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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Gender stereotypes: hurting us all

I have been told time and again that this blog has a way of stimulating reflection.

Always dedicated to what I guess is one of my goals on this Earth, today I am endorsing my subversive role and sharing a picture that I believe to be thought provoking. (It should be, anyways.)

(Warning: some rant involved.)

What's wrong with the following picture?

If you're like most people, your first reaction might be to find this picture endearing: a depiction of sibling love and solidarity involving very cute protagonists. You might also notice the picture's aesthetic qualities.

If you think all those things, you would be right (at least partly). And you would certainly not be alone in thinking that way.

But as some social media commenters have remarked, this picture also paints the portrait of gender stereotypes, and those stereotypes have the potential to do more harm than good. The main stereotype depicted here is the following: based solely on their gender, some of the children on this picture are expected to be protectors, whereas another one is a potential victim (who is furthermore unable to defend herself without the help of the males in her family). Although some individuals and societies think this segregation of roles is just fine, it doesn't come without problems.

First, this role distribution disempowers girls by letting them think that they need to be protected by boys.

Second, it puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on the boys.

Third, it implies that the potential "predator", the one who will "mess with her" (see text in the picture) is a male from outside the family, as if all males outside the family were a threat. In a way this picture "demonizes" all males except for the ones within one's family, as if they could only have bad intentions toward this girl.

Fourth, it implies that the males that do belong to one's family are safe. The ones in my family were, and I really wish that it was true for all families. But if you've seen any statistics on abuse lately, it is unfortunately not the case. In fact, a girl or a woman's main threat often is a man within her family.

For all those reasons, this picture bothers me.

Don't get me wrong; I am totally for siblings standing for each other and even protecting each other if needed. But why does it have to be genderized?

As a girl myself, I would have been highly annoyed if my brother (I have one, not four) had considered his role in my life to be one of protection. I love my brother to death, and we would BOTH drop everything to assist each other if needed, but I am very grateful that he's never intervened in my interactions with young men! It would have been embarrassing for all of us! And if a young man was ever disrespectful to me, I'm glad I had the confidence to tackle it right away (without any male coming to the rescue).

Sander van Dijk, Flickr

In that vein, I am also very grateful that my father never told me that I "threw like a girl" or "whined like a girl", or that I would have to wait until I'm 30 before I could have a boyfriend. If I'm giving those examples it's because I've heard them coming from young fathers my age. I wonder if they realize the negative impact those seemingly innocent remarks can have even when they say them jokingly. Should all males be depicted as "big bad wolves", and should all females be depicted as delicate, relatively helpless creatures?

Just a reminder that this is 2014, folks.

One thing I was told by an ex-boyfriend was that if I ever cheated on him, he would be very mad at "the other guy". I asked, innocently "You wouldn't be mad at me?" That seemed to elude him. The potential enemy was the other male. They would resolve this together. I had nothing to do with it. I guess I was barely the "merchandise" they would fight over.

Don't you see that makes no sense at all?

Not only do I fully believe in empowering girls and women to make them feel like they have full control over their own destiny, I also want to give some slack to the boys: just like girls, they should feel like they are "good people", and they should be permitted to like whatever they like. That includes:

1) Letting them dress up as a princess if this is something they want (you would be surprised at how many parents "panic" when they find their 3 year-old boy has put on a princess dress for fun);

2) Being okay with them not liking sports (you would be surprised at how many parents "fight" this "unnatural" dislike by forcing their son to play team sports not matter what).

How about letting kids of both genders follow their own interests and not trying to make them fit into a tight mould? Wouldn't everyone benefit from that? Wouldn't you want girls and women to feel independent and to be able to put their true needs first? Wouldn't you want boys and men to see themselves as kind and to have the freedom to explore whatever they like without being judged?

Many, many women have self-confidence issues, put their needs second and think that they "need men" to simply get by in life.

Many, many men are estranged from their own family and lack the close-knit social circle that is said to be a necessary condition for a long, fulfilling life.

Both boys and girls, both men and women, can (and should) be both strong and self-assured, AND caring and nurturing. Simple enough I say!

In theory, maybe. In practice... not so much. Here is an example I recently read in a men's magazine: On his first date with a girl, this guy started crossing the street without looking both ways. Luckily, said girl quickly pulled him from the road and saved his life. Cute story, hey? But wait. How did that make the young man feel? Grateful? Nah. From his own words: he felt "EMASCULATED"!

I had to read it twice it made so little sense to me. In any case, I guess feeling emasculated is still better than being killed on the spot by a car coming at full speed?!?

Speaking of dangerous things, I think we are making a big mistake whenever we justify unwanted behavior based on gender. I already gave an example relating to girls above (whining). Here's one relating to boys: "He's being disruptive or disrespectful? He's breaking things? He's hurting people? Oh well, boys will be boys..." As if disrespect, destruction and aggression were ever okay!

Notice that I am not talking about playful wrestling, or competitiveness in sports, which are perfectly acceptable (for both genders, by the way). Let me add that I am all for providing acceptable outlets to kids' energy and/or frustration, and for helping them channel their outbursts (e.g. by providing plenty of opportunity for physical activity, among others).

But we have to be careful to not trivialize behaviors that are unacceptable in society at large. When we use the "boys will be boys" argument to justify any unwanted behavior, we are doing a disservice to all boys by implying that boys by nature have many unwanted behaviors. What kind of self-image do boys gather from that you think?

If you still think there is nothing wrong with the picture at the top of this post, please remember that this kind of approach to gender and family ties is the one that, in other cultures, underlines and justifies "crimes of honor" (for more on this, click here).

For a TED talk on a similar topic, click here.

Let's get our things in check before we utterly and collectively lose our minds.

As usual, whether you agree or not, your comments are welcome below!


  1. I personally don't have a problem with the top photo. As the oldest child in my family and a female, I can tell you that the protective role is not limited to older brothers. If anyone messed with my younger sister and brother, they had to answer to me as well.

    Can stereotyping a younger sibling (especially those as young as in the photo) as more vulnerable be considered a stereotype if it's true? Younger and smaller siblings are more prone to bullies because they really are easier targets.

    1. If the focus is on age and size, then of course older siblings are stronger, and younger ones more vulnerable (usually - some little ones can be fierce! LOL)

      The focus on this picture, however, is gender. This family did not think of making such a picture with their youngest at the front until their 5th baby was born... because this time it was a girl.

      Thank you for sharing your useful point of view! :-)

    2. I believe that if any of the older sibilings were a girl, your interpretation of the picture would be true. Same thing if all of them held a sign pointing to the younger siblings saying don't mess with him/them. Here, you have the traditional values (black and white), protective male presence required for the female to be safe. The female isn't just another child here, part of the group, she is in front, packaged like a birthday present, and only one in color. If you want your kids to stand up for each other, and be a team, then you make them all of the same type (here, color).

      The other aspect I dislike here is that is says, once again, that women (or girls) need to be protected from boys. First, if it's the case, train them to defend themselves, like you would do for anyone in need of protection. But if the boys messing with girls is really the problem, then let's solve that issue!!! Teach YOUR BOYS to be respectful to women! We have to stop teaching women all the different ways to avoid getting raped and focus on the real problem. What we need to do is START TEACHING our BOYS to STOP RAPING, or here said with flowers, messing with girls.

      Then, once boys will be taught to be respectful to EVERYONE around them, not only those they fear or respect, there will be no need for a traditional picture like what is seen in this post.

    3. Interesting comment, Anonymous!

      I know what parents do to protect their kids, but I would be very curious to hear what they do to ensure their kids will not become "the abuser".

  2. As soon as I saw the photo I did not like the fact that it is all black and white except for the little girl (in pink).

    1. Interesting! We could have a whole discussion on how boys are dressed neutral, whereas girls have way more of color and frills.

      Just the reverse of birds when you think of it! :-)

  3. I see another problem with the picture, all the boys are in the black and white background and the girl is in the front dressed in hot pink and ribbons. It means she will attract attention while they just stand back ready to protect, but not to be noticed. That's my analysis but of course I don't have a degree in "art analysis"..............

    1. You raise an interesting question!

      As a general rule people tend to process the masculine as "neutral", and the feminine as "marked". That could keep us talking all night!

  4. I knew exactly where you were headed with that picture!!! I agree! I think that girls should never be made to feel inferior or like the "weaker" member of a family.
    And, as the mom of 2 boys I also agree that boys should not be expected to fit into any set mold. One of my boys has absolutely no interest in sports (he is still active) and that is fine with us!!! We also don't have gender specific roles in our home - if something needs done - just do it!!!

    1. Nice to have the "mother of boys" point of view! Thanks Kim. :-)

  5. Goodness blue for a boy and pink for a girl .....and before ultra sound scans we bought or knitted lemon ... a paler shade of yellow.

    And now we question almost every picture we see - for good, for bad, for somewhere in between. It's great we share and exchange views. History, our ancestry, how we all were raised....History can be quite interesting !

    Thought provoking, stimulating .. excellent read.


    All the best Jan

    1. Thanks for commenting Jan! I hear the colors were reversed at the beginning of the 20th century: pink for boys and blue for girls. Shows how arbitrary it can be. :-)

  6. I don't have kids but I am sure I will not force my kids to follow a stereotype...I think it's nice for siblings to stand up for each other but its also important to guide kids including the youngest to make them strong enough to be able to stand up for them-self.
    I firmly believe being able to take care of yourself without depending on anybody is very important..irrespective of your gender.

    1. Stereotyping can happen without us even being aware... I know I have to remind myself of it! :-)

      Agree with you on the importance of being able to take care of oneself. Thanks for commenting, Tanvee!

  7. Keep fighting the good fight, Julie!

    I think we are all a product of our upbringing and experiences. How we react to these seems more important that the events. Some seem to react by chance in ways that are less troublesome for themselves. For the rest of us, there is therapy, lol!

    Living well is the best revenge. There is freedom in being secure within oneself. Knowing how to throw a good punch doesn't hurt either.

    1. A high level of lucidity sometimes does send you straight to therapy, LOL!

      I hope we can all figure out our own way to live well and improve the world we live in without hurting others.

  8. Oh wow, I could really truly VENT RIGHT NOW. I had something happen to me today. Well nothing happened but something was SAID TO ME - and it has been said to me before. And it just makes me SAD that this ONE MINUTE thing... Is apparently "holding me back" -it's the stupidest thing ever and it truly frustrates me that the industry I am in wants everyone to be a certain way.

    Yes, this comment is quite vague, and that's because I don't want to bore you with my life. But man, so I agree with you on so many counts in this post!

    1. Hey GiGi! I would LOVE to know what's on your mind!!!