“Traditional gender roles breaking down threatens people’s self-concept and identity.”

This is a comment by Jonathan G on the post “My Sons’ Easy-Bake Oven Shame“.

Jonathan G said:

Joanna, I think it’s causation, not just correlation: They Easy-Bake Oven turned more girly than ever because gender roles are starting to fade. I’ll keep this brief:

Postulate 1: Culture determines virtually all of what we think of as personal identity, what we think of when we think of “who I am.” Strip away all the cultural identity markers, e.g. you’re a lawyer, you’re a knitter, you’re a nerd, you like Thai cuisine, you’re blue collar, you’re feminine, inter alia, and what’s left? I’d argue “not much,” but whatever the case, the cultural identity markers form a critical part of our self-concept.

Postulate 2: The roles of feminine and masculine make up a very large portion of our self-concept in Western thought. (Not that everybody fits neatly and comfortably in one or the other, of course.) We find it so important, in fact, that some people will go to great lengths to modify their bodies if they feel that their physical body does not match their self-concept of their gender.

Hypothesis: The process of traditional gender roles breaking down threatens people’s self-concept, their personal identity. They like feeling masculine or feminine; it gives order to the world. Thus, people facing this ontological crisis latch on more firmly than ever to the cultural indicators of femininity or masculinity that remain.

Men can now stay home with the kids while women go earn the money. Men worry about moisturizers and use eyeliner. Women drive trucks and fly fighter jets. Men open up about their emotions. Women keep moving more and more into public office and the corporate boardroom. What’s left for to a person who wants to exclaim unequivocally, “I am male,” or, “I am female”?

For women: High-heeled shoes, diminutive physical size, and pink objects apparently. (I have noticed an incredible proliferation of references to the first two in dating site profiles; so many women feel the need to point out their love of high-heeled shoes, either independently or in conjunction with their requirement of dating tall men so they can “feel small and feminine.”)

For men: Uhh … Actually, I’m not even sure what’s left. Suits and preternatural self-confidence? 

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  1. QuantumInc says:

    Ah, thank you for putting my thoughts into words.

    Of course not every quality one might describe yourself with requires a social construction, but a lot of them do, at least the ones that allow you to connect with certain subcultures do. “Nerd” is a meaningful identity marker because of both the mainstream social narratives and the flourishing subculture that exists.

    Traditionally one’s gender forms a huge part of one’s self concept. Even in this supposedly “post-feminist” era people attach heavy meaning to their gender. Gender identity itself quite possibly goes beyond social construction, hormones, and anatomy, as evidenced by the experiences of the transgendered. So one can explain part of the emphasis on a instinctual response to identify with one body type or another. However I think the traditional gender roles play a big part too. A lot of people feel nostalgia for the days when being a MAN or a WOMAN meant something, though it can influence thinking in more subtle ways.

    I’m also imagining a woman asking herself, “If High-Heels have nothing to do with being female, then why oh god why have I been wearing these things all these years?!” People’s rationalizations often depend on social construction, and rationalizations can be surprisingly important.

    But just to repeat the point, when somebody is reduced to only a few identity markers it results in a sort of screaming existential angst. People NEED to have an understanding of themselves. It’s bad enough when you can’t explain some other person, but when you don’t have some way of understanding your own motivations…well…that could send anyone into a panic.

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