Close your eyes. When you hear the term “masculinity,” what do you see? Do you see a man? If so, what does he look like? Our perceptions are heavily depended on systems such as media and popular culture that perpetuate norms that withstand generations. Masculine stereotypes start from childhood where boys are expected to perform a certain way in order to be considered a boy. As renowned author and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her essay We Should All Be Feminists, “Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves…” (26). The “cage” in which boys are placed in limits expression, creativity, and self-identity that can be problematic when these boys become men. Gender roles, for both men and women, structure societal expectations of how people are to perform from birth until adulthood. If these expectations are not met, groups of people become marginalized and ousted. Systems, institutions, and the general population subject men to the overwhelming pressure to conform to gender norms from birth to childhood to adulthood that adapt through the different stages of development.
The shaping of what a man should be is first formed in childhood stages and even at birth. At birth, boys are often portrayed with a blue color palette. Although this may seem like a minute detail, it immediately separates boys from girls at the earliest stages of development. When the boy enters the school system, gender stereotypes are further reinforced by teachers, other school faculty, and by the boy’s peers. According to a study conducted by Dr. Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, gender stereotypes formed in elementary school have a large impact on developing children. Half of the teachers in the study were instructed by Bigler to be gender exclusive techniques with their students. The other half was instructed to use gender inclusive techniques, through language and colors. The study found that the children who were subjected to gender inclusiveness, were more likely to believe that “only men” or “only women” were able to achieve certain goals. For example, a majority of the children believed that only men were able to become doctors (1083-1085). This study shows how small acts of gender inclusiveness heavily impact developing children. Boys are expected to “fill the shoes” of success and anything less is considered to a failure which puts pressure and induces anxiety in developing children.
The separation of boys and girls at school enforces gender stereotypes in other ways, as well. When I was in elementary school, boys and girls were segregated to have same-sex friendships during lunch. From a very young age, this was very troubling to me. I had several neighbors who were girls and I was not allowed to interact with them. When I did, some of the other boys labeled me as a girl even though I innocently just wanted to spend time with my friends. This isolation from my friends was very hurtful to me as I feel I did not fit in with either groups. Gender stereotypes usually seem innocent and unimportant to people who have not been affected by them or felt their impact a young age. Another major expectation of boys is to participate in some sort of sport. However, some sports, such as tennis, cheerleading, swimming are frowned upon and considered “girly.” Boys are often forced into playing baseball, basketball, football, or the other sports that are respected as a “man’s sport.” If they do not participate, there is often a sense of shame placed on the boy. In my own experience, I did not enjoy playing sports. When I told this to my father, I was still forced to play in order to fit the stereotype of what a boy and a man should be. This pressure to conform continued throughout my childhood and transition into adulthood.
The transition in the role of gender stereotypes from boy to pubescent male is drastic. New stereotypes are formed and enforced by other men during this developmental period, especially in terms of emotional expression. Men are portrayed in popular culture such as movies, magazines, and television shows as strong and able to support a wife and kids. The man is expected to be tough and express no emotions that show weakness or vulnerability. The repression of emotion has the potential to be channeled through depression, anger, and aggression which can be paralleled to the astonishing rate at which men abuse their spouses. Natural emotions, such as sadness, are expected to be expressed different than women. Men are told not to cry as it shows weakness. Men must perform as what the standards established from them in order to secure their masculinity in the eyes of women and other men. During the pubescent stages of a boy’s life, sex and sexual orientation become factors. At this stage in development, sexuality becomes very important as this stage is typically when sexual identities are formed. One’s sexual identity is not usually addressed until puberty. Society has, through generations, perpetuated a heterosexual narrative that should be followed in all instances. Anyone who does not identify as heterosexual (which is typically discovered during puberty) will be shunned. Although I am not saying that everyone should not be heterosexual, those who are not should be facilitated and accepted in society. Men must perform in an acceptable way, which usually leads to men shaming other men for those who do not conform to heterosexual masculine norms.
Gender stereotypes for both men and women are toxic to the self. They often portray the sexes as this idealized standard that is impossible to attain. Starting from birth, gender roles are shaped and are expected to be followed throughout childhood and adulthood. If not followed, there are certain repercussions that induce social anxiety and a lack of self-confidence. Not conforming to masculine norms have caused me to be labeled as harsh derogatory terms that have negatively impacted my identity. Gender stereotypes are strict and do not allow for expression or diversity in our society that is so adamant on change and advancement. Hyper-masculinity is not only problematic for men but also contributes to the oppression of women, people of color, and the queer population. Hyper-masculinity needs to be challenged in order to evoke social change. Stand up and fight for people who do not conform to masculine norms. Do not encourage shaming or bashing of any kind, as it shows the fragile masculinity that the gender roles have established. In the words of Adichie, “…we raise [girls] to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” (27). Both men and women are forced by the systems from which society participates in to conform and facilitate gender stereotypes; stereotypes that are weaved through social interaction, large systems and institutions, race, and class.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. Anchor, 2014.
Bigler, Rebecca S. “The Role of Classification Skill in Moderating Environmental Influences on Children’s Gender Stereotyping: A Study of the Functional Use of Gender in the Classroom.” Child Development, vol. 66, no. 4, 1995, pp. 1072–1087.