(Read part 1)
Unlike the female body image example, which elicited a strong counter-cultural response, there is a deafening silence when it comes to counter-cultural messages addressing gender roles, norms, and expectations. This suggests that society condones the gender roles and expectations that are constantly communicated by the media. In essence, a consensus has somehow been reached and these cultural messages have been deemed “good.”
Despite the fact that progress has been made toward gender equality, the apathy with which society regards the current gender norms severely impedes the work that still needs to be done to overcome prevailing injustices. By not actively opposing the media’s messages, society is allowing them to be perpetuated. Intellectually, the majority of Americans deem men and women to be equal, yet there are still large disparities between genders. Research shows that men are still getting paid more than women for doing comparable work, and the glass ceiling that prevents a woman from ascending to the highest level of her profession is still an invisible reality.
So who gets to decide that these are good messages and how is this consensus reached? What counter-cultural actions could be taken to send a different message?
Cultural messages are so ubiquitous that we think we have become experts at ignoring them. The genius of advertising though is that the messages seep into our thoughts regardless because of how saturated our lives are with media. Since these messages are largely subconscious, we do not have effective guards in place against them and as a result, their effects are often more pervasive than we realize. Cultural messages can be categorized with one of three labels – good, innocuous, or destructive. But who gets to decide and how does this decision become a widely held consensus?
For example, one of the most powerful messages perpetuated by the media is the prescription for what constitutes the ideal female body; an unrealistic and unhealthy image that is portrayed as normal. The detrimental effects of this message have been addressed through many different avenues – Dove produced its impactful Evolution commercial, Barbie was criticized, and several documentaries were made. These countercultural reactions to the mainstream media’s depiction of the female body express the widely held view that this cultural message falls into the destructive category. In this case, I have drawn the same conclusion.
(Read part 2)
“Excuse me, Sir,” interjected the airport employee who tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face her and she paused abruptly. A befuddled expression spread across her face. My hair was short and my casual clothes fit loosely, so her mistaking me for a guy was understandable. I smiled knowingly and she proceeded with her instructions. Although I kept it well concealed, this incident (and several others like it) set off an unexpectedly strong negative reaction in me. Despite the fact that I am not very feminine, I am comfortable being female, and this incident revealed just how important I feel it is to be identified as such. But why was it so upsetting to be mistaken for a guy? It was more than the unease of being assigned a label that did not align with my own self-identity. Being misidentified by gender was much more unsettling than if she had merely guessed my occupation incorrectly. Both are aspects of my identity, but gender carries such weight. Does it carry too much weight? Even in infancy, one’s gender is of utmost importance, and most parents go to great lengths to ensure that their baby’s gender is correctly identified. Why is that so important to us?
Most people hardly consider the pervasive impact that their core gender identity has on them because they are easily able to conform to society’s gender role expectations. However, this does not come naturally to me. I didn’t question my tomboy tendencies when I was a kid – I played football at recess and went back-to-school shopping in the boy’s department. Fortunately, girls are allowed to be tomboys. Unfortunately though, it’s assumed that we’ll grow out of this stage. When I didn’t grow out of it, the notion of gender and its cultural construction began to linger at the forefront of my mind. Through socialization, I learned the unwritten rules and the degree to which society demands conformity. As a result, I have lost the childlike confidence that once allowed me the privilege of considering my appearance to be inconsequential. Social conditioning engrains gender so deeply within our identity. In what ways is this beneficial? How might it be detrimental?
There are ample voices, both subtle and overt, telling me who I should be. Brené Brown advises that one must “Let go of who you think you should be so you can be who you are.” To a certain extent, I agree with this, so I do my best to ignore the belligerent voices (or at least filter them). I remind myself that it is my character that matters and that I am the same person whether I am wearing jeans or a skirt. My appearance has no bearing on my identity, but the two still seem to be inextricably linked. To what extent is identity tied to appearance? Ultimately, my identity is in Christ, so I want to learn to see myself the way God sees me. When I do, I will be free from the confines of criticism. I will be free to step into who I was created to be.