Gender Roles and Socialization

Gender roles are a very real presence in the overall socialization of people, not just something talked about in classes or on dates.  Most of it is so subliminal, we don’t even realize its effect on us until we are able to possess a sociological imagination, and see the world through multiple lenses.

 In my sociology class, we had to write a paper on gender roles in U.S. society, and how messages are shown through items such as toys and clothing.

I went to a Toys ‘R’ Us store and looked at the toys and clothing. When it comes to the packaging and advertising slogans used to market products to children, the dissemination and perpetuation of stereotyped gender roles is painfully evident.  Girl’s toys seemed to depict a child playing a role as “mother,” and many of the toys revolved around family or some form of community gathering (such as “parties”).  Many also used words like “magical” and “princess,” and focused on emotions.

Boy’s toys, on the other hand, focused on some form of competition and expressions of aggression.  One remarkable example was the same toy packaged differently for what could be logically concluded was the intended target market (boys or girls). The toy was a microphone.  The one intended for the girl had a picture of a young female child, and in the lower left-hand corner, an animated female character in a tiara.  The one intended for the boy had a picture of a young male child, with the main character from Monster’s Inc. (a Pixar animated film) in the lower left-hand corner (Mike is a male character).  In the center of the image of the children, one said “Ready to Roar!,” while the other said “Sweet Singing!”  Other than these things, the packaging was almost identical (color of the box was blue).

Another classic example of dissemination of traditional social gender roles through family interaction that I have heard about in many psychology and other socially oriented classes (e.g. anthropology), and even in movies, is the expression “you cry like a girl.”  This is usually said to men by people occupying various roles in the person’s life, including parents, coaches, teachers, etc.

Today I experienced this firsthand, and it confirmed many of my preexisting ideas about socialization of gender roles in early life.  I volunteer at a domestic abuse shelter, occasionally supervising children by either helping them with homework, or watching and participating in playtime.  Today I was alone with an African American child named Dom (short for Dominic), aged five years old.  He was a confident and rather cheeky child, but clearly intelligent.  He drew a picture of his family; he was on the far left, and his father on the far right.  His father had just “come back.”  In between them were his cousin “Deuce,” and another girl whom I caught was named “Danielle,” but it was unclear who she was.  The child would not speak of his mother.

His cousin Deuce, about the same age as Dom, came in to join us after Dom was finished with his homework.  Dom changed his mind frequently about what game he wanted to play, from building a batman house, to racing toy cars on a track made of Play-Doh, but finally settled on playing house by preparing a pretend dinner.  After setting out some plates on the table at my suggestion, we all sat down to eat.  They had placed a “pancake” in my plate earlier.  After Deuce took the pancake and put it on his plate, Dom mentioned that he wanted pancakes.  Deuce said “That’s my panny-cake,” and tried to prevent him from taking it away.  I suggested why don’t they cut it in half, that way they could both have some?

Classic, right?  Telling everyone to share and get along–I’m sure we’ve all heard that when we were young.  Though some of us probably scoffed at the time, it is still a teaching that serves well in life, in my opinion.  We all must learn to share.  I felt very bad for Deuce to see Dom treating him that way, but felt helpless at the same time.

Later a woman comes in, who I assume is Dom’s mother.  She was in for a few minutes earlier, watching the boys.  Now it looked like she had come back to escort them to dinner.  Deuce had started crying, and the woman told him to “shut up…shut up Deuce,” followed by “quit crying like a little girl.”  Down the hall after they left, I could hear at least one more additional “shut up, Deuce.”

I’m not here to judge, or tell parents how they should raise their kids.  But I can say that I felt heartbroken at the sight of that poor child being told to “shut up” and “stop crying like a little girl,” when what kids need most, especially in those formative years, is understanding, love, and validation.  But even if I could do something with such an individual case, it is not about changing that one woman so much as it is about changing the way gender roles are socially constructed and communicated to children through socialization.

Through human agency, we all must act rather than sit back.  Only through changing the ways through which gender roles are conceptualized in our society can this change be filtered down through to mothers and families, and ultimately to how we raise our children.  Rather than teaching men to suppress their emotions, we instead need to show them love and compassion, leading to a much healthier and stable society overall.

Anti-Bullying Marketing Campaign

No matter how you look at it, bullying is everywhere.  It is an epidemic that plagues our society.  Starting at a very early age, it is virtually impossible to make it throughout grade school unscathed.  Young students have practically made it a sport to prey on poor unsuspecting children, and moral fiber has unfortunately gone out the window as society’s values and respect for the fellow human being is a thing of the past.  Common decency is rapidly unraveling and dissipating as people feel an increasing sense of self-entitlement, existing only in their one dimensional islands.  This leads to an increase in crime as punishment for such behavior has deteriorated.  In some cases, our society even rewards it, and this inherent reward system must be removed directly if we want to begin to disentangle the intricate web of bullying that has sprung forth.

This brings me to the point of an anti-bullying marketing campaign.  Our lives are constantly bombarding us with images of what we should be perpetuating feelings of inferiority and insecurity.  We are never good enough.  This damaging of already precarious sense of self in the younger American citizen serves to make them easier  prey for the tormenter who mentally abuses them in their effectively weakened state.  It is almost as if this dissemination of images we measure ourselves by to this reference group is a form of bullying in itself, a kind of meta-bullying.

Remember the last presidential election, when celebrities were involved in an advertising campaign to advocate for people to vote?  Or the fact that you almost never see people smoking in the movies anymore?  It can be presumed this is in effort to reduce smoking.  By not being in movies anymore, people smoking all over the place, smoking is no longer seen as “cool.”  These two examples clearly demonstrate the powerful effect the media has on the population at large, including our behaviors.

These images shape our perceptions on a subconscious level about what we should or shouldn’t do (or be like), and what’s cool and what’s not.  It is through this reasoning that one could logically conclude that issues such as bullying can be addressed directly and/or indirectly through the media.  More movies could be made with commonly idolized celebrities occupying main roles.  To communicate subliminally that it is “un-cool” to bully, and conversely “cool” not to bully.

Rather than ineffective policies, let’s not do the same thing over and over, but instead try something new.  In an environment where teachers and parents do not solve the problem, we must instead attack it from the sides.  However, these methods must be used in combination.  It is worth noting that I myself am writing a pseudo-autobiographical novel, which involves bullying as central to the story.  Though the longer term goal should be to reduce media’s effect on our young and vulnerable society, perhaps in the short term we should use whatever tools are available to deter bullying.