The effect of gender roles in the society has been an attack on the innocence of childhood
Rebecca Ann Gerard| New Delhi| 16th April 2021
A medicine labelled “gender roles” has always been pushed down the throats of young children. The impact of this medicine has been universal and long-lasting. Children from the age of four are treated as soldiers segregated into armies of pink and blue. The genesis of a gendered mindset, where humanity goes for a toss, goes unnoticed and what remains is the existence of either a boy or a girl.
The centuries-old prevalence of a hegemonic myth that states men are strong and dominant while women are weak and submissive has become the yardstick to define a child’s worth in the society. Children too have slowly internalized these gender roles that the society has enforced on them.
The primary contributors to the formation of gender roles during early childhood have been parents, schools and media. The constant reinforcement of these attributes has created a pressure for children to behave in a particular manner.
Ashton Davis, an-seven-year-old said “My mother says I should always drink milk with Horlicks as it will make me a strong boy. She said since I am a boy, I have to have muscles and fight.” The vocal stereotyping of parents makes the child believe that one is supposed to be strong simply because the child is a boy. Gender becomes a see-saw where the boys are supposed to be strong and the girls are considered to be tender and fragile.
The role played by books, television and toys is equally disarming. The constant portrayal of princesses as damsels in distress reinstates the desire among young girls to be vulnerable and protected. Often shops selling toys are also seen falling in the same trap. A store manager who chose to remain unnamed said “We have seen parents and children both choose pink barbie dolls for young girls and blue monster trucks for young boys. It has always been that way. Rarely do I see parents picking out toys from a different section.”
Gender roles also affect the overall development and the happiness index of a child. The Good Childhood Report showed what the young minds in the United Kingdom thought about gender roles. The characteristic which stood as a clear priority for both boys and girls was “good looks.” For boys the secondary characteristic was being funny and for girls it was being caring.
Gender roles are quick to seep into the young minds and create a mental health crisis. The presence of an existing idea of how children should look or dress brings out problematic questions like body image amongst both girls as well as boys. Traits like muscular built for boys and a petite one for girls makes it difficult for children to step out of the box and be comfortable in their own skin.
It is not just body images but even occupational roles that get hampered due to gender stereotyping. Women are seen as caregivers and are associated with emotion. Men on the other hand are seen as breadwinners and associated with wisdom. This constant stereotyping also plays a huge role in significantly limiting career options for women.
Upworthy, a channel dedicated to positive storytelling, released a video in 2016 about the presumption of occupational roles by children due to gender roles. The children were asked to draw pictures of firefighters, surgeons etc. and the video stated that 61 pictures were drawn as men. However, in reality all the occupations were undertaken by women. The long-lasting effects of these stereotypes sends out the message of the dominance of one particular gender, especially for children.
The constant reiteration of gender roles also plays a huge role in normalizing the talks around sex and puberty. Boys are often seen as predators while girls are looked upon as potential targets. Once children reach the age of puberty, it becomes common language for parents, especially in India, to use phrases like “don’t go out after sundown” or “sit cross-legged like a girl.” Such phrases deepen the internalized gender roles as methods to preserve the girl’s sexuality.
Maiera Chauhan, a 15-year-old, said “I cannot step out of my society gate after seven o’clock in the evening. However, my brother’s curfew is nine. It is unfair because this automatically means I will not be able to take care of myself and have to be protected by someone. I want to scream that I am not weak.”
“I can’t even be friends with boys because my parents feel they might try to woo me and take undue advantage. I want to tell them I am not that naïve and they just have to trust me sometimes”, she added.