All of us during our rebellious adolescent years have tried to break away from existing social expectations on what a boy or a girl ought to be like. From questioning everyday practices in the house like ‘Why should I clean the table when my brother doesn’t?’ or ‘Why should I go by bus when my sister gets dropped by dad?’ to more serious rebellions like choice of career.
These rebellions are often quelled by the all-knowing adults with a bland ‘boys must be boys and girls must be girls’ logic. Tomboys must leave behind their scabby knees and crew cuts and sissies must ‘man’ up or the world will turn upside down. Typically, femininity is associated with softness and gentleness while masculinity is associated with the rough and the tough — just think about how deodorants are marketed differently to the two sexes! Or Kajol’s magical transformation from the tomboy who missed out on the hero to the saree-clad, demure lady who gets him in the end in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai! Why was she less appealing as a tomboy who played basketball?
Masculine traits are considered desirable in a man and feminine traits are considered desirable in a woman — men and women who transgress these expectations often meet with resistance. They are treated as misfits and social outcasts. Much of high school bullying — the age when most young people are figuring out and coming to terms with their gender identity — revolves around reinforcing gender stereotypes. But it is important to know that these transgressions do happen and that when they happen in enough numbers in combination with other changing socio-economic-political factors, the expectations themselves undergo a change.
In her famous speech delivered at the Women’s Convention in Ohio, 1851, Sojourner Truth said, ‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!’ One of the excuses for keeping women away from the vote was that women were of feeble mind and body — but as Truth points out, it was only white women who were given that ‘gentle’ status. Black women were routinely made to do hard labour and nobody doubted their strength to do it!
In an earlier article in this series, it was pointed out that blue is associated with boys while pink is associated with girls. But did you know that in the 1800s and till as far as the early 21st century, the reverse was the norm? Across the globe, there are written laws and unwritten social codes that dictate what men and women should/shouldn’t be doing — women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia while in the US, males between ages of 18 to 25 are required to register with the Selective Services System in case a situation arises when they have to compulsorily join the army!