By Sarah Harris
When I think about how much the culture of gender has evolved in my 22 years of life, it’s evident that we’ve come a long way as a society. I come from a South Asian background in which an integral part of our culture is the role of the female as a homemaker. As a child, it was cultivated in me that although I was to get an education, I also had to make sure the house was clean, my future husband was happy, there was a warm meal on the table and that my children were well taken care of. Having moved to the UK at a young age and being exposed to concepts of feminism early on, I quickly learned that this way of life wasn’t a necessity.
We can’t talk about gender stereotypes without talking about the history of feminism and recognising key characters in the long journey to break down traditional gender roles. Historically, when you consider gender roles, they are usually centred around pre-conceived notions of femininity and masculinity. As I mentioned earlier, for centuries, women were typically expected to take on the homemaker role and revolve their lives around the upkeep of their families and husbands, whereas men being the breadwinners, were expected to work and partake in any manual labour. Obviously, we have come a long way from this archaic mindset, although in many cultures this is still considered the social norm.
Talcott Parsons, a key sociologist in the development of gender theory, suggested that from a young age, children are socialised into adopting certain gender-specific attributes. For example, where young boys would be told to focus on their ‘instrumental attributes’ such as leadership and independence, young girls are taught to focus on their ‘expressive attributes’ such as being sensitive and dealing with emotional needs. And in some sense, the problem is much wider than that. Look back at your own childhood, regardless of where you’re from; most of the girls you surrounded yourself by were probably playing with Barbies whilst the boys were arguing over Beyblades and Hot Wheels. From a young age, we’re taught that boys and girls partake in different activities and hobbies.
So, what is gender? Well, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), gender is the term ‘used to describe the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed, while sex refers to those that biologically determined. People are born male or female, but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men. This learned behaviour makes up gender identity and determines gender roles.’ The social construction of gender is a major theory in feminism and sociology.
If we go back a few centuries, to the time of Louis XV, it was common for young boys to wear dresses until they were slightly older. Now, what is seen as a cultural norm thanks to the likes of James Charles and Jeffree Star, was also normal until the 1800s when men wearing makeup became an ‘abomination.’ Remember, women were only allowed to start wearing trousers after years of arrests and restrictions in the early 1900s. So, who decides what and what isn’t normal in terms of gender roles?
Historically, religion has played an integral role in defining gender roles. Although most religious texts such as the Bible, Quran and Torah hold women in high regard, most of the women mentioned are in relation to their roles are mothers or wives, e.g. Mary was the Mother of Jesus and Eve was the Wife of Adam. So, if religions, which thousands of cultures and societies are based upon, were subconsciously suggesting these gender roles, were we really surprised to see gender roles being played into effect? Maybe the evolution of gender roles, in part has to be due to the drift from religion in modern society. A study conducted by the PEW Research Centre found that young adults in today’s society are less likely to affiliate with a religion and are therefore more likely to have progressive mindsets. It certainly has a role to play in Feminist and LGBT rights.
But where do we put those who don’t conform with either traditional gender? The last decade has seen a huge rise in Gender Fluidity. According to dudeasks.com, there are currently 112 different genders; from trigender and vapogender, to the more commonly known transgender and cisgender. People are increasingly searching for labels for the way they identify and thinking outside the social norm. For society to become completely gender-neutral we would need to completely abandon the concept of segregation, be in same-sex schools or gendered clothing and toys.
Clearly, if we’re learning anything from history and the increasing research. This would need to start at a young age. Celebrities such as Megan Fox and Gabrielle Union are already participating by raising their children in a genderless environment and this is key in helping breakdown the barriers. Women can be CEOs too. Men can wear dresses too. Women can grow out their body hair too. Men can stay at home to look after the kids too. Despite the long way we have come, we still have a long way to go. If gender roles have shifted why is there still gender disparity in many other aspects of society? Why are fewer women still being given more important roles in work? Why are so many women being paid less than their male colleagues? Evidently, the culture of gender is much more problematic than just diminishing stereotypes. We still have a long way to go before we can achieve complete equality. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the strides we make in the evolution of gender in the years to come.