How Media Enforces Gender and Societal Norms

There’s a lot you can say about media, whether it’s TV, movies, books, or commercials. One of the major things that we’ve been taught not to really question, is the idea of gender and societal norms.

We’ve been taught that if you like pink or purple and wear dresses and skirts, that you must be a woman, and conversely if you wear black or blue or green, and like to wear jeans and t-shirts, that you must be a man.

Like dolls? Girl. Like mud? Boy. Like art? Girl. Like toy race cars? Boy.

It’s an almost automatic instinct that is constantly reinforced, that there are no exceptions to these, and if there are, we shouldn’t bother with them.

It begins with the mother and father, who both have been brought up in this system. The wife must cook, and be polite, and stay at home with the kids. The man must find a high-paying job (which isn’t that difficult since patriarchy), and eventually find that a business suit is his daily attire. Of course, this isn’t always true, and in fact, it’s becoming less true with this generation, but the expectations are still there.

Since they’ve grown up, they’ve seen media that reinforces the idea that the toy kitchen is pink and is for girls, and that the yellow toy truck is for boys who like to be in the sandbox. That girls are supposed to be funny, and polite, and never mad, and that “boys will be boys” and they can get in trouble more often.

This is relayed onto what the biological parts of their newborn are.

If it’s a girl, the crib and the room will be pink. If it’s a boy, the crib and room will be blue. If unknown, or they want to be surprised, they make it yellow. This reinforces everything the media has told him, right from the very beginning of this newborn’s life. Growing up, this girl will remember her room being pink, and that they always have told her that girls wear dresses, and that dolls are girly things. Growing up, this boy will remember his room being blue, and the tough guy sayings that were on his shirts, and that he can do whatever he wants and get away with it.

See what I said up there about it being a wife and a husband? That’s what media does as well. There was almost never – slim to none – ideas shown about it being two wives or two husbands. All romantic love stories begin with the boy falling in love with the girl. That she needs to be saved from this harsh world, and the boy can help her by marrying her and telling her how to live her life.

That’s what they’ve been brought up with. If they truly buy into societal norms, they will tell their child that being L or G or B or T is just a phase, and that they’ll grow out of it. They are afraid of what isn’t what has been taught to them millions of time as they had grown up.

In the above example, these parents are also white, because whitewashing was what they grew up with, with the exception of a few black people they distinctly remember for being funny in that sitcom or some other thing. In the above example, they are middle class. The media never showed them that they should be anything less – unless they wanted to be that dirty hobo with a stick and a bandanna at their shoulder that no one bothered with. And that they should strive to be rich.

As well, they are able-bodied, literate, along with other numerous privileges that come up as society views them.

These things are all societal and gender norms. All around us, they tell us that a boy must love a girl or vice versa, with no exceptions, which of course is changing slowly in this generation, but is nonetheless still much more prominent. Digging even deeper, society tells us that there are two-and-only-two genders – a woman and a man, and that if you don’t fall into either of those two categories, you are ignored at best, or criticized and insulted and harmed at worst.

Media wants us to believe that women and men populate this world, in the world population consensus, in your birth certificate, on your passport, and on your driver’s license. That there is no such thing as L or G or B or T when it comes to most things in daily life. That you must be cis and straight and literate and middle class and able-bodied in order to survive in the world that is the now.

And that is mostly true. But this generation will be different. Growing up in a harsh economy, and a world with the internet, where not-white-people, genderqueer, genderfluid, LGBT+, and others can speak their minds freely (not without criticism, mind you, but still much improvement from the previous generation).

Maybe the idea of what it is meant to be a person will be changed a bit, if only to say that the normal question will be to ask, “Do you have a partner?” instead of “Do you have a girlfriend?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” And along with that, “Do you want a partner?”

Mary Wright 

(Related post)

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