Having recently written an article defending my passion for psychology, it got me thinking about the everyday implications of adopting a more psychological mindset.
Once you do, its unbelievable how much you notice, and how much it makes you think about the everyday implications of society.
Our gender is a big part of our identity, and although a person’s physical gender is biologically determined at birth, most of our perceptions of gender are formulated and learned from society, reflecting the extent to which even basic features of our identity are psychologically constructed.
Naturally this comes with societal stereotypes. We all know the typical, antiquated (and vastly wrong) mainstream stereotypes that supposedly divide men from women – think something like: men are insensitive and emotionally immature, women are always the overemotional damsel in distress in need of rescuing etc.
This is old news and progress is definitely being made to change them.
But there are a huge number of subtle beliefs, mentalities and representations that are often hard-wired into us and our society. These manifest themselves all around us, both in our own conversation, thoughts and actions but also in the outside world, and often go totally unnoticed by most people.
For example, being stuck in a bit of an internet wormhole recently (extreme deadline avoidance techniques) I happened to come across an online advert for a photoshop app. I probably watched 30-40 seconds of naturally beautiful women being distorted, sexualised and otherwise altered. Having a teeny tiny waist whilst maintaining your voluptuous curves naturally is physically impossible for 99.9% of the female population.
Why are we advertising that impossibility is what young women should aspire to, and if they don’t reach this impossibly high standard – hey we’ve made an app to make it look like you have!
This is a fairly overt example of advertising that reinforces the stereotype that women are prized for their physical appearance over all else, but others are subtler.
One group of social psychologists did a combined analysis of over 60 studies examining how genders are presented in advertising and found some shocking results – that you likely didn’t even notice when watching the advert. For example, women were four times more likely to not have a speaking role compared to male counterparts, and three times more likely to be presented as a product user than as an authority (Eisend, 2009).
Whether these adverts mirror our culture or in fact mould it, it is clear that the reinforcement of the idea of the subservient woman is not entirely a thing of the past.
The same applies to men. There are plenty of advertising related examples I could choose (how many women appear in beer adverts for example – it’s the manly man’s drink of course) but what about mass media? Male figures commonly appear as a bungling father figure in TV ads and sitcoms.
Usually well-intentioned and light-hearted, his character ranges from slightly inept to completely hopeless when it comes to parenting their children or dealing with domestic issues. Think Homer Simpson for example.
Regardless, it shapes this subconscious idea about gender and parenting roles on an entirely unnoticed level. This isn’t limited to advertisement and mass media either.
A quick google of ‘girls toys’ brings up pages and pages of sickening pinkness, full of dolls and play make-up. The same applies to boys. A search results in pages of primary-coloured cars and robots. Now this is an obvious one – we’re reinforcing the types of things girls and boys ‘should be’ interested in through a presentation of gendered toys.
In this way, we are psychologically constructing limiting stereotypes for them. This is important but the implicit and unnoticed aspect is perhaps more important: the idea of the ‘weird’ child who doesn’t conform. Have you ever seen a boy alongside a girl on the front of the packaging for typically female toys?
We are supressing the urge to be different.
Another example is the kind of language we use to talk about men and women. We often describe and subconsciously think of women as softer, more caring and emotional. And what’s wrong with that? In isolation, nothing at all.
However, a problem arises when we consider the kind of descriptions we place on women who aren’t being these things. When women are assertive instead of nurturing, they’re labelled as bossy, intense or forward.
The same qualities are often prized as powerful in a man. Words like these are used disproportionately against women and describe a behaviour that is often either encouraged or goes unnoticed in men.
A description like ‘working mother’ infuriates me. How often, proportionally, do you hear of a ‘working dad?’ This undermines a father’s role in parenting too. There seem to be some subtle descriptors than we feel the need to mention about women, that are not considered relevant about men.
And don’t even get me started on the description ‘ladylike’. That is praising women for showing a behaviour that isn’t perceived as threatening to the patriarchy. And describing a woman as over-sensitive or overly emotional dismisses them as pawns of their hormones and physicality. When has a man ever been asked: ‘is it your testosterone making you behave like this?’
Men aren’t immune from this either. Telling someone to ‘man up’ might just be a jokingly affectionate way of encouraging them to get a grip, but the subtle implications of using our language like this is huge. ‘Man up’ is often used when someone is expressing some form of emotion.
Is it right to draw a connection between men and emotional repression? We are conditioning men to reject within themselves anything that may be remotely emotional, fragile, feminine and ‘mushy’ – no wonder the suicide rate for men is sadly unbelievably high.
If you think about the kind of rhetoric we use when describing people, even jokingly or without sexist intent, the problems men and women have in our society become a little clearer. Once you start defamiliarizing what we say and how we say it, our colloquial speech can leave a lot to be desired.
If you start to look more carefully, antiquated ideas about gender stereotypes that our politically correct society thinks it has overcome actually appear all around us, and filter into our unconscious at a very young age. I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that in terms of a societal representation males and females are equal.