Gender is like a uniform you can’t take off.
Imagine you’re walking down the street and you see a man wearing a dress shirt tucked into black dress pants, a belt with a holster, a badge, and emblems that read “Police” stitched into the shoulders of his shirt. He has a headset in his left ear and is surrounded by about a dozen other men and women with identical outfits. He makes eye contact with you, says “Move over there,” and gestures to the left. Would you move? Chances are that you would. You’d probably move first and assess the situation later.
What if it was a guy, the same guy doing the same thing, but he was wearing a plain blue t-shirt and jeans? You would likely hesitate. You would check out where he’s pointing, assess the situation, or perhaps shoot him a perplexed look. You might ask him why. What if it was a guy, the same guy doing the same thing, but he was wearing a long, brown overcoat with multiple stains and rips, had greasy hair matted to his face, and smelled slightly of urine? You would definitely hesitate. You might even retreat. You might think it was funny or scary or confusing. Your heart would beat a little faster. You might look around you for others witnessing the event. You might even ignore him, put your head down, and keep walking. In any case, you definitely would not move first and assess the situation later.
Our external selves become signals for how people should treat us and how they can expect us to treat them. Police officers dress in a uniform in order to be treated like police officers and to treat others from the role of a police officer. Without the uniform, Bob is just a guy. With the uniform, Bob has the right to carry a weapon, pull you over, and ask you for identification. Without the uniform, Bob would get a very different reaction trying to do any of those things. Someone who is fraudulently posing as a police officer would be able to do all those things only because of the uniform and what it signals.
To make matters more complicated, the uniform begins to signal something very different to different people. If Susan lives in the suburbs and has had four run-ins with the police, all involving rescuing her cat Mittens out of the peach tree in her backyard, Susan will likely have very different conceptions of the police than Cory who lives in a rough part of the city and has had dozens of run-ins with the police, all involving officers searching him and his car while he is on his way to or from work on the other side of town. Cory, as a result, discusses police officers with his friends in a very different manner than Susan does with her friends.
Generally speaking, the inhabitants of the neighborhoods that Cory and Susan live in will have very different patterns of thoughts and feelings about the police. As a result, when Bob the police officer drives through Susan’s neighborhood, Bob can expect to be treated very differently than when he drives through Cory’s neighborhood.
And what if Bob sees a citizen of either neighborhood reacting to his uniform and car? In Susan’s neighborhood, he’ll feel welcomed, find himself in a good mood, and continue to feel positive in that environment. In Cory’s neighborhood, he may mistake reactions to his uniform and car for suspicious behaviour. He may react negatively in return to the negative reactions. He will, inevitably, react in a way that will only strengthen the beliefs Cory and his fellow neighborhood residents have about the meaning of the uniform and the car.
At the end of the day, the uniform and car are nothing without Bob. They are nothing without a person to fill the fabric, plastic, and metal. Differing responses to Bob are learned responses to the uniform and the car, not to Bob as an individual. These responses do not acknowledge Bob to be a multi-dimensional individual. They become reflexes. Reflexes in response to the uniform and car.
Part of our external selves is not interchangeable or removable. Our sex, age, race, height, and other such characteristics act exactly like the uniform and the car, except we can’t ever shed them. That being said, these characteristics are also nothing without a person to apply them to, but this is harder to see. We can’t simply take our gender off and say “Well, here I am. Here’s me!” in the same way we can shed a shirt. As a result, we use these attributes to define ourselves and people around us. These irremovable uniforms.
And that is how we come to form stereotypes and why they continue to exist. Stereotypes are something that we all contribute to simply by walking down the street. As long as we are part of a social environment, simply by existing we give people ideas about what people are like, what is appropriate, and what is possible. Each of us is a signal to other people for how to treat people like us and how people like us can expect to treat them. Sometimes these signals are received readily, like when they fit into existing belief systems, sometimes they are missed completely, and sometimes they take a while to permeate the consciousness of a person and, eventually, a society.
While racial stereotypes are easily identified by listeners, gender stereotypes get thrown around all the time without such detection. At best, they’re labelled as science and, at worst, double standards. For example, I’ve found more than several studies on how men don’t talk or cry, how they don’t communicate or express emotions because of their neurology. Some common claims include that male neurology is wired for action instead of discussion in times of conflict, males have lower thresholds than women for stress produced by emotional situations because they are not capable of bearing children, and men naturally produce more of the stress hormone cortisol in the face of emotion.
First of all, there’s a thing called brain plasticity. As a result of this thing, brain scans of professional musicians are different from professional soccer players which are different than professional couch potatoes. Our brains change throughout our lives depending on chemicals we expose ourselves to, activities we engage in, foods we eat, memories we form etc. Thus, just because something is part of someone’s neurology doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable, doesn’t mean it’s an excuse, and doesn’t mean we can’t do better. Secondly, I think such biology-based discourses on why men don’t express their feelings have the potential to be profoundly dangerous to men, women, and the generations of kids who are going to learn how to be adults from us.
I once went through a phase during a dysfunctional relationship when I shut off my emotions. At first, the tears would come and I would stop them. Sometimes it was really difficult to do so. After a few weeks, it was easier. After a few months, I didn’t even have to try. No tears. No tingly nose. Nothing. I had, essentially, become a robot because, as my favourite TED speaker, Brené Brown, says “You can’t numb selectively.” I felt no joy either. I was cynical, cold, and distant. When the time came for me to deal with the pains of life, I would just stand there and take the blows like a brick wall.
Well, months after the breakup, I was ready to heal. I sat down to cry. And nothing happened. I was shocked. I watched sad movies. I would get a tear or two, but then it would stop. I listened to music that used to make me cry. I watched YouTube clips of horrendous things (never, never search for “This will make you cry” on the internet). At best, I would get suddenly warm and this overwhelming feeling red-hot pressure would build behind my eyes. Sometimes, tears would leak out and sometimes not, but either way it would be over in a few seconds.
I freely cried, really cried, the kind where you start and don’t stop, about 7 months after I started trying to do it. Seven months. That’s a really long time. More so, I’d only been numbing for a few years, no one told me to do it, and, if anything, I got a lot negative feedback for trying to be bulletproof.
But what if I had been born a boy? What if all the feedback I received for numbing was positive and I was being told to do it all the time by friends and strangers? What if I had an irremovable uniform that predisposed people to treat me like I always had to have everything under control, always had to be strong, and had to be a pillar of support for everyone always no matter what? What if the heroes I had worshiped in books and movies were immortal, immovable, and impenetrable? What if I was taught that emotions are weakness and strength is the most important thing—not only by my family and my television but also by the way I was treated by every single person who confirmed that stereotype everywhere I went? What if I had no incentive to learn how to cry again? Say I had an incentive, a woman who wanted me to open up to her, would she wait 7 months? Would she really give me room to find my emotions even if it meant that I wouldn’t always be a superman?
To say that men don’t communicate their feelings because of their neurology is the world’s biggest cop-out.
One of my favourite moments in Brené Brown’s talk on shame (see below) is when she’s doing a book signing and a man asks her why all her research, which equates vulnerability to strength, contains only stories of women. When she responds that she simply used women as her subjects, he replies “That’s convenient.” She asks him why and he replies: “[My wife and daughters] would rather me die on my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me that it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads, because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.”
Men wear their irremovable uniforms and people respond accordingly. People stereotype. Man = strong. Emotions = weak. Man who expresses emotions = weak.
I heard the phrase “Fatherless Society” the other day in relation to this topic and fell in love with it. This isn’t even talking about the fact that many families are, literally, missing fathers. This is talking about the lack of good male role models out there for young boys. The way that we learn to be parents is from our parents. The way that a boy learns to be a man is from his father. With every man that exists in the world is a chance to either enforce or break down these stereotypes surrounding males and emotions.
I believe that emotions are important for everyone to experience. I believe that authenticity is more important than meeting the status quo. Most importantly, I believe that massive change is possible and slow. With every man who seeks to challenge the emotionless, communication-challenged macho-man stereotype, with every woman who supports a man who challenges it, and with every man whose irremovable uniform becomes a signal for something much deeper is another little piece of a more authentic, compassionate, and bright future for everyone.
The revolution’s already started. Check out these links if you’re interested:
Brené Brown talks
This was originally published on Authentunity.
Image credit: marc falardeau/Flickr