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.

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