I believe that all behaviour is learnt – I think the way we act, interact, speak, walk, dress, even think to some extent is all the result of everything around us. In sociology we look at the idea of socialisation where agencies such as the media, our friends, religion, education and family play integral roles in shaping the people we are. It is like Chuck Palanuick said ‘ I am the combined efforts of everybody I’ve ever known.’ I believe that as we grow up and develop, we start reproducing and imitating, copying and internalising the norms and values of the society we live in so that we ‘fit in’ and belong. Every choice we make is the result of choices others have made.
The reason I’m writing about this is because in The Daily Mail today they have an article about how the ‘nature/nurture’ argument has been solved once and for all and that it is in fact nurture which has the biggest effect on our personalities. I kind of read it thinking well bloody duh but it is pretty controversial in a way – some people think that we are born with certain characteristics, skills, inherent traits and talents whereas I think that we are all born blank canvases and that life paints our story as we go. Our parents, desperate for us to be ‘normal’ and respected teach us how to talk and walk, how to eat in restaurants, how to dress, what to do in certain situations. They teach us what is right and wrong, what is expected of us at all times and how to interact and engage with people. School teaches us what we need to know in order to succeed in life and prepares us for the natural path of employment we should all want to be taking. Our religion teaches us moral values, our friends teach us social and cultural values and so on and all of these things work on us at the same time, all the time so that we are constantly changing and growing as people, able to adapt as we go, drawing on all of the things we have learnt.
Something massive that comes out of all this is the idea of gender roles. If all behaviour is learnt, as I believe it is then gender, masculinity and femininity is also something we learn rather than something we ‘are.’
I always ask my classes to write down everything that ‘makes a girl’ and ‘makes a boy’ pretty early on in our culture and identity unit and it’s pretty interesting to read their ideas. Boys are manly, protective, dominant, loud, like blue, cars, are messy and forgetful. Girls are sweet, innocent, passive, like pink and clothes, makeup and nail varnish, like to be hugged and cared for, looked after. Now, when we do this exercise I always get one or two students who say that that it is all biological and who sarcastically ask me if I really think it is all just a result of society that boys and girls fall into those traditional roles and I always say, well yeah. Look around us, everywhere we look gender roles are being thrown at us. The Argos catalogue is one of my favourite ways to demonstrate this; look in the toy section and you will see that girls ‘want’ to be princesses, their choice is confined to pink castles, dolls, plastic kitchens (know your place love), soft cuddly toys – things that help them on their way to being the passive, caring, nurturing women of the future. Are girls really all of those things or have we just been conditioned to think that we should be? Boys toys are cars, lego, action men, fighting figurines and toys that encourage them to problem solve and battle.
Look a bit further afield at movies and you’ll see that it continues. In films like Superman, Spiderman, Batman etc it is always the manly, muscle bound man who saves the world and gets the girl whilst she is swooning, spazzing out and generally making things harder for him. She will be wearing something inappropriate and low cut and will pout and provocatively pose her way through the film whilst the male lead will be stoic, closed off and hard.
In most rom coms, women are portrayed as desperate to snag a man, get married and settle down whilst the man is often shown to be a commitment – phobe hulk of manly irresponsibility who is sexist, chauvinistic and yet somehow irresistible to the woman in question who overlooks all major character flaws as personality is clearly not important. It happens in friends where Monica is baby crazy and Chandler is willing to move to Yemin to avoid commitment; it happens in Buffy which despite being generally fantastic still panders to traditional roles in a way with Buffy obsessing over Angel, Parker, Riley, Spike etc and their effect on her. All of these programmes contribute to how we view gender roles; women are supposed to want certain things and act a certain way so this impacts on how we behave.
Children are often brought up conforming to gender roles, even if their parents do it completely subconsciously. We often hear boys being told ‘not to be a girl’ (like it’s some awful bad thing) or that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Girls are taught not to be loud or silly whereas boys running around screaming like banshees are just ‘boys being boys.’ Girls are often met with stricter rules such as early curfews whereas boys are considered to be more able to look after themselves. Fathers play sports with their sons, teach them how to fix things and tell them how they should protect their sisters wheras girls are taught to be kind and gentle and taught to bake with their mothers. When children do conform to these ideals they are praised and so the roles are re-enforced.
That’s all well and good but is it a bad thing? I think that sometimes it can be. There is something called the ‘crisis of masculinity’ where men are seen to be floundering as their roles in society are displaced. As women, rightly so, enter the workplace at an ever increasing (but not completely equal yet) rate and are becoming more reliant on themselves as traditional views of women’s capabilities and expectations placed upon them shift and move on, men are slightly at a loss. What is their role now? No longer the sole provider/breadwinner there is an idea that they feel emasculated and weakened. Ironic that as women become stronger and more independent, men feel like they are losing their self worth and place. Also, women are feeling pressure as they try and combine the traditional role of mother and caregiver with their new-found place in the workforce. ‘Having it all’ is a bit of a bollocks statement made by people able to afford full time help. So both men and women end up feeling a bit frustrated and like they are failing as they can no longer conform to what they perceive is expected of them. Women feel that they should be able to cook like Nigella, look like Cheryl Cole, have the bank balance of the Beckhams, the parenting skills of Supernanny etc and its bloody hard. Men on the other hand feel that they should look like Jason Statham, sleep with models, provide for their family whilst respecting their wives ability to do so as well, be the protector etc and again – bloody hard. Whilst trying to continue societal norms and values and find our place in society, we place so much pressure on ourselves.
There is so so much more I want to say about this topic. The idea of gender roles is something I care a lot about so I think I might continue this blog post at another point rather than make this pages and pages long!