The injustice of limited gender expression


Katherine Maitre, Staff Writer

Our society is built around conformity. Whether you are creative or analytical, liberal or conservative, masculine or feminine, all cultures insist on a basic set of rules for our own individual identities. With or without realizing it, from birth, each and every one of us is pressured to conform. Mandated behavior may benefit or impede us. In some cases, conforming encourages public safety or welfare. It teaches us how to navigate within our perspective communities.

Yet, some rules, like the rules of gender, do not serve the core the purpose or well-being of our society at all. Asking men or women to behave in any certain way lost it’s relevance and ceased to pose any threat to our modern world. In fact, this outdated, binary, either-or way of thinking completely negates the gray area that may be a better fit for most people when it comes to fairness, as well as individual and societal health. 

Androgyny (having characteristics of both male and female) is growing in popularity among teens, which has been predominately brought into the mainstream by young celebrities. Facing backlash from older generations, many artists such as Jaden Smith and Miley Cyrus have defied gender norms with their clothing and hairstyles. This unique expression of gender is not a new idea by any means. Many of the most influential pioneers of androgyny were in their prime over 30 years ago (David Bowie and Prince to name a few). The public has embraced this and rejected this with equal fervor. Decades later, violating gender expectations is more acceptable, but still wildly controversial. The added discussion of transgender people who ask to be accepted as a gender other what biology has dictated for them has added to the fervor of this argument.

Some of the fear that arises when expanding our acceptance of more than one gender may arise from misinformation. An individual’s gender expression is not to be confused with gender identity. Gender identity can differ from or align with the gender one is assigned at birth. Gender expression is the way in which we convey our gender to those around us.  Men are often associated with strength and aggression while women are seen as nurturing and emotional. While this may be true for some, restricting men to masculinity and women to femininity is to hinder self-expression and can actually be harmful. These gender stereotypes are not biological but a product of gender socialization according to a growing number of scientific, sociological and psychological studies. 

In addition to this, the American Psychological Association is beginning to rethink their approach to gender. Many studies, much like early studies of lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals, has led to findings that mental health risks in this community are largely due to a lack of societal acceptance or community persecution, not identity alone. Increasing studies point to the fact that transgender people lead healthy happy lives in supportive communities.

Yet, antiquated gender definitions don’t just negatively affect those who most clearly stand outside of gender norms. Possessing physical strength, math skills, and even something as trivial as liking the color blue are all expected of boys from an early age. These are some of the more prominent examples of gender socialization. Some expectations of men are so toxic they can lead to dangerous situations and affiliations. Young men are more likely to abuse substances and be involved in acts of violence, all of which are encouraged by male “risk-taking” gender expectations according to major national and global studies. Many of the harmful activities that are common among men are performed in attempts to prove their own masculinity. Studies also indicate that men that opt out of taking risks like these are often criticized, ostracised or even physically abused. 

Women have no better luck when trying to step out of society’s gender expectations. In the Western world, studies find that girls perform as well as boys in math and science until they grow older, a time when they may begin to embrace the myth that girls can’t succeed in these areas. Girls generally out-perform their male counterparts in school, yet fall behind them in high-paying leadership positions after entering the professional world. Globally, women are often limited or abused on all levels if they strive for education, professional success or dress in a way that is not considered “feminine” in their culture.

Leading psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde argues that men and women are psychologically more alike than they are different. A prominent example discussed in her gender similarities hypothesis is the assumption that boys are better than girls at math. Despite this common belief, her meta-analysis showed no difference in math performance between the genders up until high school (where boys showed an advantage). The behavioral differences between men and women are “strongly shaped by socialization” says Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School. She describes the brain as a “unisex organ” that does not differ between the male and female body, just like the heart or kidney. The fact is that (based on gray matter in different regions) individual brains simply cannot be categorized within the male or female stereotypes.

Our perception of boys and girls is rooted in society, not biology. Straying away from an idea that has been so deeply ingrained in you is both challenging and rewarding. I encourage you to embrace new ideas and constructs with an open mind. Human nature is so much more fluid than we have been led to believe.  It is vital to the progression of our society that future generations understand multiple expressions of gender and are comfortable enough to express themselves freely. It starts with you.