Are gender stereotypes overhauled?

Stereotypes are one way of simplifying a complex world. But some people forget that stereotypes are oversimplified generalisations. They constrain us when we use them as behavioural guidelines, when we accept them as the law of nature, when we let them dictate our actions or when we use them to judge others.

Some time ago, I read about a British couple, who kept the gender of their child a secret for 5 years. Apart from a few people, no one knew that Sasha was a boy. When I read this article, I was impressed by the extreme step the parents took to protect Sasha from stereotypes and the resulting societal behavioural expectations and pressures. Who decided that it is alright for girls to play with Barbie dolls but not boys? Why is pink considered a girly colour? Why is a girl, who climbs trees and likes to play ball games with the boys, a tomboy?

This British couple stressed that they did not hide his sex from Sasha. He knew that as a boy, he has different body parts than girls. All they wanted for him was the freedom to be a child, without society indirectly dictating and judging his behaviour. I applaud the parents for their courage to take such an extreme step for an applaudable cause.

What I do not understand is the backlash that the couple faced from the general public. People seemed appalled by what the couple had done. Some even called for the child to be taken away from them. In my opinion, such reactions show how unwilling people are to break away from gender stereotypes. Megan Gibson mentions in her article that probably people see sex and gender interchangeably. I found it an interesting thought. I always thought that gender and sex referred to the same thing. What is the difference between gender and sex?

According the online edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary, Sex is used to distinguish individuals based on their reproductive organs. Gender can refer to the sex of an individual or the stereotypes typically associated with a sex. Given this ambiguity, it is understandable that people were confusing sex with gender and the resulting backlash. But was it justified?

While researching this topic on the internet, I came across an NBS news piece about a then 5 year old boy, who liked to wear dresses. At first, his parents were against it because everyone knows that boys do not wear dresses, right? Until one day, the boyโ€™s elder brother asked his mom a question. Whatโ€™s wrong with his brother wearing dresses, if it made him happy? This innocent question caused both parents to realise that they were the ones with the problem. They allowed their younger son to wear dresses. Naturally they told him that boys do not usually wear dresses but he was free to wear what he wants. By the way, his favourite colour is pink. ๐Ÿ™‚

This small boy with his love for pink dresses and all things sparkly caused me to think that possibly prevailing gender stereotypes are overhauled. By the way, there was a time when young boys did wear dresses.

I found this photo on Wikipedia. The note, “English boy, 1871. Without his name on the back the sex would be hard to determine”, is captured below the photo. This page also shades light on the reason for boys to switch from wearing dresses to pants.

It goes to show how stereotypes constantly evolve to suit prevailing societal “norms” and I guess we are ready for the next update.

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5 thoughts on “Are gender stereotypes overhauled?

  1. jimlockey1 says:

    Nice post. (like the new look on your blog too) I’m totally with you on combating gender stereotypes

    My wife and I worry over gender stereotyping with our daughter… especially before she was born. Everything we bought was gender neutral, but I look over to my 8 month old now and she’s dressed in pink. Ok its leggings and a t-shirt rather than a dress, but still typically ‘girly’. The clothes were a gift

    So why did we relax about it and put these clothes on her? Well we came to realise that to impose gender neutrality is still imposition. As Tabitha grows she’ll know she’s a girl as will the world, by hiding her gender the world will not suddenly treat her in a non-gendered fashion… in fact it’ll become more amplified. We don’t buy Tabitha dolls and we never bought our older son an action man. But our boy does have a lot of ‘boyish’ things… he was into Ben 10 so he has some Ben 10 stuff. We try hard not to re-enforce gender stereotypes but nor will we legislate completely what they have… so we dont deny our son a toy on the basis of it being too girly or too boyish. As it turns out our son isn’t at all sporty, he likes to write stories and draw and do a number of things that other boys around him think him strange for, but importantly he doesn’t feel uncomfortable in his skin because as parents we’ve never made it a ‘thing’. So what if a boy wears a bow in a hair and prefers a hand bag to a rucksack… it’d be a mistake to judge against that because of stereotypes… but I do think that it is possible to take it too far the other way and make everything loaded and have meaning as a gendered thing or activity… when to kids it doesn’t even enter their heads, but they can pick up on it from us. I think its just as bad to bring a kid up as being hyper aware of gender through denial as it is to force them into traditional gender roles. Kids should be allowed to be kids, and what kid doesn’t want to clop around in their mums high heels… its funny!

    People always mistake tabitha for a boy… even on days when she’s in pink. Thats because physically babies look the same whatever their sex. The social signifiers of hair length isn’t in play yet I suppose but more to the point it says to me that gender isn’t even something at play till much later, any gender worry is totally the imposition of adults.

    What I hope to do with both my children as they grow is model and explain how to be the best they can. I hope to demonstrate how to be a good person but also to my son I hope to show how to be a good man, by which I mean that I want him to understand that societal gender disparity is a construct and I want him not to contribute to it. Same with Tabitha.

    I certainly think that the story of Sasha and many others like him has noble aims but I’m not sure that it doesn’t contribute to the problem of a child’s gender, treatment and later sexuality being something constructed by outside forces… its just a different set of forces.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. It was such a great read that you have inadvertently become my first guest blogger. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have copied your comment into a separat post. ๐Ÿ™‚

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