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 boy’s elder brother asked his mom a question. What’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. 🙂
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.