This paper was a component of the final project for the Developmental Psychology class at Phillips Academy in the Spring Term of 2014.
It is clear that gender is one of the earliest and deepest divides in American culture; gender norms affect who we are as soon as we are wrapped in a blue or pink blanket on the day we’re born. These cultural expectations, which tell us that boys should be invincible, aggressive, and solitary while women ought to be naive, emotional, and vulnerable, force narrow identities onto us which no one can actually fulfill. As a result, women become psychologically unstable and dependent on the approval of others, while men become distant and emotionally illiterate. Growing up in public elementary and middle schools, I have seen firsthand several of these societal repressions and I can now understand how they can be attributed to many of the difficult social experiences of my childhood.
Traditional gender norms allocate all-or-nothing attributes or roles to men and women. Girls should have more emotion than they can handle; boys should have none. Males should take up total responsibility; girls should seek none. Women should only care about others, while men should only rely on themselves. Dominance? Only for the guys. Vulnerability? Only for the ladies. These norms create a gender dichotomy where men and women are exact opposites of each other, which builds a cultural framework in which men and women can only be complete if they find their “other half.” Instead of causing a perfect and happy nuclear family, however, these archetypes make both men and women incomplete, unhappy, and completely unable to understand or communicate with one another. In, short, everybody loses.
As a teenage boy growing up in a middle-class American community, these cultural limitations have heavily influenced my development and my identity. I have a tendency to reject conformity (both of my parents were anti-war protesters in the 70s, and when I was a small child they frequently encouraged and rewarded me for acting independently rather than living up to societal expectations) and though I have, in certain ways, remained true to my interests even if they were not deemed “masculine,” it has come at the cost of isolation and insecurity. In the world of adolescence, teenagers are psychologically inclined to offer our respect and attention to the social cues of other teenagers more exclusively than they will to any other age group at any other stage in their lives (Dobbs, “Beautiful Brains,” 2011). My failure to live up to the ideal of “manhood” became a central part of my identity because, in the sphere of middle school students, gender-based social standing was the only measurement that mattered.
In many ways, an adolescent male measures his worth based on a number of contests and unspoken tests which determines his masculinity and, as a result, his value as a person. While these are obviously defined within varying contexts of socioeconomic status, location, and race, they all share the similar cultural values of physical force and a complete concealment of weakness. This is due to the simple fact that the only thing a boy is trying to prove is that he is, well, not a girl. As such, he must not only reject all of the things associated with girliness, but he must embrace to the utmost those qualities of dominance and coolness which define manhood (“The Search for Masculinity,” n.d.).
In my life, these challenges took the form of verbal and physical harassment, competition, and sports. The “cool” boys would hit and taunt each other, and the only acceptable response was to nonchalantly return the blows. In band class, the boys who played the loudest and who could master the most complicated songs were rewarded with respect, even if it meant their music was actually kind of terrible. During lunch recess, many boys would aggressively play soccer and roughhouse with each other in order to seem more powerful. As a matter of fact, the clique of popular boys were the ones who did all of these things, and despite their aggression towards each other they seemed to be close friends. They were all able to pass the tests of non-femininity, athletic prowess, and disobedience which are the typical measurements of how adolescents define successful manhood (“The Search for Masculinity”). The popular boys in my middle school were all very smart, seeing as we were all in the “gifted” math program which was the only distinction of intelligence outside of letter grades, but they never worked hard and actually did their best to act as if they didn’t have to work hard on anything. This represents the flip-side of the masculine tests: because emotional and educational prowess were consigned to girls, boys often do anything they could to avoid the image of hard work or passion (“The Search for Masculinity”).
I did not live up to any of their expectations. I was raised as a liberal, peace-loving Quaker, and was taught never to hit other people. I couldn’t bring myself to fight back, which made me an easy target. I was terrified of sports because to me, they represented a competition of athleticism and skill which I simply didn’t have. I would spend all my free time inside reading or playing games on the Internet, and I figured if I ever tried to play a sport I would simply embarrass myself. This became a vicious cycle: I could never be good because I never wanted to practice, and I refused to practice because I wasn’t already skilled. I cared about my education and liked learning new things more than playing outside, so I was described as the “lame nerd” who “never did anything cool.” In fact, one of the primary influences in my decision to attend a highly-competitive boarding school in the distant otherworld called Massachusetts was the yearning to be in an environment where my interest in education was not looked down upon but actually embraced by the community as a whole. Virtually all of the teachers in my middle school were men; this also matches studies suggesting that a severe lack of male role models in teaching positions causes boys to view learning as an unworthy, feminine pursuit in its entirety (“Boys in School,” n.d.).
This kind of taunting is obviously hurtful and unacceptable, but another key aspect of the masculinity ordeals is the repression of emotional response. An allegory for this is the “Fortress of Solitude” to which Superman (a comic-book inspiration for many superhero-obsessed boys, especially those in previous generations) would retreat in isolation after he courageously used his physical force to subdue his enemies. In essence, he never showed any signs of weakness or vulnerability to anyone; in the real world, boys suppress and internalize their emotions but remain solitary and silent on the outside. Stoicism to this degree can lead to catastrophic consequences: boys end up becoming deeply unhappy and insecure while simultaneously cutting themselves off from their friends and family and even using them as scapegoats for their own issues (Kindlon, Thompson, & Barker, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, 1999).
In my personal experience, silence served as both a coping mechanism and a vulnerability. If I responded with harsh retorts or physical violence, I would only be perpetuating and provoking their attacks. If I told the administration, I would be ostracized and harassed even further. If I remained silent, I would simply be “taking it like a girl” and opening myself up to more attacks. Ultimately, I chose the latter. I hardly ever defended myself, and as a result I quickly added my own internal voice to those of the boys who frequently belittled and laughed at me. I assumed that they were right, and that I really was a failure, and insults quickly transformed into a deep sense of shame which drove me further into isolation and insecurity. I avoided as many social interactions with my peers as possible, which made me even more alien (and therefore targetable) to boys and girls in my school. I closed myself off to my parents and my teachers, meaning that I had only a few close acquaintances to confide in entirely.
My personal experiences are practically verbatim to the editorials and studies we examined this term. I think that they very accurately portray the gender norms of hyper-masculinity (defined through individuality, physical prowess, and aggression) and hyper-femininity (put in terms of dependency, intellectual ability, and vulnerability). I experienced the isolation and depression inflicted on those people who don’t fit in, or choose to reject the social norms, and throughout my entire middle school experience I felt as if the only way anyone could define their identity and self-worth is through these competitions of gender-normativity which defined the social hierarchy of adolescence. I have only been able to start coming to terms with my own identity, restoring my self-confidence and building better systems of analysis, after a long period of psychological development. In addition, attending Phillips Academy allowed me to define myself in more meaningful terms and even explore, in depth, these issues of gender norms and sexism in a highly academic context.
From a neurological perspective, this could be a very good thing indeed. One of the most important reasons for all this adolescent conflict (which seems to span continents, centuries, and cultures) is the way in which our brains themselves are still developing into our mid-20s. Though our brains are at almost full size by the time we’re just six years old, adolescence is a period of systemic restructuring of the neural connections, called axons, which allow us to process ideas. Fatty myelin insulation slowly works its way from the back to the front of the brain, becoming an extra coat over these pathways which makes them significantly faster but also harder to change. The most complicated thoughts and processes occur at the front of our brain and in the outer layer of gray matter called the cortex, which means that they are still slow and malleable until the end of adolescence. Decision-making processes can be challenging for adolescents because their brains are developing unevenly, and we use the outermost and frontmost parts of our brains for the most advanced levels of cognition: including the assessments of risks versus rewards. While this means that teenagers are still developing, it puts us in the special opportunity of being able to enhance and restructure many of our neural pathways before they settle into a more permanent, adult state (Dobbs, 2011).
Thinking about these issues in a complex and meaningful way as a teenager has given me the opportunity to restructure the way I think about gender norms and the societal values I take stock in before those neural pathways solidify and become harder to change. There have been numerous instances in which many adults internalized these stereotypes and maintained them throughout their development, until they reached a point where these values are an almost irreversibly-integral part of their identity and lifestyle. One psychologist noted that her adult female clients have the same emotional vulnerabilities and social insecurities as her adolescent female clients, despite the fact that many of these issues are irrational and based almost entirely in unrealistic gender norms (Pipher, “Saplings in the Storm,” 1994). My opportunity to analyze (and in many cases criticize) the institutions of masculinity and femininity which define the experience of contemporary American adolescence has given me the opportunity to break free from many of them in what will hopefully be a long-lasting psychological change. Considering the amount of adult-created media which incessantly perpetuates the ideas of the strong boy and the weak girl, I think it’s safe to assume that many adults don’t quite learn this information in time.