Gender identity and the process by which children come to learn more about themselves has been a strongly debated topic as of late, especially due to our recent election and repeals of various bills and laws that were put into effect in order better protect children identifying as art of the LGBT community. However, gender policing negatively affects children with cis-het identities as well, especially through the “sex-category sorting process” observed by Michael Messner. Gender segregation and reinforcement of traditional gender roles is common in our current society.
Although society enforces arbitrary gender rules, this continuous gender policing negatively affects society, especially youth. As long as younger generations are confined by rigidly traditional upbringings, gendered language and misogynistic views, the gender pipeline will continue to exist and will continue to negatively affect the lives of both youth and adults. Gender policing and enforcement of traditional gender roles are found not only amongst members of society as a whole, but also in the home life of countless families.
It is a common occurrence for children to confide in each other when they feel uncomfortable or even downright unsafe in their own home, and the reoccurring theme is often parents’ act of imposing rules on their children which take away their individuality and sense of freedom and safety. Reasoning behind enforcement of these arbitrary rules is usually centered on the social expectation for a child to act a certain way according to their gender, and any deviation from this expectation is met with scorn and belief that the parent has somehow done something wrong, bringing shame upon said parent.
Judith Lorber, in her essay ”Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender”, discusses the “assignment to a sex category” starting from birth, which dictates how children are to be displayed to the public in order to be considered normal. This assignment is what leads parents to dress their children differently based on their biological sex, such as piercing a girl’s ears or not buying pink for boys. In her essay, Lorber uses the example of pierced ears and flowered sneakers on a child as cues for determining gender (20).
Gender assignment from birth plays into society’s need to categorize people and uphold societal laws and rules based on traditional gender, which ultimately only hinders children because they are forced to abandon any interests that may fall out of the ordinary expectations of their gender. Girls are often discouraged from pursuing interests in science and engineering while boys are ridiculed if they pursue passions in fields such as the arts.
Hindering children’s interests in any way could be detrimental to their upbringing, especially when they are policed by their own family, specifically parents, because they lose any support and safety that is supposed to be provided by these close family members. Ultimately not only is rigid adherence to traditional gender roles a negative thing for children and adults, it only reinforces the negative ability for society to police the genders of others.
While outright gender policing is relatively easy to identify, there lies another danger to those attempting to find their identity; gendered language and its support of institutional laws of gender also create harmful environments for both children and adults. Messner analyzes gendered language in youth sports teams in his work, “Looking for a Team Mom’: Separating the Men from the Moms”, where he observes how phrases such as “team mom” (112), “woman coach” (113) and overall expectation of types of roles on the team based on gender are found in almost all instances of sports teams he observed.
Having played youth soccer, I agree with Messner’s observations and this essay was especially resounding for me, because it is incredible how much gendered language is overlooked not only by children who are incredibly impressionable, but also the parents who unknowingly enforce the language. In his essay, Messner interviews various parents as to the reasons why they believe that only women volunteer for the job team mom or why the majority of coaches are men.
Many of the parents use the words “regrettably” or “I hate to say it-” when explaining why they believe these things to be true, often followed by some form of support for traditional gender roles (115). In this way it is obvious to me that gendered language continues the perpetuation of policing gender according to assignment of sex category, despite peoples’ knowledge that traditional gender roles are outdated and wrong. While gendered language is incredibly obvious in the youth sports teams observed by Messner, it can also be found in various other institutions, especially those conveyed to be only for a specific gender.
Namely, careers which convey power or intelligence, such as surgeon or lawyer, are portrayed through language and media to be a male dominated field, alienate women who are interested in that field. Similarly, careers aimed at women, such as baking or nursing, discourage men from pursuing opportunities in these fields. These assumptions based on connotations of careers and societally enforced gender roles hinder people from pursuing that which makes them happy, especially from a young age.
When children see certain careers portrayed in books and online media as being for only one gender, namely a gender not their own, it discourages and disheartens them, making them feel as if their dreams are not only unattainable but ridiculous. Gendered language accomplishes the same thing, but on a more subconscious level and permeates throughout childhood, continuing into adulthood. Children are then forced into a gender pipeline where they are segregated according to their gender and forced into careers based on said gender.
Institutionally based gender constructs and gendered language work hand in hand to negatively affect our society and its future. The assumption that females must be feminine and males must be masculine, as well as societal enforcement of these assumptions, lead to misogynistic tendencies from both men and women, and to negative repercussions for those who deviate from these assumptions, especially the LGTB community. Women are subjected to misogynistic actions on a constant basis: in careers, in public space and even, in private spaces.
Petra Doan discusses her experiences as a transgendered woman in her work, “The Tyranny of Gendered Spaces: Reflections from Beyond the Gender Dichotomy”, wherein she recounts being accosted or confronted in various aspects of her life. Both cis and transgendered women face similar problems in day-to-day life, ranging from cat calls to outright assault. Doan discusses vulnerability in enclosed public spaces such as elevators where she was “attacked” for her “false femininity” by a drunk man who groped her (58) as well as her difficulty proving her worth in the classroom as a professor once she transitioned (59).
Public spaces offer multitudes of opportunities for women and men to be assaulted based on their non-conforming identities by those who wish to forcefully pressure others into the traditional identities of gender they believe in. There is an added measure of vulnerability for the LGBT community surrounding laws made to discourage aid to its members. The recent plan to repeal the inclusion of transgendered individuals in their respective bathrooms based on the gender with which they identify is only the most recent example of laws causing the community to be even more abused and marginalized.
A proposed bill in Oklahoma would cause women to require permission from the father in order to receive an abortion, placing countless women’s lives at risk due to illegal, unsafe abortions whose rates would rise if this bill passed. These types of proposed laws are based on the belief that a woman is subservient to her male counterpart, according to traditional gender roles, and will have a negative effect on women as well as transgendered women. These public displays of resentment, ridicule and straight out attacks can also find their way into private spaces, such as homes.
Doan recounts receiving calls from telemarketers who would purposely misgender her, as her voice was still traditionally that of a man’s. In that respect, the outside world encroaches into personal spaces through communication devices such as email or telephone or texting, not to mention the traditional media exposure through social networks and television. The perpetuation of traditional gender roles in mainstream media contributes to the personal attacks of non-conforming women, men and members of the LGBT community in their personal spaces and homes, despite perceiving these areas as their safe refuge.
While traditional gender roles have permeated our society for decades, it is time that they be thrown out as the outdated ideas they perpetuate negatively impact our society as a whole. Children are constantly told and policed about what is expected of them based on their birth sex. These expectations and assumptions hinder children in their pursuits of interests which might fall out of the traditional role which they are steered to through gendered language and gendered institutions.
The continued conservation of these beliefs causes people to retain their need to police peoples’ genders into adulthood, wherein young adults and adults are attacked when they do not conform to the ideals of traditional gender roles. Overall, retaining traditional gender roles as the “normal” in our society can only negatively affect youth and adults hoping to find themselves and to solidify their identity based on their happiness rather than the expectation placed on them by society.