Over the last few years, gender studies have become an increasingly popular academic subject. In day to day life, however, gender roles can be a source of stress.
What Is Gender?
Gender is usually contrasted with sex. The latter refers to the biological differences between people. So, for example, a woman will have breasts and a man will have a penis. Their sex is determined by nature. Gender, on the other hand, is determined by society and culture.
Imagine two friends, one female the other male. The biological differences are immediately obvious. Simon is taller, with a hairy chest and muscley arms. Kate has breasts, thin arms, and no chest hair. Their hormones and sex organs are also different. Neither has any control over these (unless they opt for a sex change). Both grew up in a small, conservative town whose inhabitants believed that boys should be tough and adventurous, climbing trees and getting into fights, etc., and that girls ought to be sensitive, emotional and obsessed with their appearance. The ideal woman was romantic, gentle and nurturing, while the ideal man was strong, domineering and assertive. In other words, nature decided their sex, but their gender roles were decided by the town in which they were born.
When they leave for college, however, they begin to question these. Simon, for example, is tired of repressing his emotions, so he visits a therapist. Kate decides not to marry or have children. Instead, she sets up her own business and, at the weekends, begins kickboxing classes. Their sex hasn’t changed. Kate still has breasts and Simon still has a penis. However, they are challenging the way their gender is defined.
Of course, challenging such conditioning isn’t new. In late 19th-century England, the ‘Aesthetic Movement,’ spearheaded by writers like Oscar Wilde, promoted art above all things. Art should set our standards, they argued, not religion or society. And they took delight in playing with gender. Male aesthetes often dressed in effeminate ways, for example, growing their hair long and wearing silk dressing gowns. At Oxford, Wilde smothered his room in lilies. And this aesthetic subculture resurfaced in Britain among pop stars like David Bowie (who appeared on British TV in a dress), Boy George (who wore make up) and Morrissey, who appeared on stage clutching bunches of flowers.
Gender causes stress in numerous ways. The source can be external (a woman being passed over for promotion because her male boss does not take her seriously) or self-imposed (a woman believes her male boss does not take her seriously when in fact he is simply rude). As a consequence, she works twice as hard, putting herself under pressure and taking it out on her partner and children.
Others experience stress for the opposite reason. They suffer when the gender roles are ignored rather than affirmed. This is especially true of men who take pride in asserting their masculinity (challenging other men to fight, building up their muscles, and so on). Today, this kind of macho posturing is no longer so respected. Indeed, many people ridicule and despise it. If a man recalls his father being domineering, or remembers his mother having the dinner on the table, etc., he may expect the same with his own partner. When she not only refuses to play the obedient housewife but laughs at him for imagining she would, he feels confused and humiliated.
These gender issues arise in various contexts. Most obviously, there are social institutions, such as the office, the school, and the family. But stress can also arise at specific life stages. Society is changing so quickly that even the most sensitive and thoughtful individuals feel confused. Men in particular are often unsure how to behave on a date. Should they open the restaurant door for a woman, or will she find it patronizing and offensive? Confusion can also arise when people form relationships with someone from a different culture. Even within Europe there are still notable differences between northern and southern European men.
Gender Role Stress and Men
In recent years, much has been made of the so-called “crisis of masculinity.” In essence, this refers to the difficulty men experience in defining what it means to be a man. The phrase is most often used in reference to young, uneducated working-class men. Traditionally, boys compensated for their lack of education or material wealth by being a ‘real man’. For most, that meant building up their muscles, learning to fight, and never letting an insult go unpunished. That college-educated nerd may earn more than me, but look how pale and skinny he is; at least I’m a real man! Many prided themselves on doing tough, manual labor – the sort that women were considered too weak or sensitive to manage.
Within the family unit, they also expected to have the final word. Until very recently, working-class men often married young and then had several children. Within this little world, he was king. His wife cared for the children, kept the house tidy, and cooked the meals. In return, he defended them against external threats (such as the child being bullied or the woman being sexually harassed). This model has come under severe strain in recent years. Indeed, most young women in countries like Germany, the UK, Canada, the United States, etc., would laugh at such ideas.
And yet women are often unclear themselves. In private, many will admit that, though they identify as feminists, they do not want a ‘feminine’ husband. On the contrary, they rather like it when he asserts himself, puts them in their place, or defends them against another man. Thus men often experience a great deal of confusion. On the one hand, their girlfriends make it clear that this is not the 19th-century, that they can survive on their own, that they have no intention of doing his washing, etc., but on the other hand they rather like it when their partner is ‘manly’. As with so many things in life, the rational, or social, self conflicts with our primitive, irrational self.
The pressure to be a man in front of a female partner also causes immense stress, especially for men who are not by nature assertive or confrontational. Men dread being humiliated or belittled by larger, stronger men, especially when their partner or children are present; that fear can in turn lead to flashes of extreme violence. It can also lead to deeply unpleasant behavior. Most people have observed a small, physically weak man shout at a waiter or shop assistant, often for no good reason, in an attempt to impress his wife or girlfriend. He would not dare do this in a bar, but in a shop or restaurant he knows he is safe.
Gender causes stress when battling for custody of the children. Courts generally side with the woman, and in many countries men struggle to see their children as much as they would like. If their partner then meets another man, one with more money, their child may be so impressed she transfers her affection and allegiance to her stepfather. Again, this can lead to humiliation, and to a sense of being diminished or lessened as a man.
The traditional view is that men are less emotional than women. Indeed, being emotional is still considered a feminine trait. Crying, for example, or even telling someone you love them, is not something men always feel comfortable with. Even today most men would do anything to avoid crying in front of another man. They will also bottle up their emotions, especially near male friends. To cry or be emotional is still seen as effeminate and “weak”. And this attitude may explain why, though women are more likely to suffer depression, men are more likely to kill themselves.
Competition is another source of stress. Boys are encouraged to compete with one another from an early age. In adulthood, they tend to see other men as rivals, not just for partners but for work and promotion. And the office often seethes with resentment and bruised egos. Often, they will use their power and status to bully and belittle those beneath them, just as they were bullied and belittled when they started. Now that women have entered most professions, even those traditionally reserved for men, the fear of humiliation has intensified.
Gender Role Stress and Women
Women also experience a great deal of gender role stress. In the workplace, for example, a woman may hesitate to complain about sexual harassment for fear of being thought weak. When women first moved into male occupations, such as banking or marketing, the general view was that they’d be too emotional to cope. Obviously they resented this and worked hard to disprove it. Unfortunately, that often means bottling up worries or problems, especially in a male-dominated environment. Should a woman complain about bullying or sexual harassment she risks a horrible reaction from both men and women. Male colleagues may imply that she’s being a typical woman. On the other hand, female colleagues may resent her for letting them down.
Motherhood is also a source of stress. In spite of recent changes, women generally do most of the domestic chores and spend the most time caring for the children. If they also have a job, balancing the two can be exhausting. Educated, professional women, such as doctors or college lecturers, find it especially frustrating. And many resent not being able to use their skills and training. This frustration is often made worse by the patronizing tone in which people sometimes speak to new mothers.
Another common complaint is that men, and indeed other women, do not take them seriously. This is especially notable at moments of crisis. Day to day, men may be careful to include female colleagues, listen to their views, etc. But at moments of stress or high drama, centuries of conditioning resurface and the men take over.
Body image is another major cause of stress. Advertisers know that sex sells, and so they fill their adverts with images of beautiful women, often partially clothed and usually slim and toned. Women who do not look that way naturally feel inferior. Feminists have long fought against the objectification of women. A woman’s value should not depend on how she looks. When men dominated society, they convinced women to judge themselves in the same way. Internet pornography and advertising have encouraged men to see women as nothing but sex objects.
Women who choose not to have children also experience hostility. A childless man, on the other hand, is considered a “free spirit”! Men frequently joke about escaping the ball and chain of marriage. But when a woman chooses such a life she is treated with pity. The assumption seems to be that a single, childless man ended up that way by choice, while a single, childless woman has tried to find a partner and failed.
Some feel threatened when gender is questioned. Ultimately, however, it is a question of freedom. In the coming decades, people will be free to define gender in a way that suits them. And that can only be a good thing.