Feminists have been critiquing and challenging gender roles for many decades; not just since the first wavers, but at least since Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of The Rights of Woman. But why are gender roles sticking around? This is obviously a complex issue with no single answer. But one reason could be that gender roles are hard to challenge because they ascribe different meanings to the same behaviours. They’re basically double standards- and that means they prop themselves up by classing identical actions displayed by each gender as appropriate to the person’s gender. So even if we tailor our actions to flout our gender roles, it’s difficult for women to escape the frame except by obviously assertive behaviour (which will of course get you labelled as a bitch if you’re assertive in your career, as a tomboy if you’re good at sports and as a “slut” if you’re assertive-or even just unrepressed- in the bedroom.)
Imagine a journalist working abroad who gets a phone call from their child. The child is upset and the journalist comforts the kid. If the journalist is a woman, this scene fits in perfectly with her expected gender role: she is a nurturing, caring mother. She is “naturally” maternal because she is a woman. But what if the journalist is a man? Well, it still fits. This scene would be compatible with the idea that men protect their families and provide reassurance. It would be the same story if this man was seen disciplining his child- the fatherly role involves being a good role model and enforcing discipline. A mother doing the telling-off would fit the idea that mothers are the primary care-givers and are good at dealing with kids. Similarly, though it’s mums who are seen as taking care of the kiddies, films about dads rescuing their children work because when a man cares for his family he fulfils the role of protector which is part of the patriarchal father role (and also displays more general male gender role qualities like courage and determination).
And that whole “having it all” question. Men are assumed to be able to take care of their kids and hold down a job- no matter how demanding. Women are portrayed in pop culture as struggling to balance work and family life- hence the movie trope of the perpetually stressed-out career woman. There’s another one: when did you hear the term “career man”? Or “working father”? Single mums are assumed to be on the dole but we tend not to question how being a single dad affects a man’s career and how he funds childcare.
So we’ve established that family life comes with gender role double standards. What about relationships? Well look no further than sex education. As if heteronormativity and cisnormativity weren’t bad enough, schools tend to promote the view that drinking and sex are dangerous for girls but not boys. The message is that only girls get sexually assaulted (and only by cis straight boys, of course). As Jessica Valenti notes in He’s A Stud, She’s A Slut, drinking is an expected social activity for men but not women. Female drinking tends to be linked to danger, deviant behaviour and promiscuity. No wonder West Mercia police confused regretted sex with rape in these appalling victim-blaming posters.
Which brings us neatly on to another disturbing message disseminated by schools: that sex is dangerous for women. “Don’t do something you might regret.” “You have to be sure you want to give him your virginity.” “Only do it if you’re really sure you want to.” “It should be with someone special.” “Once you lose it, it’s gone.” When are these warnings ever aimed at boys? When are boys ever encouraged to give it to someone special who will respect them and make it beautiful? Film and TV also tend to show only female characters regretting sex. Male characters enjoy, relentlessly pursue or at best are indifferent to casual sex. When a man regrets a one-night stand in a film, it’s usually because the woman is deemed unattractive, overweight or because of some ethical problem (the whole best-friend’s-girlfriend bit). When men have sex, they’re having fun or simply living life. Women however are risking their emotional health, being “sluts” or acting out because of mental health issues.
But parents and teachers forget that deciding not to sleep with someone or deciding to postpone sex is just as big of a decision. Girls are never told not to make a decision they’ll regret by not initiating sex or of refusing an offer. We’re never told that once the chance to have a one night stand is gone, it might be gone forever if you don’t get the girl or guy’s number or if they’re just passing through. No, we have to learn this the hard way without any guidance whatsoever from our parents or teachers.
Even criminal behaviour has its double standards! When a man stalks a woman he’s either a dashing Romeo or a dangerous creep. The first one’s self-explanatory: it’s down to historical patriarchal attitudes that men should literally chase women. The second description is obviously more realistic. But when a woman does it, she’s crazy and pathetic- because women aren’t meant to take the initiative when it comes to dating, sex or relationships- and they certainly aren’t meant to be aggressive. Female stalkers tend to be portrayed as laughably sad instead of dangerous; as pitiably desperate instead of a Juliet.
This reluctance to acknowledge the male victims of women’s crime means that male victims of sex crimes committed by women are often not sympathised in the same way female victims are (though they escape the victim blaming). This is especially obvious in cases where women have sex with underage boys. The boys are sometimes seen as having somehow benefited from the assault- even if they were obviously harmed by it. The rapists aren’t seen as dangerous. By contrast Jeremy Forrest was labelled a paedophile and the agency of his teenage girlfriend was denied even though she’s been vocal about her lived experience. (I’m certainly not saying I approve of Forrest’s actions, just that the age of consent is arbitrary and it’s possible for some mature teens to be able to consent before midnight on their 16th birthday- and just as possible for teens and young adults over 16 to not be able to consent).
Whether it’s family, relationships or crime, the exact same actions by someone of a different gender are interpreted completely differently and the result is that the gender roles are upheld. It’s like we’ll twist absolutely anything to force it to fit into our gender stereotypes.