One of the most important discoveries I have made in coming to university is the distinction between sex and gender. Put very simply, sex relates to biology but gender is largely a construction of society. Masculinity and femininity are ideas and men and women have long been expected to conform to them. In our enlightened age it is easy to think of the little things – boys like blue and play with Action Men, girls like pink and play with Barbie – and forget long histories of sexual and gender inequality in society.
Boys and girls, as ideas in themselves, come with a number of social expectations. Boys are presumed to likely be troublemakers and slow learners at school. They are more interested in running around fighting with invisible swords than reading and calculating, harder to tame in the classroom and more likely to struggle with their homework. Girls, meanwhile, are quieter and gentler, playing with dolls, singing and skipping. They do well at school, though grand ideas like politics, economics and philosophy are beyond them. These expectations have consequences: parents presume that boys are much better at physical activity – climbing trees, balancing, sport – than girls. They don’t read bedtime stories to boys as much as they do to girls and rarely speak to boys about emotions unless it is to ask them to calm down. Girls are presumed to be helpful around the house whereas boys are not trusted to do chores without breaking something.
Society has undergone radical changes with the advancement of feminism since the Suffragette movement. We have been scrutinising the stereotype of women for many years – but what about the stereotype of men?
Emotional discourse is a rarity for men. Men simply don’t talk about their intimate feelings, not least with other men, lest they be associated with the other gender. In fact, within the modern understanding of masculinity there is a sneaking homophobia, a fear that speaking with other men about your mental health or your feelings is effeminate – unmanly – behaviour. You can’t be caught crying about your troubles – what kind of a man are you?
Making assumptions about what boys and men are supposed to be like or what it is to be a “real man” can have dangerous consequences for the other sex. Despite decades of feminism, much of society continues to believe that the man is the breadwinner, coming back from work to find a splendid dinner prepared by his darling wife. Women are capable, sure, but not as capable as men. Similarly, if you’re a philanderer, a mild sexist and a brute, you’re pretty close to being a very manly man – but what about the women that suffer in a man’s quest to express his physical prowess, his social excellence?
The stereotypical concept of a man is damaging also to men themselves. Men are expected to be resilient tough-guys, impervious to emotional pain and hardship. Consequently, when they do suffer major problems, from bereavement to redundancy, men feel obliged to get their emotional wailing over and done with as soon as they can. When something goes wrong with the formula, men can experience huge emotional panics. Losing one’s job can make a man feel as though he, as the supposed provider, is letting his family down; he could feel discomfort in knowing he is not working when he should be.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, in my opinion, falls at the door of parents. They may well be aware of the problems that come with bringing their children up in accordance with mistaken and harmful gender blueprints. To avoid indoctrinating their children with age-old stereotypes, they might bring their children up as gender-neutrally as possible. However, all parents strive to ensure that their children are brought up well, healthily and with an understanding of what is correct and incorrect behaviour. I imagine that parents feel a dilemma: they don’t wish to instill gender roles upon their children, but they feel an instinctive need to ensure that their children know what behaviour is ‘correct.’
The ‘gender revolution’ might well be starting. It will be a surreal and unusual experience for the present generation. Many men will feel as though they have no purpose. “If I’m not meant to be the tall, strong breadwinner, then what am I supposed to be?” It is these gendered expectation that instill a requirement for conformity to a standard. Maybe no one of any sex or gender is supposed to be anything. Will we one day live in a post-gender world?
This article was inspired by a lecture given by Rebecca Asher, a feminist journalist and author, at the 2016 Festival of Ideas. The lecture was titled “Man Up: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules” in reference to Asher’s book of the same title.