By Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover
At least a week has passed since February 14 and we were reminded that despite the pandemic, clichés and gender stereotypes still abound. What I found rather interesting this year is the promotion of the so-called “Single Awareness Day” alongside declarations of “couple milestones” and other obligatory cheesiness. Perhaps this is a clever veering away from the overwhelming cultural emphasis on having a partner and/or being in a [heterosexual] relationship. Be that as it may, what the trappings of Valentine’s Day underscore is the stereotypical way most of us conduct ourselves. I think for an occasion like Valentine’s Day, the pressure is more palpable for men as they are expected to “make the first move”. Our heteronormative society largely assumes that men will take the initiative in letting the woman feel special or know his intentions. This holds true in a wide range of areas where men are supposed to take the lead, rather aggressively. Women are expected to simply wait and hope for some attention, either from current or prospective partners. How this came about took a rather long process of societal training or socialization—one that we all underwent as members of our society. This same process of socialization is what I try to modify as I raise two sons.
Gendered socialization or gendering is a process that ensures children grow up to repeat or follow the ways of society, especially in terms of what a boy or girl should be and how they should conduct themselves. Such process starts from birth and follows through adulthood. The moment the doctor or midwife declares a newborn as either a girl or boy, the gendering process begins—from the way family members literally handle the newborn, dress her/him, give her/him toys, orient her/him with household tasks, etc. Let’s take color choices for babies as an example. It has been a while since hospital nurseries would automatically wrap baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink, yet we still have very limited color choices for baby things. Any visit to a store will only give you predominantly pink or blue choices. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the origin of such bias for colors but one thing is certain—it is people or groups of people who continue to propagate such preferences, either in a conscious or unconscious way of ensuring that the next generation will do exactly what the previous generation did. To most people, why fix what isn’t broken, right? But what if we want to broaden our choices and that of our children?
When my eldest son was much younger, he gravitated towards the color pink. I am not exactly sure why but I suspect that pink and pastel are oftentimes paired with brighter and more colorful palettes for kid stuff like shirts or shoes. After all, apart from the color blue, palettes used for “boy things” are oftentimes quite drab, such as military green, black or brown. Now my eldest son showed artistic inclinations at a very young age and even today, his drawings are anything but drab. I think his preference for pink is linked with this love of colors. There was one instance when he was in the 2nd Grade in the US that he came home quite pleased and told me what transpired in class that made him feel good (maybe even vindicated). Apparently, his female classmates asked him why he was so vocal about his love of pink when pink is a “girl color”. Their teacher overheard their conversation and explained to the whole class that pink is not just for girls; that in Japan, for example, the pink-colored sakura/cherry blossoms are associated with or symbolic of the samurai. She said the samurai’s code of conduct is living an exemplary life of honor, no matter how short-lived one’s life is. In the same manner that the beautiful cherry blossoms only flower once a year, for two weeks. The cherry blossoms have thus come to symbolize the fleeting nature of human existence, of mindfulness and living in the present. I would like to believe that that particular incident was an A-Ha moment not just for my son but for his entire class composed of children of various nationalities. It was also something that, for me, underscored the culture-boundedness of gendered socialization—that what we may consider as “appropriate” in our society is not the same as in other societies. It means we should not assume that gendered expectations are permanent and universal, because they are not. As my son so succinctly pointed out, the male lead of the famous Japanese animated series, Samurai X aka Himura Kenshin, even wears a [fuchsia] pink robe and has long hair. Surely, the pink-wearing “Kenshin the Battosai” is as masculine as one can get, with his battle-scarred face. I also want to point out that apart from wearing pink, Kenshin is also shown to be a great cook and do other household chores. Such gender-bending characterization bodes well for the children’s socialization.
One time, about six years ago, when my youngest son and I were strolling through the Ladies Wear section of a department store, he pointed at a mannequin and asked me if the clothes being displayed can also be worn by a boy. I glanced at the mannequin and rather absent-mindedly answered: “Kon gusto nya suksukon, pwede e. [If he wants to wear it, it’s fine.]”. My son went silent, which meant he accepted my answer (otherwise there would have been follow up questions). Days later, when I helped him review for an exam, we leafed through his Kindergarten science textbook and I saw lessons that may be taken as introduction to biology. What I found problematic was the fact that some exercises in the book asked the pupils to classify in either “Boy” or “Girl” column the items such as hairbrush, baseball cap, shorts, dolls, basketball, long hair, hairclip, jersey shirt, etc. I saw that my son’s answers in these exercises were all deemed correct by his teacher. However, I felt compelled to explain to him that such “correct answers” were not true in all instances. As example, I pointed at a framed family photo we had displayed and told him that in said photo, his father’s hair was longer than mine. I also added that pieces of clothing like short and long pants are actually also being worn by girls and that he has seen me wear them. I was so bothered by the way such lessons were presented in the textbook and also by the fact that the children will be quizzed on these notions. I could not accept the possibility that any kindergarten pupil’s answer be marked wrong because s/he identified a baseball cap as an item belonging to a girl. So, I went to talk to my son’s teacher about it. As expected, she told me that she was simply following the textbook and that she did not author said textbook. I argued that as the teacher she can actually use her judgment on the matter and that for questions pertaining to which clothing and toys belong to whom, any answer would be correct. For how can you tell a 4 or 5-year-old that girls are not supposed to wear pants, ride a bike or play baseball?
As a process, gendering is ensured and regulated by social groups or institutions that we are all part of or exposed to, such as the family, school, religion, mass media and even government. They are what we can refer to as agents of socialization. The domineering nature and wide reach of socializing agents contribute to make gendering such a well-entrenched process. As such, it would take conscious effort to question and discard its impracticalities. The work of these socializing agents also tends to overlap and reinforce each other, sometimes in subtle ways. So vigilance is key. As my previous narrative example shows, it is quite hard to go against the grain when it comes to raising children. The gendering process and the socializing agents implementing such process are overwhelming and we are embroiled in them. Parents can only take advantage of certain teachable moments. Moreover, parents are also products of gendered socialization and so we can only do our best to introduce our children to more egalitarian notions. And as families evolve to become more conscious of these things while raising children so do other social institutions. Hence, while my children may have been taught in a stereotypical manner during their basic education years, maybe whatever ideas they picked up along the way will be challenged when they enter university. In the same way that I was exposed to gender advocacy only in college and later became so much more involved while in graduate school and in my workplace.
I sincerely hope that when my sons become young adults, the capitalistic romantic trappings associated with Valentine’s Day would have been replaced with more socially-relevant events. Maybe by then there would be more focus on celebrating the gains of the One Billion Rising global dance protest against gender-based violence (which was first done on February 14, 2013 and continued every year since). Or perhaps by then “Single Awareness Day” would have seen the rise of people confidently dining out by themselves, reveling in their individual joys and accomplishments. Whatever form Valentine’s or romance in general will take in the future, we can only aspire that our children have enough common sense and self-worth to survive the pressures of societal expectations. I dream that by then, my sons will be more discerning, take the best out of the fleeting socializing processes they went through, make sound and/or humane choices, and work towards ensuring that others will enjoy the same privilege of choice that they have.
(Dr. Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover holds a dual-title PhD in Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. She teaches and undertakes research on gender and political dynamics at the University of the Philippines Visayas, is a member of the Philippine Commission on Women’s National GAD Resource Pool, and is one of the few gender experts in the country accredited to extend technical assistance on GAD mainstreaming.)