Gender Stereotypes: Starting the Conversation

Signe Stroming and Shelby Lex

From scattered comments heard on the playground of elementary school to the deafeningly of jokes, yells, and demands in the hallways of Liberty High School, most guys have heard the phrases “be a man,” “suck it up,” and “man up” more times than they could possibly count. Perhaps from parents, perhaps from the media, coaches, or friends. These words seem harmless, but they are key to understanding how society’s expectation for masculinity differs from what it really means to be a man.

Teenage boys face a culture that assigns respect based on adherence to gender norms. Junior Dan Godfrey explains that this culture means being consistently confident, independent, and uncompromising.

“Any boy who isn’t physically strong is regarded as ‘weird,’ or [is] just left out,” freshman Garrett Waters said.

If boys do not meet the traditional expectations of athleticism, toughness, or confidence, then they lose the respect of their peers and are subjected to ridicule and insults with homophobic or emasculating slurs. So, many individuals hide their perceived weaknesses and are reluctant to share their worries or fears.

“It’s like a crack in your armor,” Godfrey said. “If you let it shine through then people can see that maybe you’re not perfect or super confident.”

It seems clear that few, if any, boys can meet all of the unrealistic criteria for being a “man.” In an interview with The Representation Project (a social justice organization), sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel asserts that “we’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the U.S. that doesn’t make young boys secure in their masculinity, so we make them go prove it all the time.”

So when you tell someone to “man up,” what are you really saying?

“When I hear ‘be a man,’ it’s almost like ‘be an adult,’” Godfrey said. “That would be a better thing to tell people who you think need to be more mature. Other times it’s ‘swallow your fears, swallow any caution, you just need to do this,’ and that was insulting because I don’t think men should do stupid things for the sake of appearing manly.”

As Godfrey suggests, there is more to masculinity than high school culture would have us believe. Football coach Steve Valach describes a lesson he and the football team learned from author and previous NFL player Joe Ehrmann, who argues that there are three great lies men are told about masculinity: athletic achievement, sexual conquest , and economic net-worth are tied to self-worth and being a man. Valach set out to challenge those ideas of masculinity by crafting a new mission for the football program: to create “men of action who lead with empathy and integrity.”

“If you have empathy you are going to succeed in your relationships,” Valach said. “But there are also some guys who figure out that they can appear empathetic to manipulate women, so they lack integrity.”

Interestingly, boys who believe in traditional masculine stereotypes (like toughness, aggression, and romantic prowess) are more likely to have early sex, more unsafe sex, more sexual partners, and be involved in unplanned pregnancy, according to a 1993 study published in the in the Journal of Social Issues.

These rigid expectations for masculine behavior affect not only men, but also the societies they interact with. Unhealthy expectations can be damaging to mental health. In 2011, 80.4% of those arrested for violent crime were male, compared to 19.6% female. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, men comprised 88% of homicide arrests, and 98.8% of rape arrests.

“Men can be angry and aggressive, but we aren’t supposed to be sad,” Godfrey said.

The “image” or “armor” that men often feel they are supposed to present can negatively impact boys’ ability to discuss their problems or emotions. A 2012 study in child development conducted by the Education Resources Information Center, found that while girls expected positive results from talking about their problems, boys were more likely to feel “weird” or like they were wasting time.

“For a lot of guys I know, I couldn’t think of something that was going on in their life—even if they were one of my close friends—because they just don’t feel okay about sharing that,” Godfrey said.

Masculinity and identity are incredibly complicated topics to discuss, differing between communities, cultures, and individuals. Members of all genders face pressures and expectations specific to their identity. Unrealistic ideas of masculine behavior seem to limit acceptance of people who don’t fit that stereotype.

Freshman Brendan Weibel adds, “The idea that being a certain gender forces you to act a certain way makes having a personality impossible unless it fits inside the very small box that is the stereotype.”

Recent social movements have created noise about the overwhelming pressures placed on girls. These pressures are still there, but open dialogue has made it easier for girls to step back from a culture of generalizations and expectations, and step closer to acceptance of themselves and their peers.

Whether the “culture of masculinity” leads to violence and suicide, or low self-esteem and bullying—none of which should be accepted as the status quo—boys face pressures and stereotypes that are rarely acknowledged by society. Sometimes these pressures are harmless, but often these unrealistic expectations create a community that values conformity over individuality. Cultivating honest and open discussion might just bring Liberty one step closer to a truly healthy culture for all of its students.

From birth we are defined by our gender: girls cloaked in pink, boys swaddled in blue. Girls play with dolls and pretend to be moms; boys drive toy cars and get in pretend fights. Yet even as we grow up and mature, we are continuously defined and generalized based on our genders. And although these generalizations made based on gender may seem innocent at first, they can later have a big impact on how boys and girls view themselves– and each other.

According to the Health Guidance database, gender stereotypes are “simply inaccurate generalizations of the male and female attributes”. However, while most people are aware that stereotypes aren’t true, people still tend to make assumptions about the roles deemed fit for each gender.

In a recent survey of 105 boys and girls at Liberty, the Patriot Press found that 84% of boys and 88% of girls think that it’s easier for men to become leaders.

“When women have leadership roles, people look down on them because they think they won’t be as good as men,” sophomore Jasmine Curl said. “It’s definitely apparent in the business world and politics, and positions where women are competing with men. [Women] aren’t thought of as equivalent to [men].”

Out of the 196 countries in the world, currently only 22 have a woman serving as head of state (a previously unprecedented number), according to data from And although women make up 51% of the population in the U.S., women consist of less than 19% of Congress and only 24% of state legislatures, according to studies conducted by Rutgers University in 2011 and 2014, respectively Curl offers an explanation for this phenomenon.

“In political roles, women are not thought of as the best candidates because they are [thought of as] more emotional,” Curl said.

Women have generally been considered as more emotional than men. However, after over 300 studies conducted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland, men and women were found to be nearly identical in their emotional responses. Evidently, the accepted view that women are more emotional than men has been blown out of proportion with reality.

But it seems like girls just can’t win. In addition to “feminine emotional responses” deterring girls from achieving leadership roles, Curl describes how girls who defy their gender stereotypes, displaying “masculine” traits, like assertiveness or dynamic leadership, can also be judged for their unconventional behavior.

If girls are thought of as too rough, people think they won’t work well with others because they are too focused on competing with everything,” Curl said. “People think that playing too rough reflects badly on your character. They think that if you play too rough you are going to be a mean, nasty person.”

That stereotype hasn’t played true for senior Valerie Wilson. Her passions are ju-jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts fighting. In her three years since starting ju-jitsu, Wilson doesn’t let other people’s judgments affect her.

“A lot of women look at MMA think ‘oh, I would never do it because no girls really do it and it’s really a guy’s sport,’” Wilson said. “But, in my gym nobody stereotypes anyone for being a girl.”

It wasn’t always that way—Wilson admitted that there was some initial hesitance from guys who didn’t feel comfortable fighting her, even apologizing if they landed a punch.

“It’s kind of awkward and uncomfortable to fight guys at first, because they will never go as hard with a girl as with a guy. It’s a stereotype that we can’t take it,” Wilson said. “Now, I don’t really think of it—I’ve been there long enough they’re going to have to deal with it that I’m a girl and that I’m there. People that have been at the gym long enough don’t think of it that way either. You just have to earn your respect.”

Wilson described “earning [her] respect” by putting in the time and showing that she “could take it and give it back.”

“In reality, we’re no different,” Wilson said. “It’s not like I can’t take a punch because I’m a girl.”

The world of MMA fighting is clearly dominated by men, but Wilson has proved through hard work that she is capable of surviving and thriving in it. After high school, she plans to continue training in the hopes of fighting professionally.

Unfortunately, MMA is not the only career path dominated by men. And this trend follows in leadership roles, as men make up 85 to 95% of the top decision-making positions in politics, business, the military, media and entertainment. Popular media also reflects this trend: in 2011, only 11% of protagonists in films were female.

So why are fewer women being encouraged to strive for leadership positions?

Along with general stereotypes, elementary and middle school girls may be discouraged from taking leadership roles as they are labeled as “bossy” when trying to stand out. This is similar to boys being labeled as “sissies” when they show “feminine” qualities.

“[We can] raise awareness about the things we call people when they break the stereotypes because there are some words that hurt,” Curl said.

Wilson also gives advice to the students at Liberty.

“Don’t listen to stereotypes,” Wilson said. “Be your own person. High school is only four years of your life.”

It can be extraordinarily difficult to strike a balance between “fitting in” and “standing out,” but recognizing stereotypes and unrealistic expectations for what they are can help girls figure out who they are and what they can accomplish—besides what society tells them.