What Things Shape Gender
Scavenger Hunt Paper
Our gender roles are shaped in such a variety of ways that it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all. Everything from the television shows we watch on a regular basis to the nursery rhymes children learn in school are good examples. Sometimes the people who create these mediums of expression should apply discretion when deciding what kind of message they decide to include in them because sometimes it can become permanently embedded in our culture. That is why, in order to become a progressive society we must bring about change to these damaging gender stereotypes to make our world more egalitarian.
Surprisingly enough, our gender roles can start to take shape as early as elementary school. Nursery rhymes have always been the most common tools teachers’ utilize to teach young children how to read and write the English language because of their catchy song like tone. The words of the nursery rhymes may seem harmless on the surface but deeper analysis reveals some subtle message about gender roles. Take for example the Mother Goose rhyme Humpty Dumpty where the titular character Humpty Dumpty has a great fall but “All of the King’s horses and all the King’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Notice how the rhyme presumes all hope is lost in restoring Humpty Dumpty and yet no one seeks the aid of the female. Could it be because women’s skill in egg reconstruction pales in comparison to those of males back in the time it was written? I doubt it. The point of the matter is that nursery rhymes and other educational tools of the sort should inform children about the ideas of equality and togetherness not to instruct them what certain genders can do and others can not. As far back as I can remember back to my elementary days, I never questioned the meanings of the nursery rhymes I just went along with them because they sounded so catchy as I already mentioned. Now with some perspective I can now safely say that many of the nursery rhymes that have been used to teach children for countless generations should be altered in order to make future generations more enlightened.
Sometimes the negative messages about gender roles can obviously be spotted. For example, in this cartoon strip from the internet I found depicts a man sarcastically thanking his therapist for getting him in touch with his feminine side which has put him in financial debt thus making him unable to pay for his therapy bills. Apparently the assumption the humorous comic is trying to make is that women have no idea how to organize or handle financial duties. This comes at no surprise because our society has always stereotyped women as being incapable of doing anything that requires dealing with numbers or any kind of budget computation because their emotions will get in the way or because they are not intelligent enough. But of course financial debt is a two way street; men are just as susceptible to of getting themselves into money related dilemmas just as women are. The appalling part about this issue is that many men are naturally amused by this of kind of derogatory humor. In an experiment conducted by Friederike Eyssel and Gerd Bohner where they gave 131 German men a set of jokes, sexist and non-sexist and with or without time pressure, they found that “ under time pressure, when resources were limited, male participants reported greater enjoyment sexist humor than when resources were unconstrained.” (Bohner and Eyssel). If this test revealed anything significant, it is that men still carry sexist attitudes towards women.
One of the most obvious places to look for gendered messages is in popular magazines. For instance in the May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair there is an advertisement for an airline company called Virgin America that shows an innocent looking man who appears to be extremely content to be sitting between two taller women that are sexually desirable. At the top left hand corner of the ad the reads “WHAT EVER TURNS YOU ON”. The man is in lower status than the women in this advertisement because the man symbolizes the average man and his dream of going on a fantasy vacation with multiple extremely attractive and flirtatious women. The women are purposely made taller than the man because they are supposed to represent the kind of women that ordinary men would have a really have a hard time asking out or let alone starting a relationship with. The world around us often reinforces the idea that only women can be perceived as sexually appealing while men are can only be perceived as handsome and rugged. In turn, this double standard also taught me something I had not really paid attention. Women magazines hardly present any advertisements accompanied by men in provocative positions, while most men magazines have both genders in the same position. It surprises me the general public rarely questions this double standard (occasionally the major media outlets will do an expose on the issue) because women can view men as sexual objects as well.
Surprisingly some television shows and movies have started to present women in a new light that contrasts the stereotypes of past television shows. One sitcom program in particular called The Office on NBC, which depicts the daily lives of office employees for Dunder Mifflin from a mockumentary perspective, has gender messages that are both traditional and progressive. For example in an episode entitled The Negotiation one of the main characters Michael Scott who is the boss of Dunder Mifflin asks his superior for a raise after he discovers that if one of his employees were to ask for a 10% raise it would dethrone him as the highest paid employee of the company. Michael’s superior not only happens to be a woman, Jan, but also his lover as well. At first, Jan is hesitant in giving Michael the raise but eventually her feelings for him made her give him the raise he did not deserve. This episode is very progressive in the sense that the character Jan is Michael’s boss and the rest of Michael’s staff follows her commands without question as opposed to other sitcoms that portray women having menial jobs like being a secretary. At the same time, it is kind of regressive because it implies that women are unable to make sound decisions in the work place having their emotions in the way or just because they were born differently than men that there naturally unable to handle pressure as well as men are. “In prime-time television shows, from “thirtysomething” to “Family Man,” single professional, and feminist women are humiliated, turned into harpies or hit by nervous breakdowns” (Faludi). In the recent movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall a sad Peter Bretter is trying to get over the break up with his former girlfriend and television star Sarah Marshall. Sarah Marshall along with the other female characters of the film are portrayed as strong, intelligent and independent women because Jan figures Peter was holding back her career and thus ended the relationship. Peter than starts to date a new potential girlfriend Rachel Jansen who at first appears timid and conservative but the film progresses she becomes more demanding and vocal. But like The Office the women can not prevent their emotions from pursuing their goals because towards the end of the film Sarah decides that her Hollywood career is not as satisfying as the times she spent with Peter. She abruptly ends her career to get back with Peter. Hollywood sometimes does not realize how much of an impact its movies have on the masses, especially the youth. This teaches the youth that women need a man be stable downplays women’s inner desire to succeed on her own before settling down. The media should portray more women in a more realistic manner in an attempt to encourage women to follow the right path.
In our ever changing society there is still a glimmer of hope that gender roles can be modified to bring all more equality. We must start by changing the way television and mediums shape gender roles. But given our current pace it will be a quite while before we witness any drastic changes to our contemporary environment. But thanks to Feminists and other groups that want to bring about change to gender roles the mission now seems that much closer to becoming reality.
Bohner, Gerd, Eyssel, Friederike. (2007) “The Rating of Sexist Humor Under Time Pressure as an Indicator of Spontaneous Sexist Attitudes.” Sex Roles, 57(9-10):651-660.
Faludi, Susan. “Introduction: Blame it on Feminism.” In Dr. Margaret Gonsoulin (Ed.). Reading Women’s Lives. Fresno, CA: California State University, Fresno, 271-283.