Do people call me sensitive or bossy just because I'm a woman?
I’ve always prided myself on being well-rounded and willing to challenge myself to grow, educate, explore and expand. But there are places where I fall short. This project began as an exploration of the gender stereotypes that were put onto me growing up. Why did it seem as though everyone around me was calling me sensitive or bossy or some other out-dated female stereotype? I was determined to find answers to these questions. So I started by talking with my friend Jackson McKeigue. I knew Jackson from high school, and he seemed like a stereotypical teenage guy. He's currently studying computer science at Hanover University in southern Indiana, where he plays lacrosse and is in a fraternity.
I asked him if he remembered ever stereotyping women, or saying something like, "You're acting like a woman,' or "You throw like a girl." Jackson thought about it, and shook his head.
"To be completely honest, I don't think I've ever [said] any of those things," he said. "And to be completely honest, I think it's because of my mom. She's always made sure I knew how strong she is. And so it stems from that. I've never really felt the need to [say], like, 'You throw like a girl.'"
I thought Jackson would help me understand why men stereotype women. But it goes both ways. I was stereotyping him as a man just like I wanted him to stereotype me as a women. I realized I was enforcing my own version of the gender binary — the idea that there are only two genders, male and female, each with strictly defined characteristics.
I was going to need to do some reworking. So I reached out to Dianna Taylor, a professor of philosophy and the director of the gender, sexuality and women's studies program at John Carroll University. Her focus is primarily on issues surrounding power, and how gender plays a vital role in that. "We as a society in general are still very invested in the gender binary as a system," Taylor told me.
She said gender norms oppress women and female-identifying individuals, but also encourage men to act in a rigid and aggressive fashion.
"Men who display stereotypical masculine qualities like assertiveness and strength and power socially, that's viewed positively," Taylor said. "Whereas for women, when we display stereotypical feminine qualities, for example, women who are nurturing or deferential to authority, we're viewed as feminine and femininity is devalued in our society."
On the other hand, she said, if women do act assertively, that's often viewed negatively.
This doesn’t mean that everyone has given up on resisting stereotypes, despite the weight that they carry in our society. Sam, a good friend of mine, uses a mix of pronouns — both 'they' and 'she' — as a form of symbolism against patriarchal power.
"I'm kind of playing with the pronoun thing and saying 'they/she' because, like, I'm proud to be born as an assigned female at birth, but I'm not a woman," Sam said. "So that's why the 'she' is there, even though I strongly prefer 'they.' So it's kind of like a symbolism thing for me."
Sam went on: "In our society, women are frowned upon and seen as less than. So I want to be able to keep that strength with me to know that and push women forward and all that jazz."
Sam’s commentary opened my eyes to how we can both find power and recognize the oppression that comes with our gender identity.
I am proud to be a woman, and that includes breaking down those stereotypes. I am loud, I take up space, I am in tune with my emotions — and I know that there is a long way to go for our society to accept that.
When I began this project, I wanted to explore how the stereotypes that were pushed onto me affected who I was and who I wanted to be. But I realize now this wasn’t all about me.
In 2021, stereotypes aren’t just about telling a woman to be timid and quiet. They can be used to silence us all.
"+Voices" is part of Ideastream Public Media's "Sound of Us" initiative to empower Northeast Ohioans to tell their own stories. It's facilitated and co-produced by Ideastream Public Media's Justin Glanville.
Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.