Gender Stereotype

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Gender Stereotype

A gender stereotype is a predetermined set of attitudes and behaviors that is believed to be typical of all men or women. Stereotypes about gender assume that there are in fact only two genders: male and female. They also assume that all men and women are heterosexual and that gender is determined by or related to a person's sexuality. Gender and gender stereotypes are connected to a sense of identity (as something intrinsic to oneself), sexual practice (the actions one takes on the basis of that identity), and sexual desire (the gender to which one is attracted whether or not that attraction is acted on). In light of the prevalence of the nuclear family in most Western societies, the roles of the father and the mother are also key determinants of gender identity because the child stereotypically identifies with one parent and sees the other as a model for a future partner.


The fact that there are only two acknowledged genders reveals that masculinity and femininity are conceived of as being in opposition to each other. This conceptualization is found in the Chinese notion of yin and yang, in which the feminine and masculine elements naturally complement and harmonize with each other to produce a complete whole. Similarly, men and women are expected to exhibit oppositional characteristics that, taken together, produce a complete vision of sexuality and heterosexuality. Marriage is stereotypically expected of all individuals. Most fictional narratives (movies and novels often end with either marriage or death) point to the common belief that the two opposites belong together to create harmony.

This idea of opposites has resulted in gender stereotypes that are an exaggeration of the real physical, social, and psychological differences between the sexes. Feminine traits include being emotional, submissive, weak, cooperative, artistic, and home-focused; masculine traits include being rational, unemotional, aggressive, competitive, strong, scientifically or mathematically skilled, and career-focused. In many cultures masculine traits traditionally have been valued as superior to feminine ones.

These stereotypes are problematic because they do not take into consideration the real diversity of genders and sexualities in the human population. In fact, gender differences exist much more along a continuum of subtle differences that result in combinations of feminine and masculine characteristics in every individual rather than as a binary opposition between the two genders. Because everyone falls short of achieving an ideal gender role, it is easy to criticize individuals for being less than manly or ladylike, and the English language is full of discriminatory words that insult people who do not adhere to these stereotypes (e.g., tomboy and sissy). Those names are used commonly among adolescents, a population in which gender identities and sexualities are in a natural state of flux and transition, to chastise fellow adolescents for not exhibiting typical masculine or feminine behavior as they mature physically, sexually, and emotionally. With the growing presence of feminism and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in many cultures, these stereotypes have been challenged and revealed to be false ideals that can be damaging to a person's sense of identity.


At the turn of the twentieth century findings in anthropology and psychology revealed that gender is much more fluid and socially determined than previously indicated by essentialist and biological notions of gender, which believe that all gendered traits originate from physical differences between men and women. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) the psychologist Sigmund Freud noted that gender is both linked to biological and psychological elements of individual identity and socially constructed by the forces of family relationships. Within the nuclear family a young child must identify with the same-sex parent and then desire the opposite-sex parent to achieve gender identity and sexuality.

Social theorists who followed Freud, such as Michel Foucault in the 1970s, found that gender and sexuality also are constructed by social, economic, and political forces. In The History of Sexuality (1978) Foucault revealed that the Victorian era of European society utilized a number of institutions (including the church, the government, and the medical profession) to regulate the discourse around sexuality and gender so that previous cultural and sexual practices such as bisexuality became acknowledged not as one among a variety of sexual practices but as aberrations from a presumed normal heterosexuality. Although Foucault's work focuses on sexuality, the notion that gender is determined by a person's sexual practice means that gender identities were configured in a conservative and oppositional or binary manner.

Judith Butler, a feminist theorist writing in the 1990s, added to these conversations by arguing that there is no true gender in any person; instead one's gender is performed constantly through actions and in line with various cultural conversations about ideal gender identity and sexuality. Thus, a person's gender may be in flux throughout that person's life, and it is performed constantly through both sexual actions and cultural interactions with others. Instead of imagining an essential woman defined by the maternal body, as some feminists in the mid-twentieth century did, Butler believes that there is no essential femininity or masculinity: "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results" (Butler 1990, p. 33). Thus, a drag queen performs femininity in much the same way a heterosexual woman does: She acts and presents herself as feminine to a watchful audience instead of unthinkingly demonstrating a biological essence at the core of her identity.

For many feminists one of the essential tasks in challenging gender stereotypes was to attack the assumption that women are defined by their biological ability to bear children. Maintaining the belief that womanhood and femininity are defined by maternity reinforces the stereotype that the female gender is innately nurturing, self-sacrificing, family-oriented, and so forth, whereas men are naturally promiscuous, career-driven, and so forth. In an effort to celebrate the feminine the critic Julia Kristeva's writing of the 1970s argues that the maternal body is a powerful site of feminine, sensory knowledge that exists outside the controlling forces of society found in patriarchal language. Although her intention was to offer possibilities of disrupting patriarchal systems of dominance, Kristeva has been critiqued for praising the other side of the masculine-feminine binary instead of rejecting the oppositional dynamic. Butler, following the work of Monique Wittig, offers the notion of lesbians as individuals who challenge the binary model of gender, arguing that if lesbians do not participate in heterosexual relations and motherhood, they offer an alternative gender that is associated with women's bodies but is not stereotypically feminine. A similar dynamic is found in homosexual men because they too challenge heterosexual notions of masculinity and sexuality.

Lee Edelman (1994) argues that male homosexuality is represented in heterosexual narratives of film, literature, and popular culture as a singular identity category that defines all gay men by their sexuality, negating other differences of gender and identity within the population. Gay sexuality thus becomes a site that catches all the nonnormative depictions of sexuality and gender and reinforces the notion that there is a normal form of sexuality. Edelman argues that an increasing diversity of representations of homosexuals will help undermine those limiting stereotypes.

The field of masculinity studies, which follows on feminist ideas that gender is socially constructed, focuses on and identifies the unattainable ideal of masculinity as it is found in American society in particular. Michael Kimmel (1996) notes that in the United States one cult of masculinity can be traced back to 1832, when Henry Clay described the American "self-made man," establishing masculinity as something tied to ambition, career, income, and nationalism. This masculine role model was exhibited by captains of industry in the late nineteenth century such as Andrew Carnegie. During World War II, when many American men were in the armed forces, women were recruited as workers in factories and other industries; however, that departure from traditional gender stereotypes was corrected by the 1950s cult of domesticity that portrayed women as domestic goddesses and men as strong providers in the workforce. Besides the workplace, other areas of culture that help create and regulate a specific notion of masculinity include sports, the military, and schools. In addition, masculinity, as well as femininity, also has come to be defined in terms of race, age, and socioeconomic class. Thus, an old man or woman seems less masculine or feminine than a younger one, an impoverished man is less of a "man" than one who earns a good income, and so forth.

The notion of gender as constantly changing within a range of possibilities instead of one of two predetermined identity categories is particularly useful when applied to those who suffer from gender dysphoria, a state of conflict between one's biological sex and one's gender identity, those who are born intersexed and medically rendered either male or female, and those who become transsexuals. All these individuals reveal a disparity between one's physical sex and the sense of gender identity with which a person feels comfortable. Thus, a woman born with all the female reproductive organs may feel more comfortable as a man and eventually may take steps to become a physical man through surgery and hormone treatments. Such individuals demonstrate that there are more than two biological sexes, as one in five thousand infants are born as hermaphrodites or intersexuals and about one in a thousand people carry more than two sex chromosomes, resulting in not just the male XY or the female XX combination but also in variants such as XXY and XXX. Because there are more than two biological sexes, it follows that there are more than two genders in the diverse human population.

see also Gender Roles: I. Overview; Intersex.


Adams, Rachel, and David Savran, eds. 2002. The Masculinity Studies Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Edelman, Lee. 1994. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. An Introduction. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley. Repr., New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, ed. and trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books. (Orig. pub. 1905.)

Kimmel, Michael S. 1996. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Free Press.

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

                                        Michelle Veenstra

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Gender Stereotype

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