I think most people would agree that the differences between men and women are at least partly socially determined. I don’t think many people believe, for example, that women come out of the womb preferring pink, and men, blue (if you do think this, you might be surprised to know that not 100 years ago, pink was associated with boys, and blue, with girls).
The question is, to what degree does socialisation affect gendered behaviour and identity, and how much comes down to biology? The “nurture versus nature” debate is far from easy to resolve, not least of all because answering the question would require raising a couple of hundred humans in a completely genderless environment, which I’m fairly confident doesn’t exist anywhere on Earth.
Personally, I fall quite heavily on the “nurture” side of the debate. To be clear, I don’t believe that there are no inherent differences in behaviour between men and women due to biology. But I do believe that most people underestimate just how much of an influence society has on our behaviour, and especially on our gendered behaviour.
One of the most insidious ways our gender identities are shaped is through advertising. Jean Kilbourne has dedicated her life’s work to studying advertising, and especially the images of women in ads. In her words:
Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent, they tell us who we are, and who we should be.
That quote is from the trailer for “Killing us Softly 4,” one in a series of videos Kilbourne has put out on the subject. Although a trailer, the short video is informative and very interesting:
My favourite quote from the video:
“I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford”
- Cindy Crawford
Hat tip to Sociological Images, a fantastic blog. From the same blog, here are a couple of the things that ads tell us about “normal” men and women:
- Women cook, clean, and raise children: “Selling cleaning and parenting to women only“
- Men hate Shakespeare, swan boats, and salad: “Policing masculinity in Slim Jim’s ‘Spice Loss’ ads“
- Women, on the other hand, LOVE salad: “Salad, desire, and advertising“
- Women are passive and pretty (especially if they’re white), and they’re prizes; Men are sexual beasts that can’t control themselves (especially if they’re black): “Ad for Polish energy drink is all kinds of wrong“
- This gendering starts at an alarmingly young age – boys are active, girls are pretty: “More gendered kids’ stuff“
And most disturbingly, toys are being marketed in an increasingly gendered way. Check out Sociological Images’ great Pinterest board, “Sexy Toy and Brand Make-Overs,” showing how the toys kids grew up with in the 70s and 80s – including LEGO, Polly Pocket, and Troll dolls – have become more and more sexualised and gender-differentiated.
It’s even happened to Care Bears – the bears used to be pretty much androgynous, like real stuffed animals. Now, they’re gendered – the girls with blushing cheeks, more prominent eyelashes, hairdos, and even a purse, and the boy with a roguish expression and a baseball cap. Even their body language is gendered.
In the comments, Maud linked to this excellent National Film Board documentary on the impact of hyper-sexualisation on children. It’s free to watch, and it’s available here: Sexy Inc. Our Children Under Influence.