Crush The Binary- Destroying Gender Roles, One Stereotype At A Time
The prevalence of gender roles and stereotypes can be suffocating; the idea that certain people are expected to act and behave a certain way based on their gender has been ingrained within society for decades. The extremes on both the masculine and feminine sides of the spectrum only perpetuate the seemingly inescapable nature of these set roles. Often a topic of debate, gender issues reveal the undeniable need to strive for equality for all individuals, regardless of gender. While gender itself is not inherently toxic, the rigidity, expectations, and stereotypes associated with gender can morph it into a negative and pervasive force within society.
So much of what is considered “socially acceptable” revolves around what is perceived to be inherently masculine and feminine. Appearing in places where gender logically has no role, it goes to show how deeply entrenched society is in gender expectations. Breaking down these ideals can be extremely difficult because changes to the status quo are often met with societal resistance, particularly when challenging deep-rooted societal structures like gender.
According to Teaching Tolerance, an organization focused on educating teachers about the importance of diversity and equality, “[r]esearchers have shown that there is very little difference between the brains of men and women. While gender identity is a deeply held feeling of being male, female or another gender, people of different genders often act differently, not because of biological characteristics but because of rigid societal norms created around femininity and masculinity.”
Not only is gender largely a social construct, it’s one that consistently and substantially alters and controls individuals’ thoughts and actions. Frequently, the words gender and sex are used interchangeably, but the words have two different meanings overall. Sex is the biological characteristics of an individual, whereas gender is the way people identify. The gender stereotypes and expectations that society has created deeply influence people on an individualized basis, but also often times prove themselves to be toxic in nature.
The idea of toxic masculinity is a well-known concept that can be defined as the restrictive set of ideals imposed on men, specifically the notion that expressing emotion results in a degradation of an individual’s status as a man. Toxic femininity exists as a counterpart to this idea and can be defined as the restrictive ideals imposed on women, specifically the objectification of their appearance and the idea that women play a submissive role in most situations. In both cases, people tend to subconsciously conform to these ideas even when it’s harmful and not necessarily a personal choice.
Shannon Fechtner ‘20, a member of Standley Lake’s Poms team, discussed her perspective on the toxic assumptions made about her and her teammates based purely upon being on the Poms team.
“[T]here’s a stereotype for poms being ‘slutty’, or that we aren’t smart and are ‘easy.’ That because we do this, we can’t do [well] at school, and that we aren’t good people, or that we are mean [girls]. That’s the complete opposite, we have two valedictorians on our team of ten, which I think speaks volumes. Then three of us are in IB, one of us is an AP scholar... We have to be good at school to be good at poms.”
High school can often feel as though people are relentlessly judgemental concerning just about everything. This puts pressure on students to conform to preconceived notions about all kinds of issues in addition to gender expectations.
Fechtner elaborated on navigating high school, specifically in regards to the gendered expectations she’s faced.
“Honestly I just don’t pay attention to it, because I know myself, and I know what I do, and I know how hard it really is. I take it upon myself to not let it get to me. I read more into my definition of myself rather than what other people think of me... If you don’t want people to make assumptions about you, you can’t make assumptions about them either.”
Although often perceived to be harmless stereotypes, there are many who believe that the extremes on either end of the spectrum are the only way to function. It is this, rather than the inherent existence of gender, that results in a toxic binary.
Professor at Loyola University Chicago, writer and social psychologist, Devon Price, explains this:
“Focusing only on the harm done by men—and the insecurities harbored by men—ignores the broader, systematic nature of the beast. The problem was never just masculinity. It was, and is, inflexible gender roles for men and women alike.”
Toxic gender binaries and expectations are not a product of gender itself, but rather the unwavering nature of those established roles and the harsh enforcement of them. The existence of feminism as an ideology stems from the inequalities between people on the basis of these gender binaries and advocates for equality among all individuals, regardless of their gender. Breaking down these gender roles and working to reduce and hopefully eliminate negative stereotypes is a key facet of feminism.
Adjacent to toxic gender roles, toxic feminism, an idea promoting gender equality, is defined as women capitalizing on the oppression they face, and fostering extreme anger and hatred towards men simply because they are men. While women undoubtedly suffer from inequality and the fight for rights is far from over, the existence of toxic feminism continues to exist. When feminist ideals are taken to the extreme, they simply exacerbate existing issues and create new ones entirely, rather than working to erase them.
Maia Weslar, a member of a group of Jeffco students who are pushing to normalize the idea of intersectional feminism, expanded upon the importance of not only being aware of toxic gender binaries, but also the need for feminism in society.
“Women are still being oppressed on the daily, whether you see it or not, it’s still happening. There’s still a wage gap, there’s still a period poverty, there’s still job discrimination. [I] think that feminism needs to become more inclusive, which is why we added the intersectional part [to the club name], just so that we are including men, trans men, trans women, [and] non-binary [people], because if we all come together, we’ll make a way bigger difference than if it were just white cis women.”
Living and engaging in a society where girls are discouraged from certain professions purely for being girls, and likewise for guys, the effects of this reality are far-reaching and all-encompassing. Awareness is perhaps the first step in moving away from the toxicity of rigid binaries and education is the next in reducing their impact. Removing the impact of the gender binary is not something that can be done by one singular individual, nor overnight. It takes conscious, consistent effort throughout society to move away from the standards that pervade society.
As Fechtner so aptly states:
“It’s based around the problem of you can’t pick these certain things about you, I didn’t pick to be a girl, so why does it even matter? That goes beyond just men and women, it goes to all genders and sexualities, you didn’t pick to be this so why does it matter? It’s about changing the mindset that this wasn’t a choice and it’s unfair and unjust to discriminate based on that.”