Where Do We Get Gender Roles From?

Young girl having a pink beanie placed on her head reading “FEMINIST” across the front.
Photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

Anybody who has studied gender theory would know that gender categories are paradoxical. Why do women do xyz? Because women do those things. So, where do these roles come from? Well, if we take a look into a combination of Foucault, Butler, and Saffioti’s writings we see a clear takeaway. Overall, gender roles come from a need in (right wing) society for the oppression of a sub-group. Gender, as a concept, is unique to each time and place, and therefore one might wonder why the gender system we have now has stuck for so long. The answer is, in vague terms, because it gives men power. Throughout history we see literal patriarchy in the form of power in monarchical societies being passed exclusively from man to man. In these historical societies, the gender of the proletariat class barely affected performance. Due to the existence of what some call the “reproductive arena,” yes there were still social differences, however we largely do not see this reflected in workforces, with the majority of social stratification existing in regards to sexuality. Is this bad? Definitely. However, is it significantly worse than today? Debatable. So, what we find when we look at history is literal patriarchs whose laws are based around self-preservation. As such, as empires spread and cultures are forced upon the masses, gender becomes reified as a permanent concept.

Saffioti does a good job in identifying the benefits men receive from the subjugation of women. Foucault explains clearly how social constructs in general are falsehoods. However, Judith Butler is the one whose theory gives the most apt description of society. In her view, gender is not a thing which a person possesses, but an ascribed label based on how your externalities are viewed in society. She has clarified in the modern day that she feels her performativity theory was written in such a way that neglects transgender identity or identity beyond a binary, and I would agree. However, the importance of this theory is the identification of “functional” gender. In other words, the difference between an internal identity and how you are treated by others based on perceived gender. For example, I am a fairly androgynous person. If I were to leave my house in a dress, I would be likely to be referred to as “she” by people in public. If I were to leave my house in a button down, I would be likely to be referred to as “he.” What Judith Butler is trying to get across is that, though my identified gender is not literally changing based on clothing, functionally, I have negated my experience of misogyny by functionally performing maleness.

A video satirizing the hyper-academic nature of gender theory

Well, so you then might ask (like my older sister tediously often does) what is the point of this framework? How can understanding gender as performance affect real world misogyny? (see the above Onion video satirizing that point.) Well, overall, what it does is identify the falsehoods which uphold gender as it exists now. When we collectively view gender as a set of norms rather than as a thing a person is, we start viewing gender functionally as less of an indicator of any innate characteristic, and more as a box which one is required to fit within. Returning to the example of my androgyny: if I were to present myself as female but perform a lot of male-gendered behaviors, I would be, in albeit minor ways, socially ostracized, despite this not being the case should I present as male. And same vice versa. Therefore, when discussing gender theory, it is less because it gives a clear path of what to do, but rather is a good baseline for activists to have. Just as a surgeon does not need to know the names of all of the bones in the body to perform gastro-intestinal surgery, an activist does not need all of this information. Instead, the goal is to develop a framework through which all activism occurs.

So, for example, when I spoke earlier about how gender was established by a literal patriarchy, I was using it as a baseline to establish this point: gendered media is perpetuated through gender under-representation in high positions of corporations, and is used (sometimes subconsciously) as a way to cater to the status quo in a way that attempts to normalize it. What do I mean by this? Well, think about the teen dystopia sub genre of the early 2000s. We saw Divergent, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Warriors, and Harry Potter which all had the core mechanic of social stratification with factions, districts, cabins, clans, and houses respectively. Why was this mechanic used? Because it is far easier to get people engaged with something if they feel as though they are a part of a special group within that thing. When readers say things like “I’m a Hufflepuff” they are simultaneously engaging with the media, advertising it, and identifying with it. Therefore, when we see ad campaigns like those of Old Spice and Dr. Pepper, their goal is to make as much money as possible. If, instead of challenging the existing categories, they instead base their product around them, male viewers now feel a sense of identity with that media. I think a perfect subversion of this is the latest Twix campaign in which they tell people to pick sides in a feud between the Right Twix and the Left Twix (as they typically are packaged in pairs). These two candies are identical, but in making arbitrary factions, you then create a sense of identity in viewers who then will engage with and advertise the brand further. In doing so, however, Old Spice and Dr. Pepper are furthering the separation between maleness and femaleness by using something akin to a “divide and conquer” methodology. Their goal is not to exclude women from their product, but instead is to ensure that men and women both feel that they exclusively are the primary demographic of that product. Old Spice and Dr Pepper even now have been pushing women-focused campaigns specifically for this reason. I feel I have belabored the point a tad, but when you consider how simple of a point it is to understand this in terms of brands and marketing, you should also consider how this applies to politics, money, and power.

When it comes to things like the Bechdel Test failing in the majority of media and Barbie pushing toys that, under the guise of feminism, in fact tell girls not to engage with education, we are not seeing a brand identity. Instead, what we are seeing is a piece of work specifically oriented to create familiarity with a subject matter. When men are put at the forefront of these topics, the goal is not simply to push a narrative, but is instead to say “this is how society already works, so we might as well depict this as is” and in doing so, reifies those very notions. Furthermore, due to the pre-existing social stratification, these depictions, paradoxically perpetuate themselves, in a way not dissimilar to the chicken and the egg.

In reference to the Bechdel Test, when we think about society in terms of a set of interlocking systems, we see that men, somewhat arbitrarily, were given power at some point. As this expands to the modern day, we see male authors writing books with ideas that subjugate women. As these views enter society, women are discriminated against economically, including in the book industry. Therefore, more male authors become popular and those male authors continue to perpetuate harmful views. It is completely cyclical. As socialist activists often say “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It is worth here noting that the Bechdel Test is intended to be easy to pass. The entire concept of it is that it is something so simple that the fact that it is not applicable to the majority of media is telling. So, in these harmful portrayals, what is the goal? Why don’t they pass the Bechdel Test? Well, put simply, the author of the work wants to feel, as with branding, that he belongs to the exalted subgroup within his work’s characters. Therefore, he depicts men and women in such a way that his sub group (men) is the “better” one or the centralized one. In doing so, he also caters to male readers who feel as though they are also in this “better” group. There is never to be a scene with the absence of men, because a male writer does not wish to feel unfamiliar with an environment created in his own work. When non-men consume this media, it becomes internalized as a new status quo that men are, as a group, omnipresent. One of my absolute favorite web developers, Nicky Case, has a great simulation in which you can see how an idea becomes more firmly a part of a person’s beliefs based on how often they hear that idea expressed in the world around them. Therefore, when non-men consume androcentric media, over time, the idea becomes either cemented as true, or cemented as what society at large views to be true. Either way, it places people who are not men as the victim and expects them to believe in their own victimhood. Dr. Rodney Coates has a great book on how to demolish this established narrative of victimhood called The Matrix of Race. In it, he discusses how an important factor in establishing a social upheaval is the common understanding that social stratification is a deviation from the status quo, not the status quo itself. So, when we talk about media portrayals like this, the Bechdel Test’s goal is to prove that this media pattern is not natural. If characters’ genders were chosen at random, we would see a higher passing rate of the Bechdel Test than what we have now. The Bechdel Test is challenging the idea that our “status quo” in media (and, for that matter, in reality) is normal whatsoever.

I am a computer science student, and so a Barbie picture book portraying the character of Barbie as technologically incapable without the aid of men perfectly depicts my personal experiences with how men view me within the field. The goal here is to establish that women are poorer at these activities. The reasoning behind this is twofold. To remove women from a growing field and to make the women in these fields feel exceptional rather than an equal. To the first point, in removing women from STEM fields, the goal is to remain with masculine control over the information we possess, making the information taught in STEM biased towards men. You may wonder how something as objective as STEM could be affected by things like social stratification, and the answer is that it already has been. Gynecology, as a field, was started through experimentation on slave women who were expected to essentially ensure extreme pain and be used as something of a studied model, to the extent that a lot of things “discovered” in gynecology were known by the patients well beforehand (such as the “discovery” of the g-spot). Then, there is the famous computer science example of webcams with image detection identifying white people as “people” and Black people as “monkeys.” When we exclude women from STEM fields, the goal is to specifically ensure that the predominant ideas about the research and development conducted are to not be challenged. I have previously spoken about how sexual dimorphism has been proven recently to have been a falsehood. The reason why it took this long? Because women were not allowed in the American workforce until the 30s. To address the point of exceptionalism, let’s look at the Barbie book specifically. The target audience of that book was definitely intended to be young girls, so why would it express those ideas? (There was also the famous case of a “student” Barbie doll with a voice box saying lines about hating math and wanting to go shopping, which also fits this analysis). Well, simply put, the idea is that the children buying these products have already expressed an interest in these fields. Therefore, rather than telling the kid “The world as you know it is wrong about women, you can do anything!” they instead say “The world as you know it is right about women, but you are special enough to grasp these concepts, so you’re special!” The idea is to play into a superiority complex which poses the individual as better than their peers. By contrast, looking at non-gendered children’s tutorial books like origami guides, we see that the focus is instead on ensuring that the child spreads the information as much as possible, engaging with the topic in ways which show off how interesting the field is. Meanwhile, if a young girl is made to feel like they are special because they were able to do the programming on their own, while Barbie needed a man to come in and do it for her, that child’s superiority complex is likely to make them keep the information and outcome to themself, rather than engaging friends in a productive way. The goal is to create a product that teaches programming, but makes the reader feel as though they need to keep their knowledge/interest in programming secret.

So, to summarize, social stratification of genders was a deliberate ploy to instill more power in men. The ploy was so effective because, under capitalism, these ideas spread more and more. Then, due to markets being easier to establish when social stratification occurs, these antiquated ideas also became profitable. Since humans in general prefer not to be challenged, there becomes an incentive to maintain these ideas rather than abolish them. In the maintenance of these ideas, women have to be excluded from STEM fields, so as to not disrupt the androcentric ideas expressed therein. And finally, any attempts to push outside of these constructs tend to be established within the existing worldview, and therefore tend to perpetuate it as “normal” by treating it as the default. What can we do about this? Well, it isn’t much, but with a framework and education formed explicitly around combatting these harmful ideas, we are less likely to be susceptible to their intended results.

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Megan Jordan

writing about my interests, LGBTQ+ liberation, feminism, racial justice, and more