Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gender Stereotyping - Catch them young

The Oscars are just around the corner, next Sunday to be more precise.
One of the bloggers at Backstage Unscripted had written about women in comedy and how they are getting their due during this year's Oscars. Women were not appreciated as much as men for their gift of evoking laughter from others. The said post beautifully illustrates how even cinema is now divided into flicks aimed at girls and guys.

There are so many gender stereotypes that we blindly swallow from the society and culture around us.

I highly recommend the movie, "Bend it like Beckham" to illustrate my point. I've heard that "Billy Elliot" is based on a similar premise, too, although I've yet to watch it.

I - In the cradle and nursery:

As most of my friends have either had babies or are expecting, I get to see this whole pink for girls - blue for boys fashion in its full glory. In India, prenatal revelation of the gender of the fetus is banned by law as this enables some male-chauvinistic families to abort it if it is a female so people can't really buy gender-specific stuff in advance for the baby.
We do see little girls decked up in pink frilly dresses but I had never seen the color-coordination rage as much until I came to the United States. Not only does the stereotyping extend to color but decorations of baby rooms and toys. Thus, one gets to see 'Bob the Builder' plastered all over a little boy's room and a lot of Lego sprawling on the floor but go to a little girl's room and we get to see Barbie dolls, mermaids and princesses from every conceivable fairy tale. Dora from the modern ages would probably make it, too.

                                           Boys' room decorated with 'Bob The Builder'

Lego recently introduced some toys specifically designed to attract girls with their pastel color combinations. There has been a lot of controversy regarding this. Just read this article and the comments on the Huffington Post.
Some people say that boys are naturally more inclined towards building, construction, tinkering and the like whereas girls are naturally attracted to playing house and dressing up dolls. In short, machines and tools are more boy-friendly whereas anything to do with people skills, babying and housekeeping is more girl-friendly.


II - The wedding princess stereotype:

Well, if it was just some innocent child's play, it could be left at that. But wait, it gets more complicated as kids grow up. Boys are taught not to cry, not to be a wimp and girls are taught to be 'nice'.

Every romantic Hollywood comedy talks about how, since she was a little girl, the heroine had always dreamed of 'this' day (meaning her wedding day) when she could wear a stunning white gown and a sparkling diamond ring on her finger and walk down the aisle to meet her Prince Charming, her knight in shining armor.
The drama around weddings sells TV shows and movies which otherwise don't have that much to say, really.
A little side note: [I thought Bollywood and Indian weddings with their 1000-plus guest list of everybody and their cousin plus a pirate's booty worth of gold jewelry and exquisite silk garments, not to mention our three-course meals with at least ten dishes, was so much of excess. However, I was mistaken. 
Indian weddings at least don't bother with who sits next to whom. They don't have bridesmaids and best men and maids of honor and all the family drama that goes along with it. And, since alcohol is never served at traditional feasts, Indians don't have to worry about a drunk ex-boyfriend ruining the party with embarrassing disclosures.
I have yet to see an Indian bride throwing a diva-like tantrum because, honestly, if you are marrying into an Indian family, you better be on your best, modest, ideal daughter-in-law behavior on your wedding day. Most Indians are still deferential towards their parents and elders and, added to it all, if Mom and Dad are footing the bill for the entire shindig or at least a huge chunk of it, you would be grateful, isn't it?]

It is good that, amongst the cheesy, romantic Hollywood stuff, a smart writer and director could come up with a hilarious, ironical movie like "Bridesmaids" that causes the viewer to both pity and laugh at the leading ladies.
As a woman, I can't understand the wedding day craze. As a young girl, I did have different ideas of what Mr. Right would look like but I never actually fantasized about getting married, not as far as I can remember. In fact, I once remember having a nightmare about my wedding day, he he he.

I doubt most women around the world dream of wedding gowns and a five-star dinner party. Most would probably dream of a happy family with a home, children and dogs. Or maybe going to work and coming back to a nice home-cooked meal, preferably with a helping hand from the darling husband. Or being able to achieve something professionally and yet have a happy family to take vacations with.
They dream of a happy marriage, not necessarily a perfect wedding.
Of course, all girls want to look pretty and be admired on their special day. But beyond that, there definitely seems to be cultural conditioning at work.

In short, women have many of the same dreams as men do. They want to travel around the world, see the 'Aurora Borealis' and the pyramids. Many want to be acknowledged for their professional contributions. Many would like to make a positive difference in the world in some way. Some want to be famous. Some want to be rich and own a big house with a swimming pool and a luxury car.

III - Women in science, engineering and technical fields:

The stereotypes extend into the professional sphere as well. The geeky boys are into the technical/engineering stuff  and women march off to non-technical stuff. At least, the majority do. At various IT firms that I have worked in,  men outnumbered women in all the high-end technical positions such as development of software and I am not even counting the statistics for American women and foreign-born ones.
Are we unconsciously discouraging girls from building, tinkering and finding out how stuff works?

I haven't spent that much time around kids so I can't honestly say, given a certain kind of toy, if a boy or girl will be more inclined to play with it. But I know that girls are interested in science kits and Scrabble and brain-numbing puzzles, too. Maybe even Lego. The other day, I was in the Lego aisle, purchasing a birthday gift for my friend's son and I went, "Wow! This stuff looks cool, I should try to assemble one of these..."
In school, we girls participated in science projects and I remember trying out the experiment of wrapping an electric wire around a magnet with my father that resulted in somewhat dangerous results of sparking.
When I see the solar power kits and other science mini-projects for children these days, I feel a slight pang of longing. If only we had these things as children...

There was a Japanese series called 'Giant Robot' on the state-run Doordarshan in India that I watched when I was a child. A little boy commanded a gigantic robot to save them, using a control on his wrist watch, maybe it was a device that looked like a wrist watch.  We children played 'Giant Robot' in the dusty playground outside our housing area just like we played 'Doctor, doctor' and housekeeping in kindergarten. My mother told me stories of the English scientist, George Stephenson and his steam engine invention, as she fed me dinner (I may have confused his story with James Watt).
I watched the puppetry series 'Fireball' on the same limited-channel television and dreamed of becoming an astronaut when I was barely learning to read and write. Girls would love to understand science, too. Maybe boys would play with dolls, too, who knows?

There is one point I concede, though. I have seen very few girls in my social circle that actually tinkered with stuff. My brother was fascinated by cars and mechanical instruments and would have loved to take them apart. Even today, he knows his computer stuff from the motherboard to security administration on the desktop. I loved science and was curious about a lot of things ranging from microprocessors to micro-organisms but never saw myself as a technical person, getting down on my hands and knees to fix broken machinery.
Sometimes, I was just scared to break things. Overall though, I am just not that inclined towards breaking apart and fixing equipment of any kind. Maybe girls are more afraid of experimenting because they worry about consequences. On the other hand, women get too complacent if there is a guy around to do things for them and the current disposable culture where the cost of fixing a TV is probably at least a quarter of what one would pay for a brand new one does not help that much either.

However, my mother is a Jill of all trades who would fix leaking taps and find use for every little stray object that she had saved, handle the finances and tutor my brother. She is a woman who is also politically savvy and avidly reads newspapers and magazines and knows the current political, economic and social climate. Unfortunately, she grew up in an age when women were not encouraged to go out and work and get advanced degrees. For a home maker, she has been a fiery, intellectual one and I owe a lot of my achievements to her prodding and encouragement.

IV - Prejudice in the office and soft technical environments:

When I started on my first job at a software company, I was told bluntly by a somewhat cocky young man that women are simply not as good when it comes to technical things and another female coworker agreed with him. If this were quantum physics or rocket science or even a large boiler plate factory, one would probably have to possess some outstanding technical chops to shine. Ditto for a hardcore software product development firm like Google or Apple. However, this was a small, services-oriented software company where young college graduates with hardly any experience were launching their careers. This young man was probably not that much far ahead as compared to some of his female peers yet the notion that the male brain is inherently superior, existed.


In the geek movie, "Social Network", girls were just party companions and freeloaders, arm candy for the dudes who changed Web history. Of course, keeping in account actual events, women may not have had much of a role in Facebook's or Napster's early days. However, it was sad to see most of the girls depicted as little more than the stereotypical, hard partying, vacuous college girl as aptly captured by another Huffington Post journalist here.

I've read about the 10,000 hours rule in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. If you practice any craft for 10,000 hours, working on your weaknesses,  you will get better at it. Talent does matter but by itself, it does not amount to much. Most of the brilliant programmers I've seen started writing code while they were still in school so by the time they are in their 20s, they are far ahead of the pack that simply graduated from college with a degree in computer science but never actually developed a single application.

Women who are truly interested in programming should start tinkering around. You will get better. One day, you could launch a kick-ass product with a pink and purple background and Wall Street might be clamoring for you to go public.

It is not about getting better than men, it is about developing one's own innate abilities, gifts that we never even knew that we possessed.

What if we let children play with everything in sight? Maybe the boy you thought would become a great rocket scientist may end up being the next great Gandhi of human rights and the little princess you thought would get a degree and a regular office job might be the next Marie Curie or Kalpana Chawla.

Note: This post has undergone a minor correction and the last two images have been altered for correct Java programming syntax (it may not be perfect) since it was last published - a few minutes ago.


Angela said...

Thanks for the shout out! -- Angela Sauer, Back Stage Unscripted

Annisa said...

What a great insight of the stereotypical world! You know, when I was a little girl, I loved playing the original lego (non-pastel colors) and my favorite is building a jail and city hall, sherrif and bandits/inmates included! I did love a lot of Disney Princesses, but back then it wasn't as commercialized as it is now (merchanidising, dolls, etc), and I love animal-related characters as well. And, as girly as I was growing up, I was also a big fan of this Japanese old-school-power-rangers-type super hero, they are called Goggle Five. And yes, I wanted to be a super hero just like them, and walk barefeet through the woods (or grandma's backyard) pretending to be princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) picking flowers. I think there should be a balance in the world of little kids these days. :) There's nothing wrong with 'playing house' for little boys, or tinkering with lego and building an airport or a jail, for little girls!

Lotus Eyes said...

Thank you, Angela, and Annisa, for your comments.

Angela, you are welcome! It's a pleasure reading your blog.

Annisa, your experiences are very interesting. Thanks for sharing!