Stepping Outside Traditional Boundaries
In Football, Fast Cars, and Cheerleading: Adolescent Gender Norms, 1978-1989, Suitor and Reavis found that adolescents did not change drastically in their views about gender roles from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. The differences they did find were an increase in girls’ reports of sports involvement as a social advancement tool, and a larger increase in boys’ reports of sports as a way for girls to gain status. They also found that, by the late 1980s, more boys noted high sexual activity, a stereotypically masculine characteristic, as a social advancement tool for girls, while girls did not report any stereotypically feminine activities as a way for boys to gain status. Girls, therefore, were more accepted into masculine arenas, but boys did not stray into feminine arenas. The implications of the study are that boys have remained locked into traditional masculine roles. While girls have advanced socially through entering masculine roles, boys have not advanced socially through entering traditionally feminine roles.
In the late 1970s, the general trend was that adolescents felt that participation in sports was did not increase girls’ status as much as other activities. Suitor and Reavis found that 33.6 of the students who graduated between 1978 and 1982 reported that sports was one way in which girls advanced in status, while 90% said sports was a way boys advanced in status. Physical attractiveness was the number one way in which girls were said to gain prestige. Through the late 1980s, these trends continued. Similarly, rowdy behavior was seen as a masculine advancement tool, but never mentioned as a feminine tool. This brings into question the ways in which kids learn that boys are aggressive and supposed to pursue sports, whereas girls are not.
Children learn gender roles early on in life, as their parents reward and punish certain behaviors that are biologically based and promote gender intensification. For example, girls are complimented for having their hair done nicely in ribbons or headbands, while boys are complimented for playing well and being competitive in a soccer game. While boys are biologically more aggressive than girls, this aggression and roughness is enhanced and encouraged through socialization. Nature and nurture are both at work in early gender development, as characteristics that are by nature masculine or feminine are coded with social behaviors and are overly engrained in children’s heads.
As children spend more time with peers, they reinforce these rules with each other, by teaching each other and interacting in the roles that have been defined for them. They are afraid to step outside these roles once they have been put in place, because they have strong desires to be accepted. They develop gender schemas that provide strict rules for what is acceptable male and female behavior. At an early age, children start seeing the world defined by these schemas, as male and female. The media only adds to the problem, telling girls they are supposed to be defined by shopping, and boys are supposed to be closed off, and express emotion only through sports. It is true that traditional gender attitudes are still extremely prevalent today as they were twenty years ago, but the key to understanding and fixing the problem lies in the critical early years where gender intensification and schema development takes place.
The other main finding of the study was that there was an increase in boys’ reports of masculine characteristics like sports and sexual activity as ways in which girls could gain status. The fact that girls did not report that boys could gain status through feminine activities follows the general trend that has been seen in recent years as well. In 1993, Orr and Ben-Eliahu found that girls had higher self-esteem if they were more androgynous, or more equally involved in feminine and masculine behaviors, rather than more feminine or more masculine. Boys, on the other hand, had higher self-esteem if they were more masculine, than if they were more androgynous or more feminine. It seems that cultural expectations for women have become more encouraging of androgyny, while men continue to be stuck in traditional masculine roles. There must be some combination of nature and nurture that is responsible for males having a harder time stepping outside traditional roles. Pleck et al. found that men experience stress both inside and outside of male roles. It seems that boys are more critical and demanding of each other when it comes to being masculine. Perhaps the lack of emotional expression that is both biologically and socially constructed is part of why boys are strained and cannot freely talk about achieving a balance without being criticized by other males.
While it seems that gender roles have become more flexible for girls, the findings for boys have not been as encouraging. It is important to note, however, that when college students are reporting how their high school’s gender roles were constructed, there is a very good chance they no longer feel the way they did in high school. In fact, research has told us that adolescents tend to be more androgynous and less stereotypical in their gender views as they get older. It is, nonetheless, important to teach the values of androgyny at an early age before the stereotypical roles are permanently set into children’s brains. Androgyny needs to be taught in a way that encourages flexibility in gender expression, without focusing too much on individuals as they relate to gender. The idea of gender transcendence must be incorporated into adolescent development, so that individuals are not masculine, feminine, or androgynous, but are defined by their own unique personal choices and traits. The question, then, is how to delicately balance androgyny and gender transcendence. We need to use stories, pictures, and media images starting in preschool or before, that have children playing, looking, and acting the same in some ways and different in others, with all types of boys and all types of girls, each unique and, at the same time, overlapping in some aspects. Suitor and Reavis’s study, therefore, implies that more of this type of work needs to be done for both males and females, with increased attention on male role flexibility and acceptance into non-traditional types of behavior.