We are fairly aware that some of the well-known mass media communication businesses are broadcasting, advertising and cinema among others. To put mass media into simple words, it literally is a means of using technology to connect to larger audiences through various outlets. However, ever since the beginning of times when the media tech originated, given its value to reach larger masses, it was bound to impact people socially, culturally and psychologically. One of the major drawbacks of this tech, in my opinion, is that of the attempt to connect to larger audiences through normalising and perpetuating gender stereotypes. However, in order to understand this, we must first understand how gender roles and ‘doing gender’ affects us in our day to day lives and our mental and physical well-being, only then can we provide constructive criticism towards the problem of normalising stereotypes in wider public eyes.
Basics of Sex and Gender:
In India, I often come across people who casually use sex and gender interchangeably. While this is not my concern here (it could just be unfamiliarity with the nuances of English language), let me put it straight. Sex is a biological term used to explain whether you have female or male reproductive organs and based on that you could be a ‘male’ or a ‘female’, an ‘intersex’ or fall under the ‘differences or disorders of sex (DSDs)’ simply based on your body parts and genetic make up. However, ‘gender’ is a societal construct that labels feminine qualities and masculine qualities to people. While this may have drawn some inferences from the differences in the bodily structures of men and women, gender is usually more about behaviours, attributes and traits. Thus, a majority of people living in society want to fit in any of the two acceptable umbrella terms of ‘a woman’ or ‘a man’. However, thanks to the rising activism of ditching such binary models of gender, embracing a whole new ‘spectrum of genders’ has now initiated a dialogue that is indeed bringing a positive change. People are starting to look beyond the qualities of masculinity and femininity.
What are gender stereotypes?
Gender stereotypes are basically ‘generalisations’ that are made towards the roles that men and women play in society. As a society, there is a consensus towards these roles which are often backed with anecdotal evidence to support structured gender roles in terms of behaviour, attributes and labour. There’s also the larger ‘good’ that goes along with these generalisations; e.g. women are mothers so they are naturally more caregiving, nurturing and empathetic. While there might be some truth to that, it doesn’t take away from the fact that men too are known to have nurturing and caregiving qualities.
Gender stereotypes have a very long history. When human beings lived in foraging or hunter-gatherer communities, women and men performed different roles for survival. Women looked after caregiving and nurturing roles like mothering, feeding and protection of the child, while men took up foraging, hunting and protection of the family and the troop. As humans evolved and started living in more socioeconomically complex societies, the “division of labour” continued. It is since then that gender roles have been a grey area and have shifted from just survival roles to oppression. When power and conflicts played in, women unknowingly were pushed in to perform their roles and the paths changed from caregivers to them being seen as liabilities. Power shifts throughout history have made women synonymous to the ‘weaker gender’ while rendering the historic qualities of men as protectors, fighters and resource hunters as the ‘stronger gender’.
Fast-forwarding to today, surveys point out that there are more women in the workforce, that more women are childfree than ever before and that more women are also putting their careers and themselves above other assigned duties of caregiving. Still we see that one more voice that scratches out gender roles is still the need of the hour. We aren’t quite there yet. We aren’t close to an equal society where gender norms are deflected and this deflection is acceptable in our immediate peer groups and in the mainstream media. Among a lot of people I have met throughout my life while working in India, gender still dictates who they should be, what careers are appropriate for them and what behaviour is ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’ for a longer run. Having said that, these constructs and structures can be incomprehensible to fit in for people who do not identify as ‘men’ or ‘women’.
Unnoticeable ‘gender’ in our everyday life
Gender persists in a majority of the set-ups that I have grown up in; like schools and colleges and even at home. I continue to see gender existing and affecting me and my everyday life even when I am in my thirties (an age that I am told most people feel comfortable with their roles), and as a qualified, financially independent woman, I see no point in raising my concerns when people target my gender or ascribe specific roles to me. I simply walk away from these arguments and instead jot down my thoughts. When I look at my own family, I see roles assigned based on the curious amalgamation of the basic historic understanding of gender and that of a biological male or a female. So the father is the breadwinner and the mother, despite rebelling to continue her job, looks after the kitchen and sometimes restrains the brother and the father from managing household chores. She is the flagbearer of nurturing despite the father trying his best. My friends and I, here in India have complained about how our husbands (or shall I say our male partners) have no experience of managing the house, washing, cleaning and care-taking. And, that we now know it better, since the lockdown was imposed and the ‘househelps’ skedaddled away. The struggles of queer genders are unimaginable to me. When I speak to my queer friends, I feel happy for them that they are out there, accepting themselves of who they really are, and at the same time, I end up empathising with them. Trust me, they have a long way to go to be seen or heard in the mainstream media and in immediate peer groups representing themselves and their needs. One of the most critical parts of their struggle, in my understanding, is the media representation. The media fails to accommodate them and their individualities, instead, they end up being a part of the same old binary man – woman narrative!
A point to note here is that the mother, the father, the media and the peers are (unknowingly) assigning roles, behaviours, traits and attributes that deem to be acceptable and are ‘a routine accomplishment’ in the context of binary gender models. This is also explained by West and Zimmerman in their article, titled ‘Doing Gender’ where they explain how specific gender roles in societies are viewed as accomplishments and we ‘do gender’ in the presence of others in our society, propagating and internalising that those others are similar to us in being a man or a woman. These unknowing, historic gendered actions that we perform in our day to day lives may be far more harmful to us and to our future generations. Introspecting on how we perform our duties, act or behave in our peer groups and when we are alone, maybe something to consider in the long run. Being observant of how gendered, age-old behaviours and practices play out in our day to day professional and personal life is the first step towards change. Having said that, one mustn’t simply flip the gender roles to women behaving and acting like the popular understanding of men and vice versa!
It is important to keep in mind that more women (including queer people here) than men, as of today, still face oppression, discrimination, objectification and stereotyping. Hence, I think that it is time that more women (and men) start questioning their day to day behaviours, recognise traits that may be tending towards the oversimplified, popular understanding of women and challenge the stereotypical gendered qualities.
Role of mainstream media in our lives:
Today the media reaches over a billion people through various outlets. To be exact about 3885 million (increasing daily) just via the internet. Media, through their cinema and advertisements, tends to focus on adults. Children get influenced by that and learn ‘appropriate’ or ‘accepted’ behaviours, attributes and jobs. Literature has shown us that, “the mental reality experienced through the media becomes the basis for attitudes and behaviours.” For the media technology, there is clearly an incentive to stick to gender stereotypes in an attempt to increase reach to the masses and capitalise by propagating an ‘accomplishment’ through sticking to gender norms.
Even in 2020, we still continue to live in a world, despite resistance towards change, where the mainstream media continues to perpetuate age-old, gender stereotypes. Hence, it is people like you and I, who will have to change to include the underrepresented people and to cushion ourselves and our children from the unnecessary burden of ‘doing gender’.
- West, Candace; Zimmerman, Don H. (June 1987). “Doing gender”. Gender & Society. 1 (2): 125–151. doi:10.1177/0891243287001002002. JSTOR 189945.Pdf.
P.S.: This article was written as a part of my assignment for a feminism course that I undertook in 2018 during my PhD coursework.