Gender Stereotypes and the Pressure to Conform

Sep 29 2010 Published by under Stereotypes

Photo by Lisa Norwood

This week, a Findlay, Ohio middle school student broke an 11-year-old classmate’s arm when he lifted the boy into the air and then slammed him on the ground. It wasn’t the first time the boy, Tyler, was targeted by bullies. Two bullies in particular started harassing Tyler when they saw him practicing with the school’s youth football cheerleading squad. (Read the story here.)

Tyler’s mom says the break is bad enough that it may require surgery.

The story doesn’t say why the bullies (both on the football team that Tyler cheers for, by the way) reacted so angrily to Tyler being a cheerleader. I can only speculate it has to do with gender roles, and the tired old stereotype that cheerleading is just for girls.

Is it possible that no one in Findlay watches college sports? Cheerleading hasn’t been a girls-only activity for decades. Ohio State—a Big 10 school—has more than 20 big, burly guys in its Spirit Program.

Bullying is Learned Behavior

Stories like this upset me on multiple levels. That any child has learned it is acceptable to assault or intimidate another person simply for being different is frightening. I say learned, because bullies are made and not born. Kids learn to bully by watching how their families and peers interact with others.

I am also angered by the belief that those who act outside of society’s rigid gender stereotypes are somehow inferior. Males who display compassion and empathy, for example, are often viewed as weak and called “pussies.” Females who act assertively and independently are seen as unfeminine and labeled “bitches.” Our culture implies that gay men are less masculine and lesbian women less feminine than their straight counterparts.

Confronting Gender Stereotypes

We learn at an early age what it means to be a boy or a girl in our society. We get messages about gender from our parents, toys, television, books, schools, and teachers. Boys are encouraged to be aggressive, loud, and independent. Girls are valued for being quiet, pretty, and submissive. Think about the following statements. How many of them have you heard? How many do you believe to be true?

  • Boys don’t cry
  • Women aren’t good at math
  • Boys shouldn’t play with dolls
  • Women are terrible drivers
  • Real men eat meat
  • Muscles on women are unfeminine
  • Men don’t use straws
  • Shouting isn’t ladylike
  • All feminists are ugly
  • All male nurses are gay

None of these statements is based in fact. They are all stereotypes that reflect our society’s expectations of males and females. I invite you to spend some time thinking about how you define masculine versus feminine. Do you think negatively of someone who doesn’t match those ideas? If you have children, what have you taught them about the differences between men and women?

I mentioned in my first post that I was picked on in school for being different. The truth is I had it easy compared to some others. Kids that didn’t fit traditional gender roles had a particularly tough time. “Feminine” boys and “masculine” girls were bullied relentlessly. That was a long time ago, but sadly, it seems not much has changed. If anything, bullying is an even worse problem than it was back then.

Change Starts With You

Threats, intimidation, and physical violence should never be the way we resolve conflict.

A study from a group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids concluded that nearly 60 percent of boys whom researchers classified as bullies in grades 6-9 were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Forty percent of those same boys grew up to have three or more criminal convictions.

Learning to accept and embrace one another’s differences is critical to being successful in our society. As adults we have to learn to live and work side-by-side with people from all walks of life. Kids should be taught that it isn’t necessary to like or agree with everyone, but that everyone does deserve to be treated with respect.

Further Discussion

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experiences on bullying by posting a comment and starting a discussion.

If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to Peculiar Girl or share it on Twitter or Facebook.

3 responses so far