Gender policing is a vital component of the social pressure we place on conformity to norms. It happens relentlessly in nearly all social arenas, particularly for adolescent children. It can take many forms, from criticising ways of dressing to speech mannerisms to favorite hobbies, and generally takes the form of casting aspersions on anything percieved to be outside our socially constructed definition of masculinity or femininity. The effects of gender policing are most strongly felt in men and boys, where demands to meet the arbitrary concept of masculinity lead to bullying, harassment, and potentially suicides or even shooting sprees. In this video, sociologist CJ Pascoe describes the motivations among school-aged boys to use the word “fag” in a derogatory fashion:
She finds that the use of “fag” and bullying is much less likely to be targetted towards masculine-acting out gay boys, but was nearly relentlessly directed towards effeminate youngsters. This lends some credence to the arguments of those who use the word “fag” as a perjorative that they don’t actually mean anything bad about people who self-identify as homosexual; instead, they are policing gender, and attacking anything that doesn’t conform to the way a person of a certain gender is expected to behave.
The prevelance and nearly invisible nature of gender policing provides further evidence that gendered behavior is not “natural,” because if it were, we would hardly need to constantly reinforce it. Nearly everyone engages in this, sometimes reflexively. Gender policing is quickly internalized, creating a mental censor that we use to decide if something is “too girly” or “too manly” for us to feel comfortable displaying. I’ve caught myself changing my course of actions because I wouldn’t want to “be a pussy.” This internalization stems from the fear that others will use humiliation or even physical violence to enforce gender norms, which is a completely rational fear.
Consider the case of this mother, who indulged her son’s desire to wear a halloween costume outside gender roles (Halloween being one of the times when gender performance expectations are the most relaxed) and was immediately confronted with parents concerned that he wasn’t be socialized properly:
So a few weeks before Halloween, Boo decides he wants to be Daphne from Scooby Doo, along with his best friend E. He had dressed as Scooby a couple of years ago. I was hesitant to make the purchase, not because it was a cross gendered situation, but because 5 year olds have a tendency to change their minds. After requesting a couple of more times, I said sure and placed the order. He flipped out when it arrived. It was perfect.
Then as we got closer to the actual day, he stared to hem and haw about it. After some discussion it comes out that he is afraid people will laugh at him. I pointed out that some people will because it is a cute and clever costume. He insists their laughter would be of the ‘making fun’ kind. I blow it off. Seriously, who would make fun of a child in costume?
And then the big day arrives. We get dressed up. We drop Squirt at his preschool and head over to his. Boo doesn’t want to get out of the car. He’s afraid of what people will say and do to him. I convince him to go inside. He halts at the door. He’s visibly nervous. I chalk it up to him being a bit of a worrier in general. Seriously, WHO WOULD MAKE FUN OF A CHILD IN A COSTUME ON HALLOWEEN? So he walks in. And there were several friends of mine that knew what he was wearing that smiled and waved and gave him high-fives. We walk down the hall to where his classroom is.
And that’s where things went wrong. Two mothers went wide-eyed and made faces as if they smelled decomp. And I realize that my son is seeing the same thing I am. So I say, “Doesn’t he look great?” And Mom A says in disgust, “Did he ask to be that?!” I say that he sure did as Halloween is the time of year that you can be whatever it is that you want to be. They continue with their nosy, probing questions as to how that was an option and didn’t I try to talk him out of it. Mom B mostly just stood there in shock and dismay.
And then Mom C approaches. She had been in the main room, saw us walk in, and followed us down the hall to let me know her thoughts. And they were that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it. To which I calmly replied that I would do no such thing and couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. She continued on and on about how mean children could be and how he would be ridiculed.
My response to that: The only people that seem to have a problem with it is their mothers.
Another mom pointed out that high schools often have Spirit Days where girls dress like boys and vice versa. I mentioned Powderpuff Games where football players dress like cheerleaders and vice versa. Or every frat boy ever in college (Mom A said that her husband was a frat boy and NEVER dressed like a woman.)
But here’s the point, it is none of your damn business.
If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.
If my daughter had dressed as Batman, no one would have thought twice about it. No one.
But it also was heartbreaking to me that my sweet, kind-hearted five year old was right to be worried. He knew that there were people like A, B, and C. And he, at 5, was concerned about how they would perceive him and what would happen to him.
Just as it was heartbreaking to those parents that have lost their children recently due to bullying. IT IS NOT OK TO BULLY. Even if you wrap it up in a bow and call it ‘concern.’ Those women were trying to bully me. And my son. MY son.
The desire to reinforce gender roles stems from the authoritarian mindset- the desire for an ordered and an aversion to the unexpected, relying on the first impression thoughts and avoiding contemplative thinking, expecting there to be a preordained role and place for people. In this mindset, pleasure is generated from conforming to expectations and fulfilling the predetermined role, and displeasure and discomfort arise from outliers. For men, this is compounded by the fact that a percieved degradation of gender roles could also mean an erosion of male privilege. This is the root anxiety behind gender policing. The disadvantages are clear: it represents a painful form of social oppression of both men and women, can cause anguish and destroy the identities of those who fall outside the narrow spectrum of acceptable gendered behavior, and results in bullying, violence, isolation, and hatred.
The more I learned about gender policing and thought about how I was also responsible for doing it, the more I resolved to avoid it in the future. I hope you can come away with the same idea- with enough effort and socializing our children and peers to avoid the impulse to be gender police, we can make the world a better place.