It’s that time again. The ending of another year and, in this case, the closing of a decade. So I’ve decided to compile a list of everyday behaviours and attitudes that we should keep in mind going forward to into the uncharted waters of the coming years. These are not intended to be colossally huge changes, but rather, small actions that can help each person chip away at the predominant gender perceptions that continue to influence our lives.
- Respect People's Pronouns
Whether he, she or they, whatever someone chooses to identify with, it requires the smallest of efforts — common decency, in truth — to respectfully address them as such. Evidence suggests that gender neutral terms boost more equitable attitudes. By respecting their pronouns, people of marginalized gender identities are made to feel more welcomed socially, at work, wherever.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, in many cases, delineating by gender often isn’t particularly necessary: many things will apply to both/all genders and separating them will simply continue viewing gender in binary terms. This is an easy change to make, one that should not result in the massively enraged reaction it sometimes gets. Lazy jokes about ‘Children identifying as dishwashers!’ should also be dropped while we’re at it. There’s a cruel stigmatizing rhetoric underlying them, as well as the invalidation of non-binary people historically: these jokes tend to be made as if non-conforming identities are a new phenomenon. When, really, people are expressing themselves as they’ve always felt, and with the changing of time they’ve simply grown a big enough platform to be heard in the mainstream. This is not a ‘new’ form of “craziness”. There’s tremendous fear documented by people who do not conform to normalized gender identities when coming out about their preferred ways to be addressed. By respecting their pronouns, you simply make them feel heard and respected.
2. Let Go of the Gender Stereotypes
Girls are delicate and boys are rough. So it goes.
Like as not, we’ve all been raised in a culture that genders just about everything around us. Flowers for girls, swords for boys. Horses for girls, surfing for boys. Delicacy for girls, roughhousing for boys. People often don’t match their overall gender script very well. It’s often the social pressures placed upon us that can keep us away from trying or experiencing certain things. Women are somewhat better off in this regard; the rules of their gender role, through decades of feminist action, have become more flexible. Men are trapped, to a greater extent still, in the limited views on how we should perform our gender: order a non-traditionally male drink and be prepared to potentially be asked if ‘you’re coming out of the closet now’. ‘Appropriate’ gender expression has been defined and reinforced down to the pettiest and most banal forms.
Cordelia Fine writes:
When gender is salient in the environment, or we categorise someone as male or female, gender stereotypes are automatically primed.
We expect the stereotypes to be true.
And as Fine discusses in her book, Delusions of Gender, there’s a perniciousness to how these socially enforced gender expectations contribute to people exhibiting the ‘correct’ self-views and behaviours. It’s often assumed gender differences — in interests, temperament, activity, expression — are innate. However, the human brain shows remarkable plasticity. To assume the sex of a child, at birth, centrally determines the behavioural patterns for life is an outdated viewpoint.
These stereotypes produce harmful belief systems. Going forward, it is important work towards dismantling those views and challenging the judgements that come with them. Many boys risk incredible social judgement and ostracization if they stray, even a little, from the culturally allowed modes of manhood. There’s something wrong with a boy who likes makeup. There’s something off about a boy who dislikes roughhousing. An alliance of reactionary gender beliefs and homophobia breeds a particularly persistent form of gendered control; children who go against it risk being humiliated by peers or implicitly shamed as broken by their caregivers.
Women are undermined by the pressure to be less assertive, to see anger or frustration as ‘unwomanly’ mood states. Women, according to Fine’s research, often assume, when their sex is put forward directly, that they did ‘less well’ on tests and exams than if the questionnaires about it are left gender-neutral or absent of gender entirely. Social gendering encourages women to underestimate themselves. Women may even reshape their behaviour to conform to the expectations of how they ‘should’ be seen, something that undermines them personally and professionally.
Our abilities to be fully human chafes against the walls gendered rhetoric closed around us.
3. Nix These Words From Your Vocabulary
“Skank” “Fag” “Pussy” “Slut” “Mangina” “Bitch” “Man-up” “Whore” “Tranny”
Those are just a few examples of unnecessary and harmful terms that are still thrown around to insult, shame, or hurt others. Add whichever ones you like. If you ever find yourself muttering ‘bitch’ under your breath, or ‘Bob’s such a giant pussy!’ instead correct yourself and substitute it with something else. Something non-gendered, something that doesn’t reinforce harmful stereotypes or expectations. Something that isn’t a slur. “That Sally can be a real pain” for example.
A noticeable problem with a lot of ‘gendered’ insults is that they frame femininity as inferior. Similar to the above point, many women have mentioned how “bitch” is so broadly used that they fear any assertiveness might get them labelled as such. Most male-shaming terminology attacks men for the lack of conventional manhood by either comparing them to women or gay men. Femaleness, in language, seems continually used as a stick to batter and shame men with when they behave less than stellarly against the masculine expectations.Both men and women can express this view and internalise it. For men, it shames them for expressing important emotions and repels them from seeking aid — even for serious health problems. This overarching attitude also contributes to women internalizing themselves as less capable in male-dominant areas.
And, of course, so many of these terms ultimately reinforce the patriarchal concern over parenthood. Women’s sexuality is still policed in our language. If the primary mode of shame for men is weakness, for women it’s often their sexuality. The terms continue to view women’s own sexual interest as something to be repressed. Women are expected to walk a tightrope between being sexually available but never sexually open. The beliefs underlying many of these terms commodify women’s bodies through the view of male paternity concern. Women cannot be sexually ‘loose’, only men can. The term is also used as a way to invalidate women down to just their bodies, connecting their sexual activity to their worth as a person. By continuing with this mode of attack, we are essentially feeding the unequal sexual dynamics of men as pursuer and in-control, and women as policed, ashamed, and losing value through her own sexual freedom.
4. Drop “Man Up” and “Boys Will Be Boys”
Continuing, somewhat, from the last point. I consider these two terms to be some of the worst responses to men’s issues. And, in true cringe-tier fashion, many men’s groups actively use them to shame men that don’t agree with them, support them, or challenge their misogynistic tirades. But it goes deeper than just that fringe outlier. In a more general sense, “Man Up” is a statement of invalidation. It reinforces feelings of shame by emasculating men for having problems. It conceptualizes the belief that men should be able to cope, alone, with everything that comes their way, that feeling overwhelmed or lost is an unacceptable mood state. It’s a statement made to “push” men up to deal with their problems by ultimately suggesting that men can do everything alone and needing help or support is unacceptable behaviour. If intended to motivate, it usually only inspires shame, anger, or greater despair. This is a cultural attitude, internalised in one simple phrase, that casts doubt, sadness, trauma, pain as things a man should not feel if he wants to be properly masculine.
It’s not, at the end of the day, a way to deal with men’s problems: it’s a way of dismissing them.
“Boys Will be Boys” is problematic in another sense. It handwaves away troublesome male behaviour — even sexual harassment, bullying or vandalism — as typical expressions of male immaturity. It tells people suffering from the result of such actions to simply accept and tolerate it, to simply go along with it, without a fuss, as these are simply boyish habits that all young lads go through. The implications suggest a harmlessness that the victims experience as painful or scary. “Boys Will Be Boys” suggests aggressive, anti-social and even abusive behaviours are simply biological realities of young maleness. It overlooks not just the harmful impact it has on the recipients of that behaviour, but even damagingly ignores other contexts for why young boys might be exhibiting these destructive behaviours. It ignores a potential warning sign as one study found:
Boys who frequently bully are at risk for later criminality when this condition is accompanied by a high level of psychiatric symptoms.
It does no one any good. It’s a way, again, of dismissing male issues.
5. Try At Least One Thing Outside Your ‘Gendered’ Box
Anything you’ve ever wanted to do but have always been put off by the anxiety of social judgement? The sense that “girl’s shouldn’t…” or “I’ll be called gay boy if I do…”? that one might have experienced throughout their formative years?
Well, perhaps now is the time to push through your own internalised gender-box and try things that are not ‘defined’ as appropriate for your gender. Allow yourself to see things from the ‘opposite genders’ view. Make a promise, say, to read more books or media produced by women. Wear pink. Let your daughter dress up as Batman or Joker for Halloween if she wishes. Join a ballet class, if you so desire. As mentioned previously, there’s somewhat more acceptance towards girls doing traditionally male things than there is viceversa. It’s up to men, primarily, to continue pushing through those gender boundaries and finding a way to embrace activities that we want to do that, previously, have been blocked by the cultural disdain for non-masculine things and the men who dare to do them. If Bart Simpson can do it, so can you!
Of course, if the last decade of online drama has proven anything, it’s that women have another struggle when it comes to stepping outside of their assigned interests. Women who engage with male-coded interests are often met with “You don’t belong here!” type screeds. Women have to jump through hoops to prove their fan or supporter credit, an exhaustive task since the barometer can always be changed to keep them out, and if they do the unthinkable — bring attention to any issues gender inequity in said interest — they are met with outright abuse. The “Boys Club” identity needs to die a death at this point. Forcing people out of something by making them afraid to be there is flat-out oppressive. Indeed, the reinforcement of “for boys only” remains unnervingly strong in some of these male-dominated groups. I wonder if, on some level, they internalise the idea of ‘feminine inferior’ and see the rising female interest as delegitimizing their ‘very serious’ passion. Ultimately, any criticisms brought to male-focused interests, be it sports or video games or comic, are frequently met with frighteningly disproportionate rage.
6. Let Men’s Issues Be Taken Seriously
The debate about ‘men’s issues’ is a disaster.
It’s overrun with misogyny and mockery. For some, men’s issues, in general, are still laughable. Men, as a collective, are seen as the pillars of society, the most stable and powerful group. Of late there has been a push to see men as afflicted by toxic masculinity and male entitlement, and if men want to free themselves from the problems of their gender roles, it’s up to them to recant. In truth, many of the current ways of looking at men’s issues are limited and inadequate. Almost everything frames men in a position of power with little regard as to whether or not it’s the entitlement to power or the chronic suffering of powerlessness — however it may manifest — that leads to certain male issues. Even sympathetic parties will quickly brush off certain men’s issues if it reads as inconvenient. Many MRAs begin gnashing their teeth when deconstructing gender roles is considered. Unfortunately, many manospherians have married themselves to the fantasy of a conservative ‘good ol’ days’ philosophy that has, over time, developed into a stout belief that returning men to traditionalism is their salvation. It’s fairly blatant, at this point, that the traditional gender role — for both men and women — is fundamentally outdated and the nefarious root of many problems. The stoic patriarch of the ‘good ol’ days’ needs to be left behind. He’s had his run, and his run has led to a great deal of suffering for both women and men.
In other ways, men are marginalized. Their victimhood is seldom taken seriously in domestic abuse cases, despite men being almost equally likely to be victimised as women. Improvements are being made in this regard, albeit slowly, and in many cases much too late. Male domestic abuse victims find themselves in a crossfire between the patriarchy theory of abuse as male-only (or primarily) perpetrated by a culture that teaches men to control and abuse women, and a family conflict theory that sees abuse as behaviour that can be perpetrated by anyone, and sometimes mutually, caused more by psychological and interpersonal dysfunction than social conditioning. I find myself siding with the latter, but the squabbling grows counterproductive and tiresome, and is ultimately wasting resources that could be used to find viable ways to help those in need. We know men are committing suicide at critical rates, finding themselves homeless at critical rates, committing acts of violence at critical rates. But so many remain uncaring. Acknowledging men’s issues is, at the very least, a start.
7. Understand the Importance of Intersectional Variants:
Often, and I’m guilty of this too, we speak with too much generalization in these discussions. The primary lens through which a lot of this debate is viewed is one of the white and middle-class, and frankly Western, variety. In many ways the complexities of the gender debate are interwoven through issues of class, race and sexuality. The simple meaning is this: the intersection of those identities will lead to certain groups having a combination of issues that determine aspects of their lived experiences. The masculine problems of a black man and a white man might sometimes be the same, and at other times will differ in essential ways. A lesbian woman experiences the limitations of femininity in ways that connect with the issues surrounding her sexuality. Working class women are not expected to exhibit the gentle, lady-like expectations of femininity as middle-class women are, but they are looked down upon as gruff, mannish and unpleasant. Different groups face different forms of judgement on their identities that may be equally, if not more, important to address. There’s a lot more work to be done chipping away at how gender interacts, influences and suppresses people with these other identities.
Tackling the gender debate more fully requires acceptance that these varying struggles frequently converge. The discussion should move beyond prioritizing, with mainstream focus, only the more privileged perspectives in the social hierarchy and allow greater room for the voices of more marginalized groups and their needs. The coming decade should continue to push for the less heard to have their say rather than continually seeing the world primarily through the perspective of those who had the advantages to begin the debate. The time, now, is for more and more voices to be given opportunities to speak and, ultimately, be heard. It’s important for us all to listen and support when we can, to push forward and help bring the platform to those who have for so long gone without, or toiled heavily to bring attention to their plights whilst barely making a dent in the predominant privileged discourse in the past.
These are not be-all, end-all rules. They’re simply things that a person can attempt to work away at, week by week, in their own lives. If we take Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world,” quote as a lesson, redefining gender to be more inclusive and less limiting is up to us to begin pushing towards. There’s still a lot of work to be done, big and small. Sometimes, it’s best to begin with what we have definite control over: ourselves.