Most people feel that the qualities and characteristics we perceive as specific to gender are inherent by nature. In America, physical strength is stereotyped to be masculine, while emotional behavior is stereotyped as feminine. Any straying from these expectations is sufficient grounds for alienation. However, historian Howard Zinn has documented that gender roles are a part of a system constructed by the ruling class during the formation of our nation. The gender role structure in the US was designed in order to maintain a centralized, wealthy ruling class. In order to keep wealthy, white men in control of the economy, women have been constructed as inferior to men — physically, mentally and emotionally.
In Judith Lorber’s article “Night to His Day”, Lorber explains that the definition of being a man or woman is comprised of more than apparent genetic information. “Gender” is a socially constructed status, which has the intention of “choosing people for the different tasks of society”(Lorber 55). Thus, ideas about how one should behave in order to fit into a gender category are learned, not intrinsic. As a society assigns people as “men” or “women”, this categorization denotes the accepted and preferred “personality characteristics, feelings, motivations, and ambitions” that create different classes and preferences for people (Lorber, 55). That is, the genderization system produces men and women who tend to have a “natural inclination” toward ideas, behaviors, and careers that help them assimilate to anticipated gender stereotypes. Parents, constantly in fear that people will not be able to distinguish the sex of their new baby, instinctually encourage dress, styles, and behavior that perpetuate the masculine and feminine labels from birth.
The term “woman” itself was created by the masculine conception of what femininity should be. These criteria set up the dominant/subordinate relationship standard because women lacked the power to challenge the male point of view. Lorber suggests that “as a process, gender creates social differences that define ‘woman’ and ‘man'” through interactions and expectations of peers and family. As a stratification, gender ranks men’s work superior to women’s, regardless of skill or difficulty. As a social structure, gender organizes work habits both domestically and economically (Lorber 60-1).
For the average girl in American society, adapting to gender roles is taught in every single facet of life. The media, entertainment, and school cooperatively exhibit and promote gender assimilation. Barbieä dolls are the first toys I can recall playing with as a young girl. Her long blond hair, short skirts, disproportionately long legs, and spike heels set the precedent for how I would view true “femininity” throughout adolescence. By age six, my life became infiltrated by gender specific, “girly” activities. I: practiced ballet and avoided sports, painted fingernails, nearly always wore dresses with nylons, experimented with my mother’s make-up (rather unsuccessfully), joined Girl Scouts, grew out my hair to mid-back, and wished for everything to be pink or lavender. I was so excited and anxious for the day when the boys would… finally… notice… me (sarcasm intended).
Fashion trends and clothing styles, in particular, significantly aid the social construction of gender. The mere presence of a standard for the judgment of beauty automatically designates some group to be in control of the other. That is, individuals are constantly judging one another to make certain that they fit into the correct gender classification. Trendy, hip clothing are made for a very specific, minority group of women- narrow-hipped, small-breasted, tall, and skinny. The pressure to fit into these styles of clothes is unrelenting and produces insecurities and a poor body-image. These adolescent anxieties are not uncommon and can produce eating disorders, depression, and suicide.
Joanne Finkelstein, in After a Fashion, explains that fashion can be seen as a device for confining women to an inferior social order. Throughout history women have been isolated from men by their fashion dues to society – women would risk spinal disorders from corsets, chronic foot pain and arch trauma from high-heels, and submit to a constant preoccupation of worry over men’s approval of clothing appropriateness. Fashions play such an integral role in how we judge one another – how much money we have, what music we listen to, how much education we have received – that any gender-bending fashions exhibited by women are at best taboo, and at worst, unattractive to men (the alleged Ultimate Woman’s Worry).
In many societies, gender is not considered a part of nature, but rather learned, acquired, or earned as a rite of passage. In some tribal communities, acquiring gender status represents maturity and responsibility. There is an unspoken agreement between American men and women that women will fashion their clothing and styles as part of a system that favors men. In part this system favors men simply by distinguishing a class apart from men, requiring someone to exist on the outside of an established social norm. John Lorber puts it best: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Lorber 46). In a society where many women still do not recognize the inequalities of genderization, the pervasiveness of gender roles in America remains perpetuated and profound.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking Press, Reprint edition, January 1995
Finkelstein, Joanne. After A Fashion. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996.
Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender”. Paradoxes of
Gender. New York: Yale University Press, 1994.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.