While I was growing up, gender roles were highly defined by my parents and teachers as well as all other societal influences. Boys were taught to do “boy” things and girls were taught to do “girly” things. The toys that children play with and the activities that are encouraged by adults demonstrate the influence of gender roles on today’s youth. In my formative years, the masculine traits that I learned came out because of the activities that my parents had me engage in and the things that they expected from me. The expectations that my parents held for my sister, on the other hand, varied from those that they had for me, and this was made apparent through the different activities that occupied her time. My parents treated us in completely different regard. We had different toys, different friends, and we were supposed to like different things. When I got hurt my parents would say things like “shake it off,” or “that didn’t hurt that much,” but when my sister would cry, they would give her attention and pull her aside to take care of her. I got into a lot more trouble throughout my life than my sister and this was, in part, overlooked as the boy’s mischievous nature.
I played with GI Joes and He-Man action figures, while my sister played with Barbie Dolls. I remember when she and I would play together and the GI Joes would be married to the Barbie Dolls. When I made the action figures fight over the Barbie Dolls, my sister would always get mad. She was more interested in the wedding ceremony. My parents always encouraged me to do things like skateboard, ride my bike, or take karate classes. My sister would jump rope or hullahoop. I remember when my sister wanted to skateboard because I was doing it and my parents would not let her because they said she would get hurt. My mother would cook with my sister, but never with me. My dad would take me to basketball and soccer games.
When you’re young enough that your parents still make all of your fashion decisions, they dress you according to gender roles. I would never wear colors like pink or orange. I wore blue, black, and green. Little girls’ clothes had flowers and ladybugs on them. My mother used to care what my sister left the house wearing, while it made no difference to her what I had on.
When I was ten years old, I specifically remember a few double standards that existed. I was allowed to call girls, but my sister was not allowed to call boys. This one lasted until the end of high school. I was allowed to stay out later than she was, too.
There was no place, where gender roles were more prevalent than in sports while I was growing up. Coaches, parents, and peers had a large influence in this context. Coaches have a tremendous influence on kids, and gender roles are driven into young athletes’ heads. There were always those girls who would play like boys and they were referred to as “tomboys.” The girls who did not conform to the gender roles were looked at negatively. Boys who did not play hard or weren’t good athletes were called “girls” and “wussies.” Behaving under the ideal ideological standards of the opposite gender was viewed very negatively by society. Girls were not supposed to act masculine and it was nearly forbidden for boys to show traditionally feminine characteristics.
When I was in high school, a very macho attitude and behavior was expected of male athletes. This was reinforced by coaches and peers alike. Male athletes were praised for acting tough and ridiculed or punished for being weak, soft, or feminine. My soccer team carried out a ritual at practice when we would wrestle to determine who was the toughest athlete. In a way, it reminds me of some type of tribal manhood challenge. My coach would select two people to fight and they were forced to do so or they would be mocked by teammates. This would never occur at one of the girls’ practices.
In regard to the influences that affected my attitudes and behaviors, I believe that they were and are healthy. My personal perception of what constitutes a feminine woman has been highly influenced by society norms. When I was young, my parents, by encouraging male activities and behavior, gave me some identity. I believe that gender roles are necessary to give children a template for their lives as to where they fit in, whether they conform or not.
I think that today people are more likely not to conform to gender roles and this is a positive thing. There is a little more leeway when it comes to what is acceptable Many women are successfully breaking these molds and participating in occupations and activities that had, up until now, been dominated by men. Although the traditional mold of a girl who wears dresses, cooks, cleans, and stays home with the kids seems to be fading, gender roles will always exist.