Our gender identity is one of the most important social identities we have. Mostly obtained in primary socialisation, it affects almost every aspect of our lives.
Many people make the mistake of directly associating gender with biological sex. This is not always accurate, despite apparent connections between them. As well as transsexuals, there is the wider possibility that what is considered as "typical" masucline or feminine behaviour differs between societies1. For example, Margaret Mead's study of the roles of men and women in New Guinea, "Sex and Temperament" (1935), showed significant differences compared to traditional western roles:
- The Mundugumar
- Both sexes displayed "masculine" characteristics such as aggression and a hatred of childbirth and childcare
- The Arapesh
- The epitome of shared conjugal roles. Both men and women were gentle and passive. Women did heavy carrying whilst men had an equal hand in childcare. Not only that but men even tried to share the pains of childbirth and were generally supportive throughout.
- The Tchambuli
- "Traditional" roles were reversed. Men shopped and dressed up for the aggressive women, who traded and made sexual advances.
Gender identity is, as previously stated, mostly socialised during primary socialisation. As such, the family, as the most important agent of primary socialisation plays a vital role, including, in most cases, providing children with their first examples of males and females: their parents.
Children will often imitate parents as part of their own games and this helps them to socialise their parents' actions as typical behaviour of their respective genders. Often, such games also provide a consolidation of society's stereotypes — the husband goes out to work whilst the wife stays at home and takes the role of the dutiful housewife and so on. The distribution of chores continues this, with girls more likely to perform domestic chores and boys more likely to clean the car, hold doors up whilst their middle-aged fathers fumble helplessly with hinges and other similar activities.
Society's stereotypes are additionally introduced by the parents themselves as their own personal stereotypes affect how act and react to their children. Ann Oakley (1982) defines two major processes by which parents enforce society's stereotypes:
- Parents encourage or discourage behaviour based on the perceived appropriateness to a child's sex. For example, girls are often subject to stricter supervision and curfews whilst boys are encouraged to run around and fall off trees to their hearts' desire.
- Children's interests are channelled through the purchase of gender-specific goods. For example, boys will often be given something along the lines of Action Man whilst girls are given Barbies. This increases the association of particular sexes with particular roles and increases pressure on the children to follow these stereotypes.
Primarily an agent of secondary socialisation, the school still plays a significant role in the formation of gender identity. Michelle Stanworth's "Gender and Schooling" (Hutchinson 1983) suggests the school's influence as a "hidden curriculum", which teaches stereotypical attitudes and behaviour through schools' organisation and the attitudes of teachers — a side effect of teachers themselves having their own perceptions of gender. For example, teachers often have higher expectations of boys in classes and give them more attention since they are often perceived to be the future "breadwinners". They are also less tolerant of unruly behaviour by girls, as it is consider "unfeminine" whereas boys, once again, get a lot of leniency as long as they don't spill blood.
A person's school years also have a big influence on their occupational stereotypes. Schoolbooks generally portray men and women in stereotypical roles. Children's reading books will have the dutiful home mother whilst, at a later stage, science textbooks will have mostly show boys performing experiments and home economics books mostly show girls. Teachers give girls and boys different career advice and suggest they enter into different subjects. Arts subjects tend to be dominated by girls2 whilst boys opt for more scientific subjects. In Britain, the introduction of the National Curriculum has helped to reduce this division of subject choice since both cooking and sticking bits of wood together are required for everyone under the wonderful concept of Design and Technology but there are still noticeable differences when students are allowed to pick their own subjects.
As the group within which most social mixing occurs, the desire to be accepted by one's peer group is quite strong. Peer groups, particularly in childhood tend to be divided according to gender and as a result there is a lot of pressure within peer groups to conform to the perceived norms and interests of one's gender. Failure to do so, for example collecting soft toys as a boy can lead to ridicule within and ostracism from one's peer group.
Peer groups are often responsible for enforcing a sexual double standard that is prevalent throughout society: reactions to sexual conquest. If you are a promiscuous male, your fellow men will consider you a stud, an example to be followed, a god among men. However, if a female were to do the same thing, they would often be derided as a slut and shunned as a result.
The mass media often plays on society's stereotypes in order to appeal to consumers and, as a result, helps to enforce these stereotypes throughout society. This occurs throughout almost all media including fairy tales, in which women are generally either helpless damsels to be rescued by manly heroes or nasty and evil. Another example would be romantic fiction, which appeals to the stereotypes held by some women.
It's the 21st Century and things have changed. Society's perceptions of men and women have been modified as a result of feminism and the resultant economic independence of many women. This has had repercussions in both masculine and feminine identities.
Feminine identities have, predictably, been strengthened by the feminist movement3. Sharpe (1994) indicates that young females have become more assertive about their rights to education and careers. Women have also become the most common initiators of divorce proceedings. McRobbie's studies of girls' magazines in Britain from 1982 and 1991 document this trend. In 1982, most magazines focussed on obtaining a "steady", romantic relationship and little else. In 1991, the magazines were more realistic towards such things and recognised readers as intelligent, productive future workers. They also contained clearer signs of gender equality, with more references to friends of the opposite sex and such-like. McRobbie attributes this change to television programmes such as Grange Hill and Brookside.
Feminists tend to disagree with the perception that society is becoming more equal, suggesting that all this new independence is just a phase before women get married and settle down.
As women have become more powerful, male identities have begun to change. Connell (1995) identifies the emergence of three new forms of masculinity:
- Complicit masculinity
- The "new man" or "Sensitive New Age Guy"4. Complicit men are similar to those of the Arapesh tribe mentioned above, sharing work with partners and getting in touch with their emotions. However, Connell suggests that men still benefit by a "patriarchal dividend" as they remain the main breadwinners and so women still continue do to most of the housework.
- Subordinate masculinity
- This refers to homosexual males. Despite increased tolerance in society, gay men are still subordinate and stigmatised.
- Marginalised masculinity
- The decline in manufacturing in Britain has led to large-scale unemployment among the working class. Men have to stay at home whilst all the women with their fancy educations take all the jobs. Some argue that this has lead to a "crisis of masculinity" in which older men are demoralised, as they are no longer the main breadwinners and younger males see themselves as having no future and so feel that school is irrelevant. This may lead to increased delinquency.
Willott and Griffin (1996) conducted a study into the long-term unemployed in the West Midlands. They found that most men associated masculinity with "getting out of the house" and working in order to lift their family from welfare support. The long-term nature of their unemployment left them demoralised both at home and with peers. However, this did not lead to a major change in the distribution of power within families. This lead them to conclude that there is not a "crisis of masculinity", merely a weakening of certain elements of masculinity.
Susan Faludi's (1999) study into American men found that they felt "betrayed" by a society which had rising unemployment, shrinking pay, longer hours and an increased fear of redundancy at work. They felt that marriage had become an unstable institution and that their role in the community — through church, politics or local groups — had become diluted by increased female involvement. Men doubted their self-worth as traditional loyalties and roles were undermined by consumer culture.
The media's role
As women have become more empowered, the media has had to respond accordingly. Women are now identified as consumers in their own right thanks to their increased economic independence and as a result are the target of more advertising. Portrayals of men have also been adjusted. Johnathan Rutherford (1988) identifies two idealised images of men, both reactions to feminism:
- Retributive man
- Retributive man is an upholder of manhood and traditional masculinity. A purchaser of "lads' mags", he lashes out at traitors to the cause, the wimps, also known as...
- New man
- Mentioned above, the "new man" appeared in 1980s advertising. He is sensitive and a proud father. Some advertisements portray him as a sexual object in order to attract women.
However, the media has not changed entirely. There is still evidence of traditional stereotyping. Almost everyone in Britain who has a television will be aware of the Flash advertisements, in which a balding man makes various poor attempts to do housework, only succeeding with the aid of a cleaning product. This helps reinforce the perception that men are bad househusbands and so such things are far better suited to women (who are, incidentally, very impressed at the protagonist's cleaning prowess).
1As far as this writeup goes, I am going to refer to "traditional" masculinity and femininity. This refers to most common identities in the western world, particularly Britain, since that's where I'm educated and live.
2This includes Sociology, which has lead to various expressions of surprise by people when they see my 75% male sociology class. Of course, we're hardly a representative sample since there are only four of us.
3I found it ironic that whilst making notes on this subject the Good Charlotte song Boys and Girls came on the radio.
4Thanks go to isogolem for this.