A Father’s Perspective: Breaking Away From Harmful Gender Expectations
By: Ted Rutherford
When I was asked to guest blog for GENaustin, I was honored. I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the work that GENaustin does to “support and guide girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood” as stated in their mission. I quickly accepted the opportunity to support them and was eager to hear more about what they were looking to get from me. However, this is where the story took a dramatic turn because it was then that I learned that I was one of the first people from outside the organization to be invited to blog for them. Me. A guy. A father of two boys. I mean, how much could I know or understand about the unique pressures of girlhood? How much insight could I provide? To be honest, my initial reaction was panic. Then, like I took a kick to the shin from my 3rd grade “girlfriend” (she always wore penny loafers), I felt the stinging reality that many of the unique pressures of girlhood they were referring to in their mission exist because of [sigh] guys.
You see, the world we live in tells all of us, regardless of our biological sex, that boys and men are supposed to be tough, in control, rigid, emotionless, fearless, powerful and dominant. While this is an impossible standard to live up to, all men (to varying degrees) use these traits as a measuring stick to check ourselves and each other. When guys act in ways that are outside of these social expectations their masculinity gets challenged in phrases like “man up” or “quit acting like a girl”. I am sure you have heard them. The message to guys is loud and clear that girls are weak, emotional, timid, powerless and submissive and those traits are not valued in our world and you are not to be any of those things if you plan on calling yourself a man.
These messages about gender are passed from generation to generation and they are reflected and reinforced in areas such as the workplace, at home, the media, advertising, religion and schools. They are embedded in our everyday life. We internalize these messages and they inform, even if in small ways, everything from our self perception to the ways we treat others. They are part of our socialization and they are guided by patriarchy. The intent of them is to bolster the existing power structures that are to the benefit of men and the detriment of everyone else.
Things like the wage gap in the workforce and gender inequality in politics are obvious indicators that there is a significant bias against women in America. I would argue those things are not the problem but the products of our socialization. It is the constant barrage of micro-level messages about gender that, by themselves, seem relatively harmless but in concert create an environment that is very harmful and unjust.
A great example of these pervasive micro-level messages embedded in our day to day lives is in the design and marketing of children’s toys. I became keenly aware of this while shopping online for my son’s first bike a few years ago. I noticed that every bike that was labeled as a “boy’s bike” had an aggressive name like “Lazer” or “Firestorm”. They were all painted in bold colors and patterns and had a bare minimum of padding on the cross bar (if you know what I mean). They conveyed the idea of being tough and rugged and even the ones with training wheels talked about “pushing the limit on fun and excitement” in the product descriptions. On the contrary, the bikes labeled as “girl’s bikes” were almost exclusively pink or purple and had passive names like “Bedazzled” or “Seahorse”. The handlebars were all adorned with glittery streamers and a basket or pouch. They were described as being “as fashionable as they are fun to ride.” As I researched further, I found that it was not just the products that echoed these gender messages, but the marketing did as well. Take a look at these screen shots from the website home pages for each line of bikes
If you know anything about marketing, you will know that this company was tapping into existing beliefs about social expectations based on gender. The messages are clear. Girls, find two friends (girls should always travel in packs of 3), put on your swimsuits (???), ride your “Sapphires” on the beach (???) and hope some boys notice you while you work on your tan. Whatever you do, wear your helmets – girls aren’t used to doing athletic things like riding a bike and you break easily even on soft sand. Boys, hop on your “Troublemaker” (not making this up) and head straight to the top of the highest peak you can find. Forget your helmet – it makes you look weak. Once you arrive, sit on the edge and look down on your kingdom. The world is yours for the taking.
I am being a bit hyperbolic, of course. But if you look at the big picture, rather than the individual pixels, it is all there. Am I saying that children’s bikes or other products directly cause things like workplace discrimination or anorexia or sexual violence? No. However, they often do help reinforce traditional gender roles that have taught us to devalue all things feminine. So if boys are told time and again that girls have less value, then you can see how some boys could believe it and treat them as such. Likewise if girls are hearing those same messages, it stands to reason that they, too, might actually believe it and act in ways that are unhealthy.
When presented in this manner it becomes clear that part of the work of helping girls navigate the unique pressures of girlhood is to remove some of those pressures from their path altogether. Perhaps we could some find micro-level (and macro-level) ways to push back against our socialization. Surely we could find ways to teach our children that all of the traits we have discussed are actually human traits that we all embody from time to time regardless of our gender. If there are any dads that are reading this – maybe we can make it our duty to disrupt the messages that the boys and men in our lives receive about what it means to be a man so that we don’t continue to pass along the injustices of our patriarchal society. This would be a huge step in the right direction, but it is going to require that men be brave enough to step out of and stay out of the gender box so to speak. It can start with something as small and as simple as which bike you purchase for your son. Admittedly, it is an uphill climb from there, but we are used to that, right?
Ted Rutherford is just a guy that wants the world to be a better place for everybody.