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Gender Socialization

Before a newborn child takes his or her first breath of life outside the mothers womb, he or she is distinguishable and characterized by gender. A baby is born and the doctor looks at the proud parents or parent and says three simple words: Its a boy, or Its a girl The baby is brought home and dressed in clothes that help friends, family and even strangers identify the sex of the child. Baby boys are dressed in blue and baby girls are dressed in pink. The baby boy may be dressed in a blue jumpsuit with a football or a baseball glove on it. The baby girl may wear a bow in their hair and flowered pajamas.

As the boy begins to grow, he is given a miniature basketball and a hoop to play with. The girl is given dolls and doll clothes to dress them up in. Even going further, eventually the boy may play with Legos and Lincoln Logs and the girl gets a PlaySchool oven and a plastic tea set with which to play house. As I described in the not-so-fictional scenario above, gender socialization begins very early in life. Society has accepted such stereotypical things as baby boy blue and baby girl pink to help identify the sex of a child. Hopefully, the little Joey looks like a boy and baby Sally looks like a girl.

Mothers and fathers make it easy for everyone to distinguish their bundle of joy by utilizing the socially established gender stereotypes. But where and how did these stereotypes come from? Unfortunately, out of the research that I did, I don’t think there is a definite answer to that question. We seem to accept that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Boys generally play with balls, toy trucks and building blocks whereas girls spend their time with dolls, tea sets and stuffed animals. But these are the stereotypes that are influenced by the parents.

A baby child isn’t concerned with his or her gender identity. As the child gets older though, he or she will begin to develop an identity for his or herself and establish a personality that reflects their masculinity or femininity (Norton 1996). In Nancy Chodorow’s essay “Family Structure and Feminine Personality” she examines the development of gender identity and personality. Except for the stereotypical examples I have given above which again are established by the parents, Chodorow states that the development of a child is basically the same for boys and girls until the age of three.

During those first three years the mother is the dominant figure in the child’s life. The father plays a limited role until the child reaches the Oedipal period (beyond age 3). It is at this stage that children begin to try to separate themselves from the clutches of their mother and establish their own identity. Chodorow examines how different this is for boys and girls (Chodorow 1997). Ebony Magazine recently reported that out of a survey of one hundred fourth grade boys and one hundred fourth grade girls, the boys receive an average weekly allowance that is approximately 50% higher than the girls receive.

On the average, the boys receive $4. 18 as compared to the $2. 67 paid to the girls. To look even further, the survey reported that the boys only perform three household chores to earn their weekly allowance whereas the girls are performing much more (Miller, 1997). Why are the girls expected to do four times as much work around the house than the boys are? Chodorow writes that a young boy is usually unable to identify with his masculinity through his father. The father is not as readily available to the boy as the mother.

Without the father to follow example, Chodorow concludes that a boy will identify masculine characteristics to be doing that which is not feminine. This could be an explanation for the big difference in the number of chores the girls do versus the boys. Though you might disagree with the morality of this statement, you have to admit that it is socially accepted that household chores are feminine duties. Young boys are bound to realize this and following Chodorowos theory, will refuse to perform a lot of chores in an attempt to become more masculine.

Another aspect of everyday life that is highly influential in gender socialization is the media. What we see on television or at the movies, what we read in the newspaper or in magazines, what we see on billboards or hear on the radio are all very significant on how we form a opinion on gender identity. Media publishers have very successfully learned to play to an audience and are extremely successful in communicating with the audience they wish to reach. Advertisers are the biggest example of this concept.

Society is very apt in recognizing images seen in commercials and printed ads and viewing them as socially acceptable behavior. For example, beer companies will target the twenty to thirty year old male audiences and include scantily clad women enjoying their favorite beers. Ironically, popular women magazines also use beautiful women to promote cosmetics and beauty products. Both examples show the exploitation of female images in society. It is this societal ignorance that clouds the mind and allows the images to continue to influence what we believe to be socially acceptable.

And when society is presented with something or someone out of the ordinary, which doesnt follow what we deem to be correct, we rebel and try to modify it to our socially acceptable standards. Imagine a baby born with no visible sex organs. Now imagine after some tests that there are no internal or external sex organs whatsoever. No ovaries, no testes, no uterus, no vagina, no penis, no glands that produce estrogen or testosterone, no semen, no eggs, no anything. It is very possible and in fact probably more so that one thinks.

Though rarely publicized, there are people in this world that are physically indistinguishable as males or females. Sally Jesse Raphael recently had one of these androgynous human beings on her popular morning talk show. This person, known as Toby, is neither male nor female and prefers to live life in the androgynous state. Toby is the only known human being in the world like this (Raphael, 2000). Medically feasible, yes; but is the androgynous person socially acceptable in our everyday lifestyle? Since Toby was born, Toby hasnt been able to live a normal life.

Throughout childhood, Toby was constantly pressured to make a decision to either become a full-fledged male or female. Doctors, teachers, friends and family all thought that Toby would be much happier if Toby could be classified as either a man or a woman. Toby made a decision to stay androgynous and it has caused some very interesting results. Everywhere Toby goes identity comes into question. Is Toby male or female? Toby is neither. Think about what you do everyday and how much of it relies on gender and then think about Toby. What public restroom do you go in?

What kind of clothes do you wear? What store do you buy them in? What colors do you buy? What letter is after the word sex on your drivers license? How does Toby answer these questions? Thats not the point. The point is why does Toby have to answer these questions? This is what we have determined to be socially correct. There are two sexes, male and female and you must be one or the other. How can there be an in between? Such a person should have no place in our culturally biased society. As I briefly mentioned earlier, advertisers utilize female images to sell products.

Society associates beauty with the female and we are more inclined to pay attention to a beautiful woman presented to us on a screen or a page in a magazine. But can this be more harmful to a society than good. Recently in my women in advertising class, we were involved in a student panel discussion regarding this topic. The presenters literally filled a wall with images taken from magazines and newspapers and each of the photographs were of beautiful women endorsing some product. Everything from lingerie to Coca-Cola utilized a female image to attract attention to their ad.

This doesnt just stop in advertising either. A video viewed in a different class entitled The thong song, exposed the demeaning portrayal of women as sex objects walking around in thongs. The women in these type videos were all sex objects; beautiful, buxom, sexy, promiscuous and lacked any moral values whatsoever. Also, the woman in the music videos all served one main purpose: to satisfy the sexual needs of men. The video study helped us to see how we are easily influenced by images when we do not stop and think what they are showing us.

For those who only see them as they were produced, which is most of the viewing population, the videos do indeed portray these women in a fantasized nature. This too can lead to what society views as being socially acceptable. In a perfect world, there would be no gender differentiation, no racial tension and no political incorrectness. What I learned from this research is that we live in an imperfect world that is currently making a turn towards becoming more politically correct.

Fading away are such terms as fireman, stewardess, boyfriend and girlfriend, policeman and secretary. Now we are starting to use a more socially acceptable language and replacing such terms with fire fighter, flight attendant, domestic partner or significant other, police officer and administrative assistant. We are slowly, and I do mean slowly, moving towards a non-gender separated society. Hopefully, we may be able to control what we see and how we see it, but until then, we must rely on ourselves to determine what is reality and what is a stereotypical fantasy.

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