The Uniform of Gender

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.

Our sex, age, race, height, and other such characteristics act exactly like the uniform and the car, except we can’t ever shed them.

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:

The Good Men Project
ManKind Project

Brené Brown talks

 

This was originally published on Authentunity.

Read more on Smashing Male Stereotypes on The Good Life.

Image credit:  marc falardeau/Flickr

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About Vironika Tugaleva

Vironika Tugaleva is a people lover, inspirational speaker, reformed cynic, coach, and bestselling author of the award-winning book The Love Mindset. Her work helps people develop self-awareness, cultivate peace of mind, and discover the importance of healing, loving, and understanding themselves. You're invited to read more about Vironika and get a sneak preview of The Love Mindset .

Comments

  1. wellokaythen says:

    Gender is a very powerful construct that does tend to follow us around wherever we go. However, the article may be overstating this just a bit. I’m wondering how the article’s argument would address the idea of being transgendered. Some people literally do change their gender uniform.

    Gender is top-down and outside in, imposed on individuals from society, but it is also somewhat malleable. It is also shaped from the bottom up and inside out.

    Also, there are situations and forms of media in which the gender identity is muted or virtually impossible to detect. If someone blogs under a name of indeterminate gender, then is there still a restrictive uniform that can’t be removed?

    • First of all, I can’t reliably speak for transgendered individuals. I invite those in the community to say their piece. I’ll try to do my best to extend the argument in that department from what I’ve been exposed to, but I accept that the platform isn’t mine to take. Forgive me if I offend anyone.

      In my experience, those who transition speak fondly of the first moment when they were treated as a member of their chosen gender. In essence, the uniform has been changed. Thus, the person now wears a uniform for the opposite gender. The process of changing uniforms does not change the fact that the new uniform, like the old uniform, signals to others what to expect of the individual.

      Those whose gender is not easily distinguished by the general public whether through purposeful means (such as being mid-transition or defining oneself as androgynous) or non-purposeful (such as any externally detectable level of hermaphroditism or simply androgynous features) undergo similar experiences as a result. While there are many members of the LGBTQ community, and their preferences and personalities widely vary, I would say that the community itself dons a uniform. This uniform is one that has proud wearers, allies, and, unfortunately, those who respond negatively to it. I think it’s not just trans people, but also people with any sexuality except heterosexuality who get society’s treatment for deviating from male or female uniforms. Non-gender-binary* uniforms are still uniforms since they come with expectations from others and certain patterns of behaviours from others.

      I would agree with you that there are situations and media where gender does not play a role. In fact, there are cultures where it barely plays a role! I’m originally from the former Soviet Union and, back home, it didn’t matter if you were male or female – you worked and you worked hard.

      What I’m trying to point out is that we have developed, as a society, certain expectations of men and women. These are not part of most people’s conscious processing. These expectations are deeply conditioned in most people’s minds.

      I am suggesting that we need to acknowledge the ways in which we automatically respond to gender so that we can better understand them, evaluate them, and change as necessary.

      *This hyphenated word is, most likely, an my own personal invention.

    • Michael Rowe says:

      Good question, though I would propose that part of the transgender dilemma is exactly what the author of this piece suggests–the power of the gender “uniform,” and the need to shed it in order to own the target gender’s uniform.

  2. I’m a trans woman who has generally androgynous features, who are mostly seen as feminine because they are neotenous (ie I look young).

    I’m a big fan of authenticity and proudly being yourself, even in the face of people bringing stupid double standards to the table.

    Given I don’t like make-up (I find the look it gives to be clownish at best, even if others disagree), I don’t feel forced to wear any for anything I do. Wether it’s going out to the store, the restaurant on a date, or work. And I will bravely face people who may comment on my lack of make-up (although I don’t really expect it either).

    I would love for both men and women to be allowed to be their authentic selves without feeling they’ll be judged negatively “too much” for it. That their tastes are “too much outside mainstream” or that they deserve to be outcasts for not being robot conformists like everyone else.

    I want men to be allowed to wear skirts and cute stuff without being beaten up or laughed at. I want men to be allowed to have long hair, earrings or piercings without being called hippies or drugged (and yes, even shiny, brushed and clean long hair will get called dirty and unkempt – but only on a guy).

  3. As the man speaking to Brene Brown mentioned, it is my experience that women are the brutal ones regarding enforcing the vulnerable male = weak mindset. Examining the relationships of my friends parents, and other similar elders, as well as older TV shows and movies, you will see that men expressing emotion, being vulnerable, has it’s place. Yes, men are expected to hold it in at certain times, but vulnerability has always been accepted in the right times for the right reasons… among men. But we’ve lost that in recent generations. With this fatherless generation, the boys (and girls) growing up haven’t been taught when boys are allowed to be vulnerable, instead the demand for perpetual strength has been shoved upon them, and that is an unsustainable state.

  4. “it is my experience that women are the brutal ones regarding enforcing the vulnerable male = weak mindset”

    Experience has taught me to feel far safer being vulnerable with other men rather than women. Esepcially if it is a woman I am dating. The standard reaction from women to real vulnerability and real displays of weakness in men is contempt as long as it is in a sexual relationship. It is NOT by acident that pickup artists use the alpha male model to such great success and not the sensitive new age guy.

    • Thnk you Mark and Thor for sharing. I agree with you that many women enforce the stereotypes that men are subjected to (much like many men enforce the ones that are used to define women). I hope that, through communication and initiatives like Good Men Project, we will one day be able to see only the uniform of human and not of gender. Like any massive change, it will be slow, but can be sped along with our initiative to be role models, our open and nonjudgemental communication about these issues, and our empathy towards those who stereotype because that’s all they’ve been exposed to.

  5. “I hope that, through communication and initiatives like Good Men Project, we will one day be able to see only the uniform of human and not of gender.”

    In order to do that you need to convince the HINDBRAIN to be attracted to different things. You need to use higher congitive centers that do not generally deal with attraction to change what it sees as attractive. Read some neuroscience and you`ll see what a hopeless task that is. The desire for strong, dominant men is hardwired and so you can`t change the attraction pattern. If you can`t change the attraction pattern it is of very little help that everyone agrees with their higher cognitive centers that men should be allowed to be just as vulnerable and weak as women and still be AS attractive as dating partners if it does not actually change the attraction pattern in women, which it won`t. The same goes the other way arround in terms of what we think is unfair standards for women. What is holding that back is mens attraction patterns and these are also fundamentally under control of the hindbrain. Attraction patterns can be tweaked a bit but no more than that:

    http://socialpathology.blogspot.no/2012/11/alpha-circuitry.html

  6. Thanks for sharing, Thor. I would argue that, in order to be strong and dominant (which both women AND men, I believe, should be), I believe that we all require a certain degree of vulnerability. Keeping emotions inside causes them to build until they either seep out into passive-aggressiveness or into anger. If one is guided by repressed emotions inside of them, that is not strength. That is weakness. Ultimately, sharing your feelings and allowing the negative ones to ebb away allows us to live more freely and fully. I think this is what Brene Brown means when she says that vulnerability is strength.

    • Check the research on male and female attraction with regards to being dominant. Women, especially the most attractive women are attracted to dominant men while men are turned off by dominant women. This not only goes for personality but even the pheromones of dominant men are more attractive to women than the pheromones of less dmominant men. If you try to make women more dominant that crashes with attraction patterns. They become less attractive to men and because they themselves become more dominant there will be less men they perceive as dominant enough to become attracted to. If you want your goals to succeed you need to figure out how to work arround that. You did not answer how you think it is possible to use the rational parts of the brain to change the way the primal parts that deal with sexual attraction works. I suspect because you are not able to.

      In addition to that a dominant personality comes from testosterone. Estrogen makes you more agreeable and submissive. Without hormone replacement therapy for all women it is impossible to make women as dominant as men.

      • I’ve checked out the research. The studies identify dominance as “more likely to win a dyadic physical confrontation”. Why is it impossible for men to do that and also express emotions, allow themselves to be vulnerable, cry, etc.? Is this not simply a matter of strength via physical fitness or, perhaps, through a demonstrated ability to take charge in situations?

  7. Codebuster says:

    I just stumbled across this extremely important article of paradigmatic significance. I love the metaphor of gender as a uniform. It brings us to the nature/nurture debate with the interpretation that our biologies (nature, DNA, male and female) account for our predispositions but “nurture” (experience) relates to what we do with those predispositions and ultimately, how our brains are wired. In the same way that male/female gender roles relate to biological predispositions, so too the idea of the uniform conveys the significance of the relationship between culture and our predispositions to the types of choices that we make from culture.

    Not too sure that I agree about the ease with which that uniform can be changed, though. Culture cannot survive without the polarisations attributable to gender roles. Market forces will always intervene to adjust the supply and demand curves that often answer to more primal motivations. For example, many women will continue to fantasize about rape, and many will continue to select for the exciting bad-boys most predisposed to raping, and nothing is going to change that. Indeed, the more forbidden you that make something, the more aroused some people are going to get at breaching its taboos.

    Many women might SAY that they like sensitive men who cry, and they may even try to live up to it whilst declaring that they are averse to the bad-boys, but primal motivations will always kick in to impact on reflexes that are beyond conscious control. They might say that they despise bad-boys, but for many, a fascination with alpha rebels belies their conscious intentions. Hate the bad-boy you might, but the hormonal surges are beyond your conscious control.

  8. Sorry for being late to his party, but lost my way on the way over, and finally found this address.

    This was one of the best written articles on gender that I have seen. Excellent piece of descripyive writing. The comments were great too. Very well thought out.

    In particular I liked the hindbrain commentary of the way in which each of us is probably wired from the factory to be attracted to the characteristics of the other gender, at least in heterosexual relationships, and not being same sex attracted have no idea what the commonalities are there in the wiring of attractive qualities, but for the sake of argument I will have to assume there’s some age old subconcious wiring there too.

    This then explains something that I’ve pondered a long time about nature and nurture. If there is evolutionary wiring, whether it be actual hard wiring, or if it’s a basic software programming that has been updated over eons, then perhaps marketing to be genderless is resisted so heavily because they can exploit and enhance that pre-ordained script so much easier. The social nurturance, boys can’t wear pink, is easily accepted not long after introduction, and any boy who wears pink then is the outlier, and that can’t happen. But boys did wear pink, and dresses in the not too distant past. So fashion in some way must be influencing “natural” thought on what men and women must ALWAYS express as to be attractive.

    But why not a man being accepted wearing a skirt. Why is it then that women can take on male characteristics more easily and still be attractive? Not fully dominant but enough so to still retain her attractiveness to the hardwire. On TV today you see more women BEING the dominant one-Shaw for example on Person of Interest. On TV today, the dominants have the same characteristics for men and women. But for vulnerable men portrayals they are almost universally faced with scorn by both nmen and women. But a man in a skirt can NEVER be seen as dominant by women or men. Why? It seems to me that he would be seen as such because he has the absolute courage to go against the custom, so it stands to reason he’d kick some serious ass if challenged. So why wouldn’t that be seen as attractive to a woman? That’s the part I’ve not yet been able to integrate in this hardwired laws of attraction.

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