Gender roles and norms refer to a set of ideals that people of a particular sex (assigned at birth) are expected to conform to. They have, for years, set unrealistic standards for all people and formed the basis of an endless number of discriminatory and amoral practices. People lend support to them using the reasoning that they are based on scientific facts about biological sex. Recently, more and more people have started to openly show disdain for and disagreement with these norms, citing the numerous long standing and potentially dangerous effects of the same.
For long, anthropologists have put forward various pieces of evidence to prove that gender norms are but a social construct. They have repeatedly talked about how 'femininity' and 'masculinity' are relative terms. Margaret Mead was one such anthropologist, often deemed as a sort of a maverick in the field. She revolutionised the field of study, which was previously prominently arm-chair based knowledge, by taking up a more proactive approach. She travelled to remote parts of the world to understand how men and women related to each other, in comparison to the Western ideals of 'femininity', 'masculinity' and 'gender roles'. Over the course of her life, she penned down several preeminent books on the matter.
In 1933, Mead wrote Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. She compared three indigenous groups from the South Pacific which she designated as Arapesh, Tchambuli and Mundugumor. The cultures wildly differed in their expectations and standards for men and women. She noted that in comparison to the established Western standards, all of Arapesh was feminine while the opposite was true for Mundugumor, that is, it was masculine. Tchambuli, on the other hand, reversed Western ideals completely - the dominant positions belonged to women while the dependent ones to men. Mead’s conclusion from the analysis was clear: human nature is malleable and it responds to cultural conditions. Nurture and not nature is responsible for the concept of gender. In other words, gender roles are social constructs, and do not have a basis in the more biological aspects of sex.
Furthermore, the fact that gender roles are social constructs can be lucidly seen in a particular culture too as the ideals change drastically over time, sometimes even undergoing a full 180 degree reversal. The perception of the colors pink and blue is one such example. Pink was not labelled as feminine color until the 1940's. Prior to this, color was generally assigned based on the complexion and so any baby could be dressed in blue or pink. Further back, during the 18th century, pink, which was seen as a close relative of the martial red color, was considered to be a masculine shade. Even as recently as in 1918, an article titled 'Pink or Blue' in The Infants’ Department stated that pink was meant for boys and blue was for girls. The trend is the exact opposite of this today.
Likewise, perceptions about makeup have vacillated between being deemed as feminine and being expected of everyone, through the ages. Makeup was in common use by all people in ancient Egypt, Rome and other civilisations, dating back to as far as 4000 BC in humankind’s history. However, the scenario is obviously very different in the modern world where putting on makeup is predominantly deemed as a feminine activity. In Elizabethan England, makeup was very popular among men. In the mid-1800's however, Queen Victoria and the Church agreed that makeup was an “abomination”. The dissemination of this belief resulted in a long standing association of makeup with femininity and the “Devil’s Work”.
These oscillations in ideals and standards associated with gender, within a particular community over time and between different communities at any specific point in time prove that gender norms and expectations are, in fact, not dictated by the biology of sex.
Gender norms have encouraged various discriminatory and immoral practices through the years of human history and they are still thriving today. More often than not, they're what is responsible for the microaggressions against people of all genders and sexes. For example, men are told not to cry or show emotions, and are expected to partake in activities deemed as worthy of men, often involving heavy manual labor. Those who indulge in the more 'feminine' activities like putting on makeup, cooking and playing sports seen as girly like cheerleading, are looked down upon and slandered.
On the other end of the spectrum, women are faced with disparaging comments that declare that they simply cannot be funny and belong in the kitchen. Similarly, limited mathematical aptitude and tendency of being loving, caring or sensitive is attributed to their gender. Women are repeatedly talked over and mansplained in professional spaces, in addition to being doubted, especially in leadership roles. Effeminate men are criticised for being too 'feminine', androgenous people are told they are too ambiguous and tomboys are told they are too 'masculine', all of these come paired with a negative undertone. The inferiority of women in the eyes of society is especially clear in such sexist jibes.
The fallacy, hypocrisy and irony in the gender roles and standards are especially evident through the everyday misogynistic and sexist microaggressions faced by people. Women are told that they are meant to be mothers and yet, young mothers are shamed and criticised almost as much as those who abort their fetus to escape the shame (apart from other reasons). Working women with families are denigrated just as much as those who choose to stay at home.
The former are slandered with claims of being an unfit mother - too calculating, too progressive, too career-oriented. The latter are faced with epithets like 'gold digger' and 'bad role model' as their work is often overlooked. They are also regularly accused of being indolent and lazy. When a woman refuses to give in to the sexual demands of entitled men, they are tagged as 'too prudish' and yet, giving in or choosing to be more sexually active earns them the label 'slut' or 'easy'. Liking dresses and heels is deemed to be too 'frivolous' and 'girly' (with a negative connotation attached) and conversely, women are flagged as gay (often used as a slur in this context) or too 'boyish' (and thus, unattractive) for choosing to have a more masculine aesthetic. Societal standards rooted in gender perception are a double-edged sword, especially for women and other minority genders.
Over the course of history, an endless number of people have undermined the oppressive gender norms. Some of them achieve fame like Boudica and others attain notoriety like Mary, Queen of the Scots. But, more often than not, the contributions of women and other minority genders are overlooked. An important instance of erasure is the lack of acknowledgement of the contribution of medieval European women to the arts of the times.
Medieval women, especially widows, are generally portrayed as vulnerable, miserable and poor in history books and in literature. The truth, however, was far from this. Financially knowledgeable widows, who were well connected, often accumulated a lot of wealth through jointures and other mechanisms after the death of their husbands.
'Jointures' were pieces of land owned by both the wife and the husband. The ownership remained solely with the surviving spouse on the death of the other. This was very common in the 14th and 15th centuries and became a source of immense wealth for widows who outlived their husbands.They used this money to provide patronage to the arts. Some of the most well-known cathedrals and other monuments of the time were paid for by these widows. Many of them took this new liberty a step further; they commissioned the construction of memorials and mausoleums for themselves which transcended the boundaries of social and patriarchal expectations from women - extravagant architecture, statues of themselves as duchesses or more important than the men in their lives and so on and so forth.
Due to the patriarchal norms, a woman lost her individual identity with each marriage, taking up the name of their husbands in the medieval times. This makes it difficult to track the lives of these women (although not impossible) and their contributions to art are thus, largely unacknowledged. Modern public monuments also fail to represent women as history demands it. Of the more than 800 sculptures around the UK, only an abysmal 42 are those of named non-royal women.
Sometimes, when simply ignoring history is difficult, people have opted to amend it to conform to society’s standards and expectations from a particular gender. Cleopatra VII has been portrayed several times in various books and movies, both Hollywood and otherwise. She is always shown as an unusually attractive seductress. 'Scandals' like her romance with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony greatly overshadow her achievements, which are often completely ignored. Her stories are full of lies and rumours too. In reality, contrary to her popular portrayals, she was a great statesperson and could command armies. She was fluent in at least nine languages, including an Egyptian tongue, unlike her predecessors of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Additionally, Cleopatra was highly educated in the fields of astronomy, chemistry and literature, among other disciplines and can also be linked to numerous advancements in the field of alchemy of the time.
Besides these, she has several administrative achievements under her belt including her proactive actions to curb corruption among the priests. Cleopatra was the reason for more than two decades of prosperity and stability in Egypt. Instead of acknowledging her numerous achievements, people are obsessed with her affairs with Caesar and Mark Anthony, going as far as blaming her for them and the fate and downfall they suffered later. This overlooks the fact that both Caesar and Mark Anthony were involved in countless other affairs. The queen was certainly not the beautiful seductress that we have been taught to believe. In fact, she might not even have been 'beautiful' as she was, much like most of the other Egyptian royal family members, a product of incest.
Cleopatra’s character was questioned and her leadership was doubted by Greek and Roman writers, but this objection was primarily because she was a woman and therefore, according to them, unfit to rule. It is important to remember who the author of any particular story is when talking about its validity. In this case, it was the enemy and so, her stories are rife with rumours (like the story about her suicide by a snake bite). These canards are today frequently presented as history lessons and yet, they are far from the truth. Cleopatra VII is only one of numerous examples of women in history that we have wronged. We owe it to them to rectify the adulterations and remember them just as they were.
All in all, we can say that gender norms have only encouraged damaging practices that have for years deprived us of an opportunity to celebrate the accurate history of humankind. It has paved the way for discriminatory practices against cis women, cis men, transgenders, non-binaries and so on and so forth. While many explain away the established gender roles with claims that they are rooted in biological tendencies and scientific facts about sex, anthropologists have long disagreed and put forward various pieces of evidence to substantiate the theory that gender is entirely a social construct. There is thus, absolutely no moral justification for upholding these standards any longer.
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