Gender Binaries: Of Bulging Biceps and Dainty Steps
As a society, we are obsessed with creating binaries. We love to sort everything into neat little drawers of good and bad; moral and immoral; black and white; in fact, we even take pride in such categorization. The way a person chooses to look, dress, eats, pray, express their sexual desires etc., owing to their inherently ‘personal’ nature, must be left to the will of each individual. However, as a society, we have taken it upon ourselves to determine the standard of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, even in such personal matters; and stamp it on that unwilling individual. It is this incessant need to categorise everything, and this stubbornness to budge from what we believe is ‘right’, that we have created the binary of the gender; and this binary dates back to antiquity.
Look around you, and you’ll see that everything has been gendered. It’s all been divided into the binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. This neat segregation boldly cuts across all dimensions of life, however big or small. There is a very clear distinction as to what is expected of a boy/man and a girl/woman. This division is a product of the sexism that has resulted from living in a predominantly patriarchal society. A man is expected to be broad shouldered, ‘macho’, rough, practical, thinks from the head, more capable, tough etc.; and a woman is characterized as fragile, delicate, someone thinks from the heart, more emotional, more caring, etc. From these characteristics, all gendered notions flow (examples of which are given below). We are subsumed by these overarching distinctions, from the minute we are born, and they straightjacket us till the minute we die. Generation after generation, these norms are imbibed by each of us, passed on, and marketed, as being the ‘right’ norm to follow. Aberration from these norms attracts condescension, judgment and condemnation. Through a number of examples, I’m going to illustrate to you just how badly we have crippled our own society with this kind of norm creation.
A girl is meant to look a certain way. She’s meant to be ‘delicate’ and’ ‘dainty’. She can go to the gym, but she musn’t bulk up, because too much muscle is not what society wants to see in a girl. It is ‘strange’ if a woman flaunts her abs and her bulging biceps; after all bodybuilding is for men. For instance, Bani, the MTV video jockey was scathingly body shamed by a casting director, who asked her ‘have you grown a penis yet?’, for having a perfectly toned, well-developed muscular body by choice. Why did muscles become equated with masculinity? Why and how did this choice become male-oriented, to the extent that it is exclusionary for women? What possible logic could justify ‘muscle=man’?
In order to look appealing, not just to men, but women as well, she’s supposed to have an hourglass figure, with the 32-26-32 inch measurements. She’s supposed to go waxing every month; because if she doesn’t it will give society to look at her, and call her out for not being ‘well-groomed’. She must do her eyebrows, and get rid of any facial hair, because if she doesn’t, she will be shamed for having a beard; she will be made fun of for looking like a guy. The flip side of this is when a guy is made fun of, for not having a beard. He may be shamed by being called a kid, or even a girl.
She must slap some make-up on her face, in order to look ‘appealing’; but god forbid that a man puts on make-up, or grows his hair, or gets a nose piercing. He will be labeled a ‘pansy’, because how dare he be a man, and indulge in activities that we have concurred upon being an indication of femininity?
She must have long hair; she must have beautiful tresses that frame her face, giving her that angelic look. If she cuts off her hair, she will be labeled a ‘tomboy’. After all, the division is clear – short hair is for boys, and long hair for girls. This has permeated our society to the extent, that having girl short hair is seen as ‘bold’ move, in pursuit of some sort of rebellion against the norms that seem to be set in stone.
As a society, why are we so quick when it comes to body shaming? Why have we taken it upon ourselves to determine how another person looks? Why are we so stubborn in our notions of what we consider ‘good-looking’? More importantly, when and how did we get passed the baton of self-importance that gives us the right to invade upon another’s private space in such a disgraceful manner?
We expect a woman to cross her legs and sit up straight; but it’s preferred for a man to sprawl a little and sit. A woman’s knees always must be one top of the other, clasped tight; but it is acceptable for a man to sit with one leg over the other knee, with a gap between the two knees. When did something as neutral as the posture of sitting getting gendered? What are these societal norms even based on? Why are we adhering by something so illogical, in a manner so obedient?
Why is it that we have a notion of women being more ‘emotional’ than men? Why is a man shamed for being a ‘sissy’ when he speaks his heart? Is it acceptable only for a woman to cry? Why are men ashamed of being seen crying? This is problematic for two reasons. One, that crying is seen as a sign of weakness, when it really isn’t. Second, that is it socially acceptable for a woman to show weakness, but not for a man to do so. Which is why it is refreshing to see advertisements such as Vogue’s advertisement on ‘Boys don’t cry’.
I don’t agree with the way the advertisement ends, because by saying ‘It’s time we teach the boys not to make our girls cry’, we are still putting the onus on men, to ensure that women don’t cry; and however positive a message that may seek to send out, the advertisement is still reflecting a sexist idea, that ‘women do cry, and that men must take it upon themselves to not make her cry’. Even though, I feel the advertisement is re-inforcing the binary in some way, some might still call it a step in the right direction.
According to me, the strangest illustration is that of alcohol. Beer and whiskey are considered ‘men’s drinks’, and ‘martinis and vodka’ are for women. A friend of mine himself said that he didn’t want to be a ‘pussy’ because he had started to like wine more than whiskey. How does one differentiate between drinks, dividing them into two genders? Is it based on the taste; or the quantity of alcohol? Either way, it’s an illogical societal construct, which leads to reinforcement of this binary. This segregation might not be as apparent as the others, but the fact that it exists even on some implicit level is a problem.
A man’s garments will always have pockets, be it western clothing or traditional; but that is not the case for women’s garment. They will either have no pockets at all, or they will have pockets that are so small that they are only for show, and of no utility. This is a result of the Victorian Times, where pockets were considered ‘masculine’, and thus, not a part of women’s apparel. A woman, after all, must not stuff things in a ‘manly manner’ in pockets the way men do. Irrespective of inconvenient it may be, it is more ‘ladylike’ for a woman to carry a handbag.
The moment a kid is born, a colour is picked. If it’s a girl, the ‘appropriate’ colour is pink, and blue, in case it’s a boy. The segregation has been engrained in our systems, to the point where we have gone ahead and gendered even colours. This segregation seems fairly innocent, and harmless even; but the problem is when it is all seen as a complex web, keeping in mind the larger picture.
A woman’s clothing is very different from a man’s clothing; frills and pinks find place on a woman’s clothing, and not on a man’s clothing. If a man dares to walk around in frills, pinks or the likes, he is mocked for being ‘gay’. This is a two-fold problem: one, why is it that pinks and frills are associated solely with femininity; second, why is it that a man leaning towards the ‘effeminate’ side is such an issue? A person can be gay, and be more ‘masculine’ than someone who is straight, and vice versa. Such a stereotype is further evidence to the ailment of categorization that we suffer from.
Why is it that it is permissible for man to express his sexual desires, but not so for a woman? Case in point, the fact that the CBFC in India has granted a license to movies like Great Grand Masti, which blatantly objectifies women; but not to a progressive movie like Lipstick Under My Burka, because it is ‘lady oriented’. Along similar lines, a woman with a number of sexual partners will be labeled a ‘slut’ in the most derogable manner; but a man who does the same will be seen as a ‘player’, or as the latest terminology amongst teens goes, a ‘baller’. Firstly, who are we to set standards for and adjudicate upon the morality of another person? What constitutes the appropriate level of ‘propriety’, and why does it vary for the two genders?
Based on what the characteristics of a man and woman must be, we have gone far enough to gender even career options. Engineering is predominantly for the men, whilst, women were more likely to pursue medicine, more specifically, dentistry or become a nurse. However, even when we talk of such gendered notions, it is interesting to note a certain twist. As per the established gender roles, it is the duty of a woman to pray and cook inside the house. However, it is interesting to note, that despite this, almost all ‘pandits’ and cooks are males. Despite it being the same activity, there is a difference between who does it within the domestic sphere, and in the public sphere. This dichotomy stems from the fact that a woman’s place is within the house, and that the man is to be the breadwinner for the family.
All of the aforementioned illustrations may seem small and inconsequential. This is primarily because we have learnt to absorb all of them, have been convinced that this is the way it so supposed to be; and that is precisely the problem. Therefore, they have to be examined at on a principle level. The existence of such norms, the reason or the logic behind them (if any) need to be assessed very, very critically.
The communication of an idea is equally important as the idea itself, and this is why language has an extremely crucial role to play. Language influences society, and vice versa. When we make statement such as ‘you are just like other girls’, or ‘all men are the same’; or when we are told to ‘behave like a lady’ or ‘act like a gentleman’, we are reinforcing all of these gendered ideas. We are confirming, time and again to ourselves, that a binary exists, and that is the way it MUST be.
By creating stringent rules that are baseless, we have crippled our own society. We have put restrictions on the members of our society, that they cannot break free from; because if they do, they will be called out for it. When we try and question is, we are told ‘duniya aise hee chalti hai’ or ‘this is the way the world works’; what we forget is that, this wasn’t a natural occurrence, but a creation of society. We ourselves hindered our right to make choices. We don’t believe in ‘live and let live’.
Look at all the gendered notions around you, and put them together. This segregation is claustrophobic, to say the least. Even though it is your own body, your own person, your own life, you have no agency or autonomy. If you are born a girl, you have to abide by the pink; and if you are born a boy, the blue; it’s a situation of ‘either-or’. You do not have the liberty to pick your own permutation and combination. The mold has been set, and all you need to do is, fit right into it; else, you will be most definitely face the music.
(The writer is a student at Jindal Global Law School)