In this day and age of proud feminism with women better equipped to demand equality and elevate their status in the world, the idea of gender roles has become anathema. But beyond the heated arguments and righteous indignation of various factions, the question begs to be asked: is the elimination of gender roles really for the best of all of society’s members? While freedom of choice is and should always be the norm, does it really automatically follow that gender roles should be abolished in its favor? In fact, must these two be mutually exclusive?
Gender roles defined
Let us backtrack a little bit. In order to make up one’s mind about gender roles, one has to know gender roles. What are they? And even more important, do they matter?
First of all, “gender” should in no way be confused for “sex.” While “sex” pertains to the physiological and biological characteristics of human beings, “gender” is more social and behavior-centric. So, in a nutshell, gender roles are cultural, social, and behavioral norms that are considered appropriate or acceptable for each sex. These are basically ‘rules’ that determine how males and females should live, act, dress, speak, behave, and even think in the context of society.
Growing up, each one of us has probably accepted a gender role or two. For example, we know that little boys play with trucks, while little girls prefer dolls; that guys should ask out girls, while girls play hard to get; that men should be breadwinners, while women should be homemakers. The list could go on and on. Gender roles could involve anything from occupations to hobbies, household functions to social behaviors, and even food and drink choices. These vary from culture to culture, and they are largely influenced by upbringing and learning. Suffice it to say, gender roles are everywhere. And gender roles have been running things thus far.
Now, gender roles are very important, regardless of whether you personally subscribe to them or not. It has, after all, existed since the beginning of mankind. In a huge way, it has been the worldwide status quo for thousands of years. However, status quos do have an intrinsic tendency to change and evolve over time, as do people. And for the many opponents of gender roles, change is a long time coming.
Gender roles today
So now we ask the most important question of all—are gender roles still relevant in today’s society? Well, with the entire world still so considerably divided in this subject, it is largely dependent on personal beliefs and judgment. And while there really is no right or wrong answer in this regard, factors like peer pressure and personal circumstances do figure heavily in choosing a stance.
Let us first look at gender roles from the perspective of those who believe that it is a dying convention. A lot of the argument centers on the stereotype that women belong in the home as mothers and homemakers, that they are only as good as the food that they cook, their ability to keep a clean and orderly house, how well they knit scarves and sew buttons—you get the picture. However, with more and more women pursuing careers outside of the home (and with great success, too), it does, indeed, put undue pressure on the average modern woman to learn skills that she may not be inclined for.
Similarly, while men in general have been born and bred—and expected—to bring home the bacon, more and more men these days are actually proving to be quite adept at playing the homemaker. By subscribing to gender roles, however, these men are unfortunately unable to thrive, which could potentially have damaging effects to the male psyche.
And let us not discount same-sex unions, as well. With more and more couples of the same gender cohabiting, gender roles only serve to confuse things. Who gets to do what, and who decides which is which?
It does not only apply to the home front and the workforce, either. Gender roles have sadly become a crutch for violence and unrest in modern society. Take the recent explosive interview of a convicted rapist in India, for example, wherein he insists that his actions were justified, simply because the female victim was out beyond nine in the evening. There are many more like it the world over, and these are the very scenarios that make gender roles look archaic and excessive.
Indeed, from the perspective of the non-traditionalist, gender roles do no more than hamper and hinder personal and cultural growth, as well as threaten to upset individual dynamics. It is no wonder, therefore, why countless people oppose it.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are still those that believe in the benefits of having firm gender roles in place. One very strong argument lies in the natural instinct of each gender. Men are biologically stronger, so this makes them protectors by nature. Women, on the other hand, are child-bearers, giving them the natural maternal instinct that makes them nurturers.
And while on the subject of biology, the physical abilities of each gender are also a consideration. There are many things that men can do that women physically can’t, and vice versa. This requires firm gender roles, if only to avoid physical discomfort and even pain.
Of course, there is also the religious aspect of it all. Practically every single holy book known to man (including the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah, to name a few) has very firm edicts about the respective roles of males and females. And with so many people still taking the word of God (or Allah, or Yahweh, or Buddha, or whoever other deity) as law, then gender roles are still 100% sacrosanct to a significant percentage of the population.
Indeed, the debate on the relevance of gender roles in today’s society continues to rage on and will likely continue to rage on for many decades to come. In truth, there is much that we can benefit from gender roles, and just as much from the lack of them. While gender roles aren’t necessarily bad, they shouldn’t be unwieldy. Neither should they be set in stone.
Ultimately, it all boils down to choice.