Learning the Social Meanings of Gender

Although all people are born with a certain biological gender, our perception of what it means to be a man or a woman is formed by society through the course of our lives. In his essay, Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meanings of Gender, Aaron Devor examines the concept of gender roles and the role of society in perpetuating them. The author of Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt, Jean Kilbourne, explores the same topic but emphasizes the role of the media and advertising in establishing social norms. I agree with both authors and believe that as the media and advertising expanded to new platforms over the years, its ability to shape gender roles has increased greatly.

Femininity and masculinity are social definitions, which determine the degree of our perception of ourselves as male or female. In his essay, Aaron Devor argues that femininity and masculinity are culturally specific qualities that we learn as children and develop throughout the course of our life. In other words, they are the product of socialization. Children take on a specific role based on observation; they copy the behaviors, which seem to be appropriate for their gender. Despite the fact that “gender

destiny is set before a baby takes its first breath,” children evaluate whether their boyish or girlish behavior is appropriate through “generalized other,” a device which helps them to assess that their behavior is either approved or disapproved by the society (Devor 557). The socially accepted expressions of femininity and masculinity are based on the so-called natural roles of men and women, which are accepted and approved by the society with the traditional attitude towards gender roles. The author describes the way different characteristics are considered feminine or masculine, despite being expressed by both men and women.

Characteristics attributed to the female gender role such as emotional speech or “no-threat” gestures are thought to express subordinate status, while characteristics attributed to male gender roles such as stern facial expression and aggressive posture, communicate dominance and toughness. According to Devor, the concepts of male and female gender roles are based on the dominant gender schema, in which women are seen as powerless and dependent on men. This ideology suggests that women are naturally inclined to have children and be dependent on men, while men are naturally predisposed to being aggressive and, therefore, dominate. The author suggests that there is no clear evidence to support the role of biology in defining gender roles and concludes that gender roles, as we know them, are a by-product of power imbalance and gender bias (Devor 558).

In her paper, Jean Kilbourne argues that media and advertising have a more profound impact on our perception of the world than we realize. In particular, she describes the depiction of both sexes in advertising and the way they shape what we perceive of ourselves as men and women. The author claims that both women and men are objectified in adverts. Women, in particular, are often depicted in sexually inviting poses or in submissive roles and are constantly encouraged to be sexy and attractive. Many adverts explored the idea of violence toward women to the point of glorifying it. For example, some adverts used slogans such as “take no for an answer” and implied that “no” means “yes” (Kilbourne 463). The author argues that this is particularly worrisome as it encourages rape as well as sexual assault. Adverts typically depict dangerous, violent, and uncommitted men as the most desirable and ridicule men who do not take control of women. Men are encouraged to be ready for and interested in having sex with any available woman. Children are also sexualized due to little girls being depicted in seductive poses and little boys being shown as sexually precocious. The author concludes that although such depiction of sexes in popular culture does not directly cause violence, it creates “a climate in which there is widespread and increasing violence” (Kilbourne 466). In other words, the depiction of men and women in ads promotes domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and supports victim-blaming.

Gender role characteristics are similar to social norms: they define those types of behavior, which are accepted and encouraged by society. I believe that society’s expectations define our behavior as men and women since childhood. When growing up, children rely on adults who are perceived as powerful and knowledgeable. Scientific studies on the role of parents’ expectations about the adherence of children’s behavior to gender roles suggest that parents and teachers discourage any expression of cross-sex behavior (Lee 33). This fact supports Devor’s argument that children take on a specific gender role based on what they perceive as accepted as normal by others. It also implies that those who do not conform to accepted gender roles are likely to be rejected by society. What is perceived as gender-appropriate by adults is largely defined by the history as well as the culture of the country they live in. Women have been objectified and sexually exploited for centuries, both in the West and East.

The feminist movement in the 20th century brought into focus the problem of gender-based discrimination, which has only recently been reduced in the developed countries and remains an ongoing issue in some of the developing countries. The US is yet to see a woman president, and despite the tendency toward improving women’s presence in managerial positions, gender parity is still under reach for most corporations and public institutions. Women have long been under social pressure to take on their “natural” role: start a family, bear a child, and leave important decisions to men. Cultural differences also support the idea that gender roles are products of socialization. Both masculine and feminine characteristics vary from one culture to another. According to Ashmore and Del Boca, “from a societal standpoint, roles contribute to the differentiation, allocation, and coordination of human activities” (212). In almost every culture, gender provides people with gender-specific obligations and expectations as well as rights.

It is important not to underestimate the role of the media and advertising in our perception of others and ourselves. As we grow older, we are bombarded with advertising, which reinforces the characteristics of masculinity and femininity in ways described by Kilbourne (450). It is especially evident nowadays when the advances of technology and rapid expansion of the web made advertising ever-present and more influential than before. A TV at home is a commodity now, and many American families own tablets and other gadgets that promote all kinds of ads. Smartphones and tablets have apps, which are reliant on advertising as a source of profit (Lee 32). Many advertisements use images of children, and even before any visible gender-specific distinctions are present, gender role is assigned with clothing and colors.

Advertisements depict older children doing gender-specific activities; girls are typically shown dressing up or playing with dolls, and boys are pictured playing sports. In other words, advertisements aimed at boys and girls send different messages. Such ads only help reinforce gender roles, which are accepted by society, and typically do not cause any real damage or harm. However, as the children grow older, they face the problem of the sexualization of women, which, as noted by Kilbourne, may result in many problems ranging from body image issues to sexual assault. Many ads nowadays use edited images of very slim young women, while overweight women are underrepresented. Apart from that, sexuality and the topic of sex is highly attributed to women and is frequently used to emphasize messages that are remotely connected to it. For instance, there was a commercial with Tyra Banks, in which she wanted to empower women with the words, “my boobies! I’m going to help women put their best chest forward” (Lee 118). The playful sexual implication of a message aimed at delivering a drastically different value is evident. This example vividly reveals that sexuality and being facetious can be easily confused when mixed, and the core of the message becomes vague.

At the same time, many American girls and young women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Studies suggest that there is a correlation between exposure to advertising, which includes thin women, and body image problems (Ashmore and Del Boca 220). When people are repeatedly presented with the same content, at some point, it is assumed as a representation of reality. The media depiction of women as having attractive, thin-ideal bodies make women think that such body is not only normal but expected and leads to body image issues since such bodies are often unreachable by the majority of women (Ashmore and Del Boca 221). The consequences of body image issues are depression and eating pathologies. The women’s desire to achieve such a physical form is further exploited by pharmaceutical companies who promise that their drugs will help women lose weight. The sexualization of women in the media, as described by Kilbourne, also rectifies victim-blaming.

This concept describes those situations when the victim is held responsible for the crime committed. Victim-blaming is perpetuated by sexism and is most commonly associated with sexual harassment and rape. Rapists often say that their victim “asked for it” by putting certain clothes on or by behaving in a certain way (Kilbourne 478). Such sexist expectations are the by-product of the media, which uses advertisements that imply that “no” means a woman is teasing, and it is “manly” to force sex on women. Kilbourne claims that such depiction of sexes in popular culture encourages sexual harassment and form the basis for rape and domestic violence. I believe that it is quite possible that continuous exposure to such advertisements, as described by the author, could affect people on a subconscious level, prompting them to act violently.

I believe it is our responsibility as adults to take a stance against forcing gender roles through media and advertising. It is necessary to understand that as the world changes, the roles of men and women change, too. Several decades from now, it is likely that what is seen as traditional gender roles nowadays will be less strictly defined. Nevertheless, as the influence of advertising has expanded greatly and the media has become one of the main sources that affect social perceptions and attitudes, it is crucial to realize the potential dangers that come from massive advertising and provide young people with the platform on the basis of which they would be able to draw their own conclusions.

Works Cited

Ashmore, Richard D., and Frances K. Del Boca. The Social Psychology of Female-Male Relations, London: Elsevier, 2013. Print.

Devor, Aaron. Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meaning of Gender. Web.

Kilbourne, Jean. Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt. Web.

Lee, Shayne. Erotic Revolutionaries, New York: Hamilton Books, 2010. Print.