A question is a simple device used to extract information from someone else. What’s the weather going to be like on Tuesday? Most of the time, when asking a question the asker wants to gain the knowledge that the question pertains to. Would you like fries with that? But, there are other times where the actual response is judged and given weight based upon varying criteria. Are you having a boy or girl?
It may seem like a simple question, “boy or girl,” and it is. But, when the future of your child’s life in relation to everyone around them is determined by the answer, it’s no longer just a question. Keep in mind the question was not male or female; nor was the question penis or vagina. Those questions would lead you to a benign medical or scientific answer that would determine the biological sex of the child. As stated in the “Gender vs. Sex” lecture notes, the term sex, only refers “to inborn biological characteristics related to reproduction, such as sex chromosomes or sex organs” (Nugent, 2011).
The question is boy or girl, which is a different question entirely. That question is seeking to determine the gender of your child. Gender is infinitely more complex than sex as it, “refers to psychological characteristics and social categories that human culture creates” (Nugent, 2011).
Whether we like it or not, we answer the question with a smile send our children coasting down a preselected path of societally acceptable behaviors that follow them until they are nothing more than a faint memory in the minds of their loved ones. Basow (2008) states, “When a child is born it is immediately labeled a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ based on its genitalia a label that will define the expectations and responses of others throughout its life.”
All of these behaviors, and choices begin the process of socialization. Socialization, as Basow (2008) stated, “results from an interaction between social influences from parents, media, peers and books and the simultaneous development of a mental self-schema through which children organize their representations of their world.”
The process of socialization often begins with breadcrumb decisions like the choice between blue and pink, which, in American culture, have been endowed with certain social meanings of their own (Harvey, 2009).
Basow (2008) gives an example of socialization taken from an episode of the NBC television show “Friends.” In this scenario, one of the male characters is shocked when he sees the male son of a friend holding onto a Barbie doll. He expresses his disappointment and tries to coax the child’s parent to give him more “gender appropriate” toys such as a G.I. Joe or monster trucks. When that approach fails, he then “creates an elaborate scenario to distract the boy in order to in order to remove the Barbie.”
If you choose blue, you’re going down the road of masculinity (Basow, 2008). So therefore you’re required to be physically strong, emotionally stoic, unless it pertains to aggression or sexual desire, mentally capable, financially stable, and you must have an aversion toward anything feminine. As a boy you’re expected to be better, stronger, and faster. But, most importantly you must always provide. If a male child fails to match up to these standards, they are usually chastised or otherwise socially punished (Blakemore, 2003). This points to a greater gender role rigidity in boys.
The lack of maternal instincts and other childrearing skills are not required. Often the lack of those skills simply reaffirms one’s sense masculinity (Basow, 2008).
If you choose the pink brick road, you are expected to be diminutive, meek, quite, respectful, chaste, and domestically fluent (Blakemore, 2003). You’re also expected to be physically fit but never muscular or hard, emotionally variant and unstable, as well as financially dependent. But, most importantly you must be physically attractive.
Notice, there is no aversion to male characteristics. This is because, in our society, male characteristics of aggression, self-reliance, strength, and stoicism are universally preferred. However, they are purposefully socialized out of females. But, unlike boys, girls who step outside gender norms are usually ignored rather than chastised. Blakemore (2003) found these results in her studies of children.
Maternal instincts and other child rearing skills are very much required for those living in the world of pink. Those who lack the skills, while not often chastised, do often feel despair or a lack of worth. This type of discrimination and preference towards men, and masculinity is known as androcentrism (Nugent, 2011).
While there are biological differences between males and females they, “have been transformed into female disadvantage” (Nugent, 2011).
Separately these gender roles and expectations are damaging enough. But, it’s important to note that they don’t live in a vacuum and therefore will interact at some point.
Men are raised to be providers always and women have been taught to be dependent always. Because of these conflicting set of behaviors, in any interaction between men and women there exists an unequal power exchange dynamic. This dynamic shows itself throughout our society in various ways. For example, women are, in most industries, relegated to a secondary or tertiary position where they serve a male authority figure. In a romantic relationship, it’s common for men to place a high value on women that they see as being sexually chaste. This arbitrary selection process is another way in which we see the inequality.
Since both men are taught that feminine traits are undesirable, this leads to an overarching belief that those whom possess feminine characteristics are also undesirable or less than. This is why men treat feminine men negatively. It’s also why we punish male children who exhibit feminine characteristics or behaviors. For example, much of the homophobia against men that is rampant in American culture is, at its core, rooted in the dislike of the perceived feminine characteristic of either being penetrated, being attracted to other men, or being mentally weak enough to give into the temptation.
Of course, women being the source of all behaviors we deem as feminine it stands to reason that they would experience some form of this backlash and the do. However, unlike with feminine men, the ways in which women are regarded are much less obvious.
You throw like a girl, is an insult meant to say that you are somehow weaker or physically deficient. .Grow a pair, referring to testicles, is an insult meant to say that having testicles somehow endures their owner with qualities like courage, bravery, emotional endurance and other preferred masculine characteristics. Of course, because women do not have testicles and cannot “grow a pair” they are relegated to always being deficient.
This perceived deficiency has several societal effects on women, such as the servant nature of the employment positions available to them. But, also in terms of education that is afforded them. Of all the effects, the most damaging among them is the effect that is has on how women view themselves. Women often begin to see themselves as deficient, fragile, weak, or less than, which leads them to not reach for goals that seem to be out of their area of comfort or skill set. This does not tend to happen with boys because they are taught to that they possess all the necessary equipment to be successful and, in many ways, they are.
Sometimes a question is just a question. Sometimes a question is a decision that sets the trajectory for someone’s entire life. When it comes to gender and the question is never really just a question. But, instead it is a determining factor on if your child is worthy or not. It’s a set of ideas and expectations that will follow your child for the entirety of their life.
Basow, S. (2008). Gender socialization, or how long a way has baby come? In J.C. Chrisler, C. Golden, & P.D. Rozee (Eds.), Lectures on the Psychology of Women, 4th edition (pp. 80-95). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Blakemore, J.E.O. (2003). Childresn’s beliefs about violating gender norms: Boys shouldn’t act like girls and girls shouldn’t act like boys. Sex Roles, 48, 411-419.
Harvey, J. A., & Strahlievitz, M. A. (2009). The power of pink: cause –related marketing and the impact on breast cancer. American College of Radiology, 6(10),
Nugent, N.K. (2011). Gender differences and biases [PowerPoint slides].
Nugent, N.K. (2011). Gender vs. sex [PowerPoint slides].