By Rachael Abrams, LCSW-C
I have a challenge for you. Next time you’re out shopping, look at the products available for purchase. Consider how often you are encouraged to select a product based on gender. Odds are you have often been encouraged to purchase this way without even realizing it. From toys, to beach towels, to toothbrushes to greeting cards even down to golf balls, gender choices surround us.
After noting the pressures her 16 year old son was facing as a result of “how he was supposed to be,” Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff directed and produced a documentary, Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. The film features unscripted high school students from around the country who identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning speaking candidly about harmful pressures caused by rigid gender roles and homophobia.
The documentary describes gender as socially or culturally defined ideas about masculinity (male roles, attributes and behaviors) and femininity (female roles, attributes and behaviors.) Gender is not the same as sex – the difference in biological characteristics of males and females as determined by chromosomes, hormones and internal and external genitalia.
From a very young age, children receive messages – from family, friends, teachers and the media – about how boys and girls are supposed to behave, what they are supposed to like, what activities they are supposed join.
Young children often learn from the adults around them. Some girls are referred to as princesses, told how beautiful they are and encouraged to take ballet. Some boys are told to “man up” when upset, encouraged not to play with dolls and to take karate to become tough. Even without realizing it, parents place gender expectations on their children, based on what they themselves believe to be true. Why does it need to be all or nothing? Must girls exhibit only feminine qualities and boys exhibit only masculine qualities? Gender roles aren’t that neat and simple. Why shouldn’t a man be muscular and have a deep voice but still like to dance? As one of the students in the film points out, we often think of dancing as feminine without considering how strong one has to be to actually dance! Students in the film encourage us to think of gender as a spectrum that children should be able to explore as they learn and grow, not a box to automatically check off when filling out a form.
It’s no surprise that the media has a significant impact on the gender expectations in our society. There are substantial pressures to look, act and behave a certain way. One student in the film admits how much he enjoyed participating in the school choir as a child until other kids teased him so much that he dropped out. To this day, he still wonders what it would have been like to be accepted as a part of that group. Shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Top Chef” and “Rehab Addict” tell a slightly different story. On these shows, male dancers and female hip hop dance groups receive wild applause, male cooks win prizes and females rehab homes. Why don’t these television successes pass through to mainstream society?
As parents and educators, we have to refrain from telling kids to do the “boy” thing or the “girl thing” and instead, encourage them to do the “you thing” – liking and participating in the things that they enjoy and make them happiest. We have to point out misconceptions and educate our youth about long standing stereotypes that exist in society. Additionally, we need to go one step further. We need to encourage our children to support others who are pursuing what makes them happy and living how they choose to live. We need to encourage them to promote safe and inclusive communities for everyone, no matter how you identify and how you live your life. We need to encourage our children to pursue friendships and relationships that are healthy, free of stereotypes and allow for individual expression. We need to encourage them to stand up when they see injustices and advocate for others.
Here comes the hard part: we also need to practice what we preach. As parents, guardians, caretakers and educators, we are role models for the children around us. As Straightlaced highlights, every one of us has a part to play in promoting acceptance of diversity and in fostering respectful, inclusive attitudes and behaviors.
Join us for a screening of Straightlaced followed by a panel discussion on Sunday, October 25th from 1:00 – 3:00pm at JCS in Owings Mills. Click here for more information.
By Rachael Abrams, LCSW-C, JCS Parent Outreach Specialist
Because parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.