Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gender Roles in America

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When first reading Zimbardo’s prison experiment, I was disturbed with the ethics. However, once I got past my disturbance, I was able to actually consider the implications. And, I became fascinated with the impact that resulted from randomly placing otherwise equal individuals into roles that forced them to interact with each other on a new uneven playing field. The volunteers were thus no longer able to relate to or understand each other in the same way. Both the prisoners and the guards were forced to accept the strengths and/or weaknesses that came with the roles they were given. This is true of many roles we could look closer at. One example is the gender roles that are forced on to all of us. In my analysis of the prisoner experiment I saw an amazing parallel between our behavior as men and women in America and the behavior of the guards and prisoners in the Zimbardo experiment. More specifically, I could see this connection most distinctly in men and women still in their twenties. This age group is old enough to have established beliefs and corresponding behavior, but still young enough to be constantly growing and adapting to their environment. This state of instability allows the gender roles of this group to have a significant impact on the behavior of its members. So, please keep in mind that this is the age group I will be referring to in most of the comments made in the following discussion.

As a 4 year old woman living in America, I often find myself feeling like a prisoner forced to submit to the wills of the stronger male gender. Who, often impose their strength unnecessarily much like the guards in Zimbardo’s prison. I constantly see women displaying behavior similar to prisoners; They’re always trying to appease men and gain their approval. They allow men to abuse them mentally and physically. They stay in relationships that don’t make them happy because they fear being alone. They work hard doing the same job as their counterparts for half the money. They continue to take care of the household and the children while still trying to maintain a career. Men on the other hand act like power hungry guards seeking to keep women down and keep themselves up. They are rude and condescending to women in their words and actions. They treat women like objects that they can just pick up or toss aside at their will. They demand their partners to be faithful and virtuous but refuse to return the same respect. They show their power through ridiculous displays of aggression and hold male bonding sessions that they don’t think women are good enough to participate in.

Now, I do realize that these are generic statements about men and women. They certainly don’t represent the way we all act or feel. Not even all twenty year olds display these types of extreme behaviors. But, the majority of us do display at least some degree of these gender specific behaviors more often then we are willing to admit during this phase in our lives. In fact, you probably have no problem admitting that you see the opposite sex acting in these ways all of the time. I don’t deny that we are all individuals and it isn’t fair to include everyone in the same group, but that is also true of the Zimbardo volunteers. These young men were all individuals, but when divided into two distinct groups the prisoners exhibited certain general behaviors as did the guards. But, you might argue that gender roles are different because there is no preconceived idea of how we are supposed to act as men and women. You might think we behave according to our biological structure. Then if women act weak and helpless they must be just that. And, if men act macho and aggressive it is simply because they have more testosterone. I disagree. I think we act out our gender roles according to what history and society show us is expected. We have an idea of how we should act based on our gender just like the volunteers based their behaviors on how they thought guards and prisoners should behave. Most of the volunteers based their ideas about their roles on books they had read and shows they had seen. For men and women it is much more complicated then that. We base our ideas about gender on hundreds of different factors and influences. The two that I think have the most impact and are therefore the most important to mention are the physical requirements of our past and the social pressures of the present.

Let’s begin with the past. Clearly the history of human development has influenced our tendency to fall into stereo typical gender roles. Before the technology and security of our modern day society, it was necessary for men and women to take on different roles as part of the family. It made sense for men to rely on their strength to hunt and kill and protect their families. Men were physically more equipped for these tasks so this is what they spent their time doing and these were the types of skills they developed. Likewise, women’s physical abilities to reproduce and to breast feed made it logical for them to stay close to home and tend to the children. Being close to home allowed women the time and gave them the necessity to develop more domestic skill like cooking and cleaning and sewing. But, our culture has advanced greatly since that time and we no longer have the same demands and restraints. Food is now readily available at any local supermarket so it is not necessary for men to rely on their physical strength to provide for their families. Money is what is needed now and both men and women have the physical and biological abilities to earn money and provide for a family. Security is no longer a job for men either. We have strong walls and security systems and the consequences of breaking laws to protect our families now. On the same token it is no longer necessary for women to be near the house taking care of the children. Once the mother of a child has physically recovered from the birthing process it is not necessary for her to be close to home. There are now several other safe places for the child to receive care such as daycare centers and schools. Women don’t even have to be physically present to breast feed their babies given modern technology. It is also possible now for men to develop the skills necessary for child care and house work. So why do the majority of us still fall back into those old roles? Why are twenty year old men so focused on establishing careers while women this age are focused on finding husbands and starting a family? Is it just habit that leads us back to these behaviors? In part yes. This is a natural response to change. To cling to what is comfortable. It is also natural for men to want to hold on to the power and control that their physical strength used to provide them with. Of course men want to continue to be the providers and have women depend on them. It gives them power. If I had this power I would be hesitant to just hand it over. I would do everything I could to keep the opposite sex from taking away that control. It is because of this that we remain in the past. Although we have made the physical and technological advancements to overcome the gender boundaries nature once placed on us, we haven’t made the psychological advancements.

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This brings me to the topic of the second factor I want to mention regarding gender roles. That factor is our present social atmosphere. Because of our mental resistance to change and men’s desire to maintain power, we have created social pressures that keep us confined by our gender roles. Men, for instance have made it very difficult for women to excel in the corporate world. Women have a harder time getting promotions and raises despite their equal levels of performance. Men further prevent women from doing well in their careers by refusing to stay home with the children and then blaming problems with our youth on the lack of a stay at home parent. This pressures women to give up work to stay at home. That makes it much easier for men to secure that newly opened management position. Women have aided this attempt due to their similar comforts with the past. Many women enjoy being provided for and taken care of. Many even like being told what to do because it takes away the responsibility of having to make decisions. Women even go as far as marrying men for money just so they don’t have to work. But this is not true of all men and women. Many men would be eager to stay at home with the children and many women would do anything to be successful executives. So why don’t they do it? Society is constantly telling them that this is not their role.

We are constantly bombarded with images of how men and women should act. Movies continually feed us the traditional Cinderella story where the man sweeps the woman off of her feet and saves her from her pathetic lonely existence. We as women don’t find it insulting. We think it is romantic and seek to find similar happiness in our own lives. Commercials, of course, are always there to remind us that men are more suited to use tools and women should be shopping for brooms. They repeatedly show men watching sports and drinking beers with their buddies while women are at the salon getting their hair done in an attempt to gain the attention of a man. Magazines remind us that there is a plethora of gorgeous women in lingerie waiting around every corner so women better stay at home primping while the men take care of the business. Likewise, men are shown ads of all the things they need to buy to keep their women happy. What choice do they have but to be rich and successful?

So what? What is the point to all of this? We all know these gender differences exist. Just like Zimbardo already knew how guards and prisoners typically act in jails. But, his experiment still had a point. It made the volunteers reflect on their own actions as prisoners and/or guards and consider what lead to these actions. The prisoners thought about how it felt to be weak and to wonder what they could have done differently. They could have united and stood up to the guards and their weapons. They could have refused to play the role of the prisoner. They could have refused to participate in the experiment all together. Similarly, the guards could have showed more compassion. They could have treated the prisoners just like regular guys. They didn’t have to tell them what to do or push them around. Reflecting on this experience allowed the volunteers to approach their lives differently. Examining their actions within different roles will hopefully cause them to examine their roles in their daily lives and the way they act in these different roles.

That is my challenge to you. I challenge all of you to really think about the role you play in society. Whether you are male or female, remember that your gender does not define who you are. It is simply one of the many roles you have taken on in your lives. It is something that has been assigned to you, but it does not determine how you must act or interact with others. We are all individuals. We now live in a free society that gives us the freedom to make our own choice. So think about the ones you make every day. Define what the roles you play stand for. Don’t let them define you. Don’t let our past or our current social pressures put you in a role you don’t want to be in. Women are not prisoners and men are not guards so let’s stop behaving as though we are.

Kirsten Townsend


Psychology Essay


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