MANipulating stereotypes

The Weal ― OpinionsAt first glance, masculine stereotypes seem like an enormously positive thing. Men, at least in Western culture, are expected to be strong, brave, hard-working, stoic, and assertive. They promote qualities that many people aspire to. Just below the surface, however, are some less-than-fun connotations to those expectations – ‘strong’ can mean confrontational; ‘brave’ means boys often are afraid to show fear or sensitivity; ‘hard-working’ can force men to feel weak if they need to take a break; ‘stoicism’ tells men that they are expected to hide their emotions; and ‘assertiveness’ can lead to bullying or abuses of power.

The American Civil Liberties Union prepared a report in May 2012 to assess the growing trend of schools being separated by gender. The report found that not only are perceived differences in how different genders learn a total myth, but it can often be harmful to teach kids based on their gender stereotypes.

In one all-boys classroom, a teacher suggested yelling at students, giving them action books to read, and allowing them to run around and hit each other with Nerf bats to blow off steam, while for an all-girls classroom, students were suggested to quietly decorate their notes with gel pens. In response to their findings, which the report describes as “troubling,” they launched a campaign called Teach Kids, Not Gender.

Even in the media, men are often shown as stupid and brutish. If every commercial that relied on punch-lines involving men being lazy, rude, or selfish, donated a dollar to a charity for men’s rights, we’d probably be in a much better place right now in terms of male representations in television and film.

Unfortunately, male stereotypes are harmful, and men often don’t think about it. Why would they? Men never had the equivalent of a feminist movement, and let’s face it, they do occupy a privileged position in society – giving them few reasons to even worry about gender in the way many women do. However, those stereotypes about men being less nurturing and more violent become a little more serious when a single dad is trying to win a custody battle for his kids. According to the 2009 US census, only 16 per cent of divorced men are able to win custody of their children – and I’d bet many more of them are capable parents.

Outdated gender stereotypes harm everyone, and if we can start thinking in terms of gender equality rather than holding people to false dichotomies, we’ll all be better off.

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