The Plague of Gender Stereotypes

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It’s been more than a couple of years now but I have seared into my memory how Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt –media icons for all humanitarian causes – got heavily bashed because they decide to allow their daughter Shiloh to dress however she wanted. And she wanted to dress in puffy jackets, tough boots and hip-hop knit hats.

The media portrayed this simple and personal decision as an almost deliberate effort of Brangelina to reshape Shiloh’s gender, asking absurd questions like “Do Brad & Angelina want to turn Shiloh into a Boy?”

So what if a girl doesn’t want to wear dresses? And what if the parents allow her to go beyond what the media has dictated to be gender-appropriate for girls? Who gave media the power to dictate over us? Sadly, WE did.

Comments that portray images of what is acceptable and how things should be are far more pervasive than we realise in a first glance. Cartoons of brave princes and beautiful princesses, TV shows with girls in sparkly pink costumes and boys in stiffly blue outfits, adverts constantly portraying girls indoor, playing with clothes, make-up and dolls with the contrasting images of boys playing outdoor, sport and rough: they all perpetrate gender stereotypes and force-feed these notions to us and to our children.

Many people confound gender stereotypes with gender roles, which are another notion altogether. While there are behaviours inherent to women and to men (gender roles), gender stereotypes are the generalization of attitudes that are a consequence of those behaviours, disregarding individual situations or preferences. For example, women can be mothers, which is a role we can fulfil, but men cannot. Mothers are then generalized into an image of tenderness and protection. Men, on the other hand, due to their original –and by original, I mean prehistoric – role, have the stereotype of the strong provider. What happens when individuals fail to meet the stereotypes that have originated from biological /historical /cultural gender roles?

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An increasing number of studies from the field of psychology (see for instance Sharon Begley, 2000) provide evidence that stereotypes especially harm the people who fall into the stereotyped groups. In the case of Shiloh, girls should wear dresses and pink, “girly” clothes, not “boyish” clothes. Now think of how this can affect a little girl who feels comfortable wearing trousers and boots instead of dresses. Shiloh might be defended by her parents from all of the absurd attacks sensationalised by the media, but what do we do about the message that is being hammered into other girls’ minds? Girls who dress like boys are ridiculed, that’s what they will fear. In my research all girls had long hair without exception but most of them would complaint about the annoyance of long knotty hair: “so why don’t you cut them short then?” I finally dared to ask during a group session. Their answer was emblematic of what 99.9% of young modern girls would argue: “No way, then everybody would tease you to death, “YOU ARE BOY!”

That’s how their young lives have been co-opted to follow rules that make no sense.

But the issue would be a lot less damaging if it was only a question of style and fashion! Sadly it is not. It goes well beyond that. It affects what girls think they can do, say, think, act, fear, dream, love and hate! It affects their choice of extra-curricular activities and the professions they may pursue in life. And it goes without saying that the myth of masculinity perpetuates a similar set of absurd limitations on our boys.

The commercialised culture we live in provides a relentless reinforcement of gender stereotypes through an ever-widening array of media, until certain assumptions surrounding gender become utterly ingrained in children and adults’ mind. We’re hardly allowed to forget how society expects us to be: the pressure is constantly on.

The Council of Europe’s CDEG (the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men) has recently spoken very clearly about the negative consequences of G.S. and the need to end it:

“Gender Stereotyping is preconceived ideas whereby males and females are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their sex. Sex stereotyping can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of boys and girls, women and men, as well as their educational experiences and life opportunities” (CDEG, 2011)

Fortunately, gender stereotyping and self-concept issues have attracted considerable attention from scholars and researchers who are outlining the role that formal education and parenting should play in addressing the roots and consequences of the problem.

19 thoughts on “The Plague of Gender Stereotypes

  1. Very thought-provoking article, Francesca! I think you’re right that parenting is the key factor here. Although it would be nice to say a common ethos should apply to all situations, the truth is: every culture, community, and family are different. Parents have to be able to raise their children with freedom from intervention (except in cases of abuse, of course). Some homes will want their daughters in frilly pink dresses and their boys playing baseball. Others will take a different approach. In the end, I think this issue is one of many that gives our world diversity, and I think diversity is a good thing.

  2. What happens when individuals fail to meet the stereotypes that have originated from biological /historical /cultural gender roles?
    I would like to think that: We become who we truly are and not who someone else ( media, family,etc.) tells us to be. But I think it’s difficult to do this – fitting in is sometimes easier and more rewarding.
    There have been times that I fought against stereotypes to be myself and other times where I have not. For example, when I was sixteen my mom took me to buy my first bikini. (stereotype: she’ll be beautiful and sexy) I didn’t feel comfortable in a bikini and bought a one piece suit that I liked instead. Against my mother’s wishes.
    But, continuing with that same stereotype, when I think about all of the shoes in my closet, at least 50% of them are uncomfortable high heels that i rarely wear, but feel that I should own, so that I will be beautiful and sexy. Why do I do this to myself? Would I be happier if I threw out my high heels and never bought another pair? I would be more comfortable and probably a bit richer. But, Happier? I do feel sexy when I wear them, and I would feel self conscious when I go out with my girlfriend without them. So, I keep them. Am I perpetuating a gender stero type by doing this? Did I correctly understand this article?
    Sometimes I think it’s easier to keep the high heels and keep on perpetuating. What do you think?

    • Jodie, you bring up an interesting question about failing to meet predisposed stereotypes. I, like you, want to believe that we are constructed by our own interpretation of the world and not what our families and society has placed upon us. At 28 I decided to consciously leave my financially cushy job and pursue my own business in fashion. It has been quite successful and something that I wanted to do for the pas 10 years. What stopped me from choosing the path that would make me most happy was exactly what you referenced, “it was easier to fit in and sometimes more rewarding.”

      To be honest, your bathing suit shopping experience hit home. I was born in Brazil and always felt (even as a teen) that I was being highly exoticized for my appearance. I was uncomfortable in my skin not because of anything that I truly disliked but rather by men and boys would look at me. I ended up wear a one piece swim suit against my mothers wishes and that decision made me an outcast or dare I say, a prude.

      Your response really had me thinking on my contribution to stereotypes. I am not happy when expectation are placed on me, but I have done very little to do something about them when placed on others. I work in fashion, so I feel that I am clearly part of the larger problem. I am interested in if anyone has practical solutions for combating stereotypes without isolating yourself in the process.

  3. I think the main thing that needs to be done, as a parent, is making sure your child has plenty of emotional support and to learn that it’s ok to ask questions and to speak up when they feel something is not right. Growing up strong, and emotionally equipped to handle life is important because there are ALWAYS going to be issues that will attempt to break a person down – if you let them break you down. (whether you’re in the public eye or not) You don’t want your child to become a loud mouth bully of course… that doesn’t accomplish anything and no one pays attention to you. But someone is always going to have an opinion that is the opposite of your own, and they will try to force the majority to agree with that opinion – but making sure your child knows she or he has their own mind, and isn’t hurting anyone, or doing anything wrong, (by dressing in a way that is comfortable for this example) and giving them the right emotional support will surely help them be able to brush it all off and not let it affect them, or even better… speak up later in life about it and become a role model for others.

  4. Kids tend to follow what they like. My nephew, used to play with barbie dolls because he just did. He even watched shows that were created for girls. From my point of view, it all comes down to what a kid is exposed to. My nephew started to play with barbie dolls because he got really into this TV show made for girls. He then started watching other shows and started moving to other things. That’s what I see happened. Kids will follow a trend and move to the next, and most kids love to experiment, try different things, if we don’t push them in just one direction.

    Let kids experiment with their lives, let them do what they want, that’s how I see things anyways. To Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter, she probably found something appealing and wanted to dress in that way. Of course it doesn’t explain the John thing, but who cares really? I mean, she’s just a kid, and she will probably grow out of the phase, if it is a phase that is, or she could embrace it and just live a life she wants. What I think people expect from Shiloh is that they expect her to grow into a super model or something, because being Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter, she has genes that I’m sure people expect her to look like a model. Shiloh doesn’t care how she looks, because she likes the way she dresses, does it really matter? She could even be playing a role too, her parents are top tier actors after all. Maybe she is just really into playing dress up and maybe she’s interested in acting? Just an idea.

  5. I am definitely going to be honest about this: even my a– worried about Shiloh! And, in this case, I do not feel that the media went too far about concerning this issue, either. After reading about Shiloh, I then began to think about Chaz Bono. Sorry, dudes and dudettes, I think Cher was a fantastic mom, but something went horribly wrong. As far as Chastity Bono is concerned, she is now getting a prosthetic penis, if the procedure wasn’t done already.
    Chaz has commented about the Shiloh issue. I do think that this really is something to read about though.

  6. Urgh this article makes me so angry! So what if a child wants to cut her hair or wear so called ‘boys clothes’!! We shouldn’t be so concerned with teaching our children to act like boys or girls but we should focus on teaching them to be kind, tolerant good members of society who help those in need and hare honest and hard working…put it this way – there’s a massive list of things we should worry about before we worry about a haircut or a dress!!

  7. I remember being quite offended at the time when this article was posted. Ignore the fact they blamed Angelina for morphing her girl into a boy, why would this be anyone’s c concern, why do we feel the need to blame mothers for letting their kids be kids?

    I find it terribly distasteful the ongoing trend of dressing little girls in pink, uncomfortable dresses, with ribbons in their hair and sparkly shoes, sometimes even high heels which can damage their body or cause serious harm. Little girls aren’t Barbies, you can play dress up games with them for fun and that’s another story, but for their daily activities and life they want to feel comfortable and that’s it – no bling or accessories to bring the outfit together, this is incredible dumb thing to do!

  8. I live in Europe, Germany and I’ve noticed things are a bit different compared to UK or US. I can’t say we don’t bump into gender stereotypes, but the “backlash” you get from dressing a boy in a pink costume or allowing him to play with dolls is not that bad.

    My 5 year old nephew was never very sporty or the outdoors type, he likes spending his free time playing in the kitchen, cooking with his mother or running around the house in costumes he helped her mother design. Will this turn him gay or mess up his adult life? Why would it? Also, how could I forbid him to play what he likes and kick him out because that’s “what boys do”? He’s a very happy child, thoughtful, very helpful and sincere; once he asked his mother to buy a toy for a child he didn’t know just because that kid was crying and his mother couldn’t afford to buy it for him.

    Kids should act and dress how they like without feeling any outside pressure, just like we should be able to.

  9. I found the hubbub over whether Shiloh is being “turned into a boy” to be utterly ridiculous. I think people who criticized her parents failed to realize that a) many little girls go through TomBoy phases where they like ‘dress like boys,’ b) Shiloh may in fact identify as a boy, and c) Shiloh isn’t their child and how she dresses has no bearing on their lives whatsoever!

  10. Let’s face it…the media are in business to make money. I learn so many interesting things while I am standing in line with my wife at the grocery store. We have an alien in the White House and they discovered Big Foot was living in the sewers of Seattle. The nonsense about Shiloh fits in this category, only it is much worse! It deals with the real world and the stereotypes that can be a curse. Who cares what a child prefers to dress like? Let kids be kids for goodness sakes. If a young girl would rather play baseball than Barbie, terrific. If a man prefers to wear mini skirts, that’s his choice. (I for one have pretty good legs, but I don’t want to shave them…see there I go with more stereotypes. Why should i have to shave to wear a mini skirt?) Nuff’ said

  11. Re. celebs and Jolie in this case, I don’t know what happens in their household so I can’t say much but I think that these type of people get too used to being in the media eye so they thrive on it and when nothing else is going on, they stir up drama. It’s too bad that they are using their children for it though.

  12. HAHA! I love the comment John made up there! Media, media, media….whatever they can say that they think will make some news or a buzz is what they are going to publish, but the real question here is the gender stereotypes. In Shiloh’s case, that is just her style…get over it!
    It seems in the year 2014 things have changed that I have seen when it comes to gender roles. I read more and more about the man staying home and taking care of the kids while the woman is “bringing home the bacon”. I really believe things are changing and women are making a bigger impact today than ever before. It all goes back to http://www.letmebme.org . It will happen.

  13. I read LeanIn as soon as it was released and handed it over to a young up-n-coming millennial entrepreneur who hated what Sheryl had to say about work attire. My friend immediately spammed her own social media followers with backlash images of what a true “boss babe” should wear – whatever she wants to wear and if men (and other women) can’t deal with her sex appeal, well then, F’m. Those were her words not mine, and she made it abundantly clear that she will not be censored or made to feel like she can’t be as fully woman and female in an office, CEO position, as she chooses. I found myself at odds with the situation, being that I am in my 40’s and have been a corporate player, I see what short skirts, high heels, low cut blouses and sex appeal can do to an office environment, but for that very same reason I hated the corporate environment because I am an individual and conformism is against my nature, so I refuse to work for anyone or anyplace I cannot be myself. The more empowered an individual feels to be 100% themselves and the greater self-esteem, self-respect she has, she will indeed dress however she darn well pleases. My step-daughter, an absolutely beautiful girl who is intelligent as well as athletic, is far too girly and “safe” for my personal tastes. Had I had a daughter of my own, I’m certain I would have started off in little tom girl meets a tutu on a skateboard with some crazy striped stockings and whatever color of nails she wants on whatever sets of fingers… But I am an artists and I did grow up with 3 brothers, so there in lies my bias. Having a conservative step-daughter who leans towards preppy is like the opposite of most conservative parents feel when their child decides to be a punk-rocker.
    🙂
    In my opinion, children should be allowed ample room to express their own style as soon as they have an opinion (and I had an opinion at age 3!) within the bounds of not being sexually overt or offensive. If my child is doing well in school, is happy, healthy and wants to express their inner wild-child that tells me that her confidence level is in check and if she’s fine with it, I’m fine with it.

  14. There is a gaping disconnect between what is acceptable in localized environments, what is portrayed in the media, and the labels academia places on the “phenomena” being observed in the media and to a smaller extent in controlled environments.

    Tabloids ran with the Brangelina story about Shiloh because it sold magazines, but those stories were not a direct reflection of every person’s perspective on Shiloh’s image. Sometimes academia places too much weight on the negative pieces of the media and not enough weight on the meteoric changes that are happening with transgender rights, the legalization of gay marriage in many US states, and more visible female executives at fortune 500 companies. Hollywood isn’t an accurate reflection of the United States and most people know it.

  15. When I was 16, I remember telling my mother in a joking manner that I was going to quit shaving my legs, something I feel is not so much a gender stereotype but something worse, something that both girls and boys ingrain into other girls that must be done or you are unclean, because I didn’t want to conform to society’s view of women’s beauty. In reality, I’m just lazy and I didn’t want to do it anymore, but I’m a smart-a– so I said that instead. Her reaction startled me. She began yelling at me and telling me that she would ground me and take my car away if I did that.

    I feel like this is wrong. I was going to be punished for not following a gender stereotype. Why should anyone else care what I do? And why is it considered hygienic to shave your legs? I mean, men don’t, so why do women have to?

  16. Though I’m not quick to dismiss that these gender roles are very ingrained in us and that they aren’t always harmful, I DO agree that ‘SHILOH IS DRESSING LIKE A BOYYYYY” is downright stupid. Then again, I don’t necessarily think gossip rag magazines are the wider culture – they’re about selling magazines. The idea that a child might be transgender is what is selling here, I don’t believe it’s just about the boy clothes. Obviously, a more masculine gender expression does not imply a trans identity in many cases, especially children, it will sell more magazines than leaving well enough alone.

    My biggest issue with feminist demand to reduce gender roles is the misunderstanding of male gender roles. I think Christina Hoff Sommers book, the war on boys, is something we all need to be considering. In my life experience, at least, the only gender roles that are damaging to boys are many that are not feminine. I don’t think boys can’t express emotion. I think we demonize the WAY they do it, which as we all know, leads to boys who truly feel no ability to share their feelings, thus giving rise to male suicide as an absolute epidemic.

    All I know is what we have been doing so far is not working for boys and girls equally. We need to be open to examination of why.

  17. There should be more girls in the media doing their own thing, whatever that may be. Diversity and individuality should be celebrated from a young age, but sadly it is not.
    I grew up the only girl in a large family of boys. My mother was a tomboy, and I always had short hair, there was no say in it. I remember times when I was actually wearing a skirt, still being called son or lad by shopkeepers who obviously mistook me for a boy. I used to look on at my classmates with longer hair and ribbons, in awe. When I was in my teens I grew my hair long, as I had began to equate this with femininity. Even though my hair was this and straggley and looked much better shorter, I kept it long for the next 20 years as I though short hair would mean I wouldn’t be feminine. I’m over this now! My husband is a feminist, and has made me see sense as far as this is concerned.
    My niece has tight curls and when she was a toddler at nursery, it was short, as basically it was all she had. But I remember her telling me that the girls at nursery were saying she was like a boy because of her hair, because they all obviously had the uniform little girl hair.

    It is all so narrow minded, … sad.

  18. I love that Brad and Angelina are allowing Shiloh, or “John” to be who she is. I also notice that they aren’t going as far as saying she is transgender, and understanding that she could grow up to be comfortable in her gender, but still enjoy masculine things over feminine things. Letting a child be who they are is important, but so is not pushing it too far. I feel some parents don’t care if their kid is transgender, they just want to be able to label it. There isn’t label for situations like this besides a child just being themselves. We don’t always need to constantly title people! They can just do their thing without having to call it something specifically.

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