Many people fail to see the way in which gender stereotypes harm women, girls, and ultimately, everyone. We tend to take them for granted, never questioning where they came from or what purpose they might serve. In this essay, I intend to examine some of the more prominent gender stereotypes and hopefully answer and raise a few questions for the reader.
One staple of “girlhood” in our society is playing with dolls. Dolls have been reinforcing gender norms and shaping the lives of girls for centuries. In an article for Smithsonian magazine, Linda Rodrigues McRobbie notes that:
“Through the 18th and 19th century, dressing up dolls gave little girls the opportunity to learn to sew or knit..”
While some may argue that dolls can reflect more choices and liberation for women and girls, they’ve certainly done their part to narrow the lives of girls in our society.
“In the early 20th century, right around the time that women were increasingly leaving the home and entering the workplace, infant dolls became more popular, inducting young girls into a cult of maternal domesticity.”
Even though the focus of the article is not the history of dolls or their effect on girls in our society, the author points out that:
“The recent glut of boy-crazy, bizarrely proportioned, hyper-consumerist girl dolls (think Bratz, Monster High) says something about both how society sees girls and how girls see themselves, although what is for another discussion.”
Incidentally, there is a Tasmanian artist who has endeavored to make-under the over-sexualized Bratz dolls. Make some with short hair, Sonia!
While hair trends have undergone many changes over time, long hair has been a staple of femininity and thus, a symbol of womanhood, since before the ancient Greeks. In a Time magazine article, archaeologist Elizabeth Bartman said that men “risked scorn for appearing effeminate” if they wore their hair too long.
In the same article, sociologist Anthony Synnott notes a Bible passage reflecting society’s attitudes toward gender and length of hair from the book of St. Paul:
“Doth not nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.”
No, Paul, it doth not. Women do not “naturally” have longer hair than men. However, our culture does dictate that we should see it that way. While it may be socially acceptable (read accepted by men) for women to have short hair, author Jo-Ellan Dimitrius states that:
“men prefer long hair on women as they believe it’s ‘sexy,’ Short hair is perceived as only being attractive on a woman who is slender and/or physically fit.”
Thus, even while this may be an area where women can express themselves a little more freely, there are still cultural restraints (patriarchy) around socially acceptable hairstyles for women and girls to wear.
In Western culture, high heels gained popularity among the women and men of the aristocracy. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that they became unpopular because of their association with Marie Antoinette. After that, flats and slippers became popular for awhile and it wasn’t until women began working for pay outside of the home that heels made a resurgence. In a 2015 CBS interview on the history of heels, curator Lisa Small says,
“I think a lot of it had to do even with wartime technologies. The use of steel and extruded metals allowed fashion designers and fabricators to think about a way to use metal in the heel.”
…and to reinforce women’s primary identity: sex objects.
“It causes your rear to move, it causes your hips to have to compensate and do the little wiggle, [and] the chest goes out,” said Small. “So these are all biologically determined markers of mating attraction.”
Even if heels cause your body to contort in a way that appeals to biological urges, associating them with femininity and thus, womanhood is extremely socially constraining and demeaning. Small acknowledges that:
“Women can feel powerful when they wear high-heeled shoes, they can feel more confident, and that’s all to the better. But it’s a very interesting construction of power. Until men in powerful positions also wear high-heeled shoes, it’s always going to be the question of what kind of power a high-heeled shoe really conveys.”
An interesting question indeed.
The use of makeup is strongly associated with women and femininity. Women and girls are expected to use makeup and are highly reinforced in doing so. When we are little, we play with dolls that are obviously wearing makeup, we see our mothers and older female family members using makeup, and we rarely get to see images of women without makeup on. Indeed, it is so rare to see women without makeup that to take a picture of yourself make-up free is deemed an act of bravery!
An article for The Telegraph states:
Overall 90 per cent of women and almost 80 per cent of men agreed that women are still under greater pressure than men to look “well groomed”.
Senior director of Ipsos Marketing, Pippa Bailey says:
“It’s still widely accepted that women are held to higher standards than men and are spending more of their time on personal grooming.”
An article called The Female Economy analyzed women’s buying habits and found that four of the main areas marketers should target when selling to female customers were: food, beauty, fitness, and apparel. I would argue that all of those industries use extremely sexist marketing strategies, not the least of which is beauty.
Women and girls are indoctrinated from the time they are born to believe that they are not good enough as they are. We are told we need to lighten, tighten, firm, enlarge, slim down, pump up–all with the aid of beauty products. Marketers create a self-fulfilling prophecy when they bombard us with images of ideal beauty and promise that the only way for us to feel whole and confident is through use of their product.
“Beauty products and services promote a sense of emotional well-being in women. Those we talked with who spent a higher portion of their income on cosmetics felt more satisfied, successful, and powerful; they also reported lower levels of stress even if they worked longer hours.”
The article’s author admits that the industry is male-dominated with the most powerful positions occupied primarily by men. If wearing makeup were so central to being a woman, shouldn’t those positions be held by them? Some people truly believe that it is in a woman’s nature to want to primp and preen but the aforementioned fact seems to suggest otherwise. There’s nothing in our make-up that makes us want to wear make-up…if you will.
While gender stereotypes might seem harmless or humorous to some, their function in our society is oppressive. They serve to limit and objectify women, relegating them to second-class citizens. Men and boys are limited by gender stereotypes as well but due to their dominant status are not oppressed by them. It is because of misogyny that men who do things that are seen as feminine are often targets for harassment.
We need to abolish the idea that these things over here are for boys and these things over here are for girls–it’s regressive. We need to stop being slaves to consumerism and build an economy that reflects the value of all people regardless of sex. This will mean building media literacy and thinking critically about how we influence the world we live in and how it influences us.