August 29, 2016

Bullying and “Doing” Gender

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

One of the most challenging concepts new students in sociology struggle with is the idea that gender is not just something we are born with, not just something we are socialized into as young children, but something that we actively “perform” throughout our lives. Might a more widespread understanding of how we “do” gender reduce bullying and violence?

Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman’s now classic Gender & Society article, “Doing Gender,” notes that “gender is not a set of traits, nor a variable, nor a role, but the product of social doings of some sort.” Gender is not just something we learn to perform in childhood, but something that we are continually performing, although we might not be aware of this process.

What we wear, how we comport ourselves, and how we interact with others is something that changes from situation to situation, and helps to create the meaning of gender. This means that gender is not something that is static and unchanging (just think about how notions of gender have changed in recent decades compared with the past as evidence) but is instead fluid and dynamic.

If you think about bullying—amongst people of all ages—and social exclusion in general, much of it is based on policing traditional notions of gender. People who are gender nonconforming may face violence, sometimes even death, for these violations of what others perceive to be proper appearance or behavior, based on gender.

Thinking back to my elementary school days, boys who seemed to enjoy playing with girls, or who were even perceived as being too nice to girls, were often ridiculed by their male peers. To protect themselves from being teased, some boys “proactively” insulted girls to maintain their status among their friends. Boys and girls who conformed less to gendered expectations were likely to be teased in all sorts of situations or to be completely ignored.

In her film The Boy Game, Deirdre Fischel presents a scenario of middle school boys who bully a classmate—in large part to appear tough to one another as much as to harass the boy who isn’t as interested in sports as the others are. Gender is thus a performance for one another; the friend of the bullied boy and the bullies laughs off the harassment to fit in too. Social acceptance includes an unspoken code of gendered behavior.

But what if people become aware of this code--what if the way in which we construct meanings of gender—and in turn social acceptance—can become conscious instead of unconscious?

An elementary school in Oakland has incorporated lessons about the social construction of gender into its curriculum, training teachers that gender is not just based on biology but also on gender identity and expression. Teachers in turn include these lessons in their classes, and also hold forums for parents. Filmmaker Jonathan Skurnik follows the school’s progress in his film Creating Gender Inclusive Schools.

In raising awareness about the way in which we create meanings of gender, I wonder if other forms of violence might be reduced. If we can help men, for instance, challenge the idea that needing help for emotional difficulties is a sign of weakness, perhaps those in anguish will strike out less against those around them.

If we can become more conscious of the burdens placed on both men and women to conform to gendered expectations—like the idea that men should be financial providers—maybe those who experience job loss in times of economic downturn will feel less shame and failure.

Recognizing how gender is socially constructed does not mean that gender will cease to exist as some may fear. It simply means we become more aware of its meaning and the assumptions that gender brings.

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