By Kim Adamski, host of Full Frontal Feminism
Gender roles are deeply rooted and pervasive in most modern societies, and have been throughout history. They are defined as a theoretical cultural construct which tells us what is socially appropriate for our sex/gender. They are taught to children from birth; they dictate that girls should wear pink, that boys like firetrucks and sports, that girls are bad at math, and that boys should be the breadwinners. They are also the main reason that we still need feminism today.
Under the construct created by gender roles, sex and gender are the same thing. Those who are assigned a certain sex at birth are expected to conform to the gender roles that accompany that sex. It is also a heteronormative construct, in that everyone is assumed to be heterosexual. Homosexuality doesn’t fit in with gender roles – this is why we hear people asking questions of homosexual couples such as, “Which one of you is the man in this relationship?” even though most of us know that same-sex relationships don’t operate under the same gender role assumptions as many heterosexual relationships do.
Western gender roles require men to be commanding and unemotional. They are often percieved as having a large sexual appetite, often to the point of being predatory. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be demure and maternal. They are to stay at home and care for their children while men act as breadwinners.
Obviously, these ideas exclude large groups of people. One that comes to mind is infertile women. Women who can’t have children are absent from consideration, through no fault of their own. As I mentioned above, gender roles present a large problem for the gay population, due to their heteronormative nature. Lastly, those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth are failed miserably. Trans* people experience a ridiculous amount of violence and are frequently the victims of hate crimes. This is because they directly contradict the idea that gender and sex are the same thing, which can be scary to people who grew up believing that. Gender-nonconforming people present an even larger problem to gender roles. The mere existence of these people shows us that gender is not binary, which entirely destroys any basis on which gender roles stand.
The problem with gender roles is that they limit what people permit themselves to do. It may not happen consciously – I don’t think any woman says “I’m not going to work in a STEM field because that’s a man’s job!” – but it subtly dissuades both men and women from following their own paths in life. Following traditional gender roles is not inherently problematic – it’s just when you begin demanding other people make the same lifestyle choices as you that it becomes a problem.