This World Has 99 Problems, and Gender Stereotypes are Like, 98 of Them: Teens and Gender Roles
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist who spoke at a TEDx talk said, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than how we are.” The paired mentality that dictates who we are on such premises is passed down generation through generation. Boys are still gifted monster trucks and light sabers and Nerf guns, while girls are gifted Barbie dolls and kitchen sets and dresses. And should a girl want a Nerf gun – fear not! There are sparkly pink, small Nerf guns specially designed for your daughter, so that she may be further pummeled by her brothers.
Girls are expected to learn how to fold clothes and set the dinner table from an early age while boys are exempt from this and conversely taught to take out the trash and mow the lawn. Girls are urged to maintain their appearances, especially for guests and boys to introduce themselves with proper appearances and then allowed free to “be boys.” Unknowingly, parents allow the restrictive mindset of gender separation to trickle through to their children, condoning the patriarchal mindset in males and the submissive one in females, consequently making the problem of gender roles just as common among the youth of today as it is among adults.
This year, as a junior in high school, I am taking a sociology class. Recently, we did a gender study and discussed topics of gender representation and how the division of sexes from birth automatically leaves girls at a disadvantage. To wrap up this unit, we participated in a student led discussion, where the class was separated by gender and given the opportunity to ask questions to the opposite gender. Questions about sexuality, stereotypes, behaviors, preferences, and so on were asked and the discussion was very enlightening. However, I found that I was outright shocked at some of the responses from high school boys: juniors and seniors, mind you.
When asked about the appetite of a girl, all of the boys in my class answered that if a girl ate more than he did, he would become incredibly uncomfortable and embarrassed and order more food, just to eat more than his date. This could be classified as one of two things: pathetic or barbaric. But then, you have to recognize where these mindsets come from. These ideas are deeply embedded within the societal values that surround us. The ideas are born of the separation of gender from birth. We see that females are frequently associated with domestic duties, such as those in the kitchen. Women are meant to prepare food and distribute it to children and spouses; it is almost odd for them to actually have ample appetites. If you observe your surroundings with these lenses, this becomes increasingly apparent.
Women in food commercials are rarely seen actually eating the product unless it is for something low in calorie or specifically targeted towards losing weight. Ultimately, eating becomes something “manly.” Media even portrays women who eat without care as “tomboys,” characterizing them to be quite the opposite of ladylike. Women are only accepted to have large appetites in two situations: pregnancy or heartbreak. Then, and only then, it is okay for women to have plates upon plates of food, not because they are nourishing themselves, but rather because they are caring for another person. Additionally, heartbreak permits appetite because there is a sudden absence of a male presence (stereotypically, of course).
These constructs of society are heavily imposed upon children from an early age and these perspectives of gender are allowed to enter their minds and take precedence. Another question posed to the boys of my sociology class was regarding a girl’s strength and composure. What if she was taller? What if she could lift more? The boys answered that they would be more inclined to like an “average” (and that’s a direct quote, I assure you) girl whom the boy could “outlift.” And there lies the sad part; all these skewed ideas of what makes a man a man, and what makes a woman a woman transfer themselves to teenagers.
High schoolers and even middle schoolers have this misconception of what the perfect woman’s body looks like –and naturally, this works the opposite way as well. For instance, I have found through personal experience that many middle schoolers avoid “ugly” individuals because they perceive them as “weird” or “creepy”, despite not knowing a single thing about them.
Ultimately I have found that it takes a lot of exposure to various studies as well as regular intellectually stimulating discussions on the implications of gender roles and their effects on both genders, for teenagers to begin changing their perspective on the rights of men and women.
Stereotypes by gender are not a problem for only women, though they are typically the focus as victims of these stereotypes and misconceptions. Both men and women should feel free to like pink and be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to like sports and be strong. Teenagers have far more problems than they can contend with and still have the mental capacity to wake up each morning and face the world. To incorporate a world of problems that include gender inequality not only puts young adults at a disadvantage, but is also most unfair to the men and women constantly being victimized as a result of these roles. This issue has a cyclical nature that cannot afford to be pressed into the minds of our youth. We should be defined neither as males nor as females, but rather as human beings because it is in this way that we connect with one another.
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