids, she might be kept from playing.
We can’t stop our brains from categorizing and stereotyping, but we can stop some of these kinds of messages we’re sending to children and other people.
Unpacking the box
Many aspects of our culture attempt to place people in these binary female and male roles. If you are a female, you will like and do these things. If you are male, you will like and do this other completely different set of things. And while there are some things that are considered gender neutral, mixing and matching isn’t really allowed. So the construction of self, who we are as individuals, becomes stifled when children begin to pack their boxes (which happens very early in life). When we talk about gender equality, one of the first things a person should do is unpack their own boxes. We need to understand that people are not binary. So getting rid of the male and female boxes is an important step in self-discovery and deconstructing cultural norms and roles. We can ask children to unpack their boxes as well.
And that first step to deconstructing gender roles is simply to talk to children about gender roles. Children are never too young to hear messages like: There are no boys’ toys or girls’ toys. There are just toys. Which toys do you want to play with? There are no boys’ clothes or girls’ clothes. There are just clothes. Which clothes do you want to wear? When they’re in elementary school, a parent can dig a little deeper and talk about society’s expectations for boys and girls and why these expectations are wrong. Parents do have to counter messages their children are getting from people outside of the home, so this is an ongoing conversation.
Encourage self-exploration. As early as possible, parents should stop making decisions for what their children would like to do or would like to have. Parents should take their children to the store and let them pick out their own toys and clothes and let them choose what activities they will participate in.
Parents should remember that they are a role model, so they should let their children see them doing something outside of their gender role and/or talk about it. This doesn’t mean that people should start doing things they don’t enjoy, but a parent can make things that they do enjoy that’s outside of an assigned gender role more visible to their child.
Parents should talk through conflicts that arise from breaking a gender role. Children who break gender roles will receive some kind of backlash even from their own friends. So it’s crucial that parents give children the skills they need to handle conflicts and the confidence to see the situation through.
What this really all boils down to is convincing all members of our culture to allow people to be themselves, to let people pack the box labeled “me,” instead of what someone else thinks I should be based on whether or not I was born with a penis or a vagina. We’re so much more than our penises and vaginas.