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Post Modern: The problem with gender binary

Sandwiches, kitchens and white dresses have plagued women and their respective gender roles for years.

Though some stereotypes have gone out the window along with aprons and pan holders, expectations based on gender continue to depict men with cigars and briefcases while women have a feather duster and baby in hand.

Gender roles have played an integral part of everyday life in society. Defined as any behavior, style, activity or look a specific culture feels should be performed by a certain sex or perceived gender, the roles can determine expectations and affect a number of environments including the workplace, casual dinners, jokes or even appearance.

Though gender roles can be viewed as a limiting characteristic of society, Patty Stokes, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Ohio University, said they once had a practical purpose.

“Obviously, many years ago, someone had to nurse the children, and it was easier for women to gather and work near the home when they were nursing a child,” she said. “Now, in this day and age, we know that there is basically no need for this idea that women cannot have careers and raise children.”

Because attitudes have changed over the years however, it allows a near reverse of typical “gendered jobs” in the workforce, Stokes said.

“There is no reason on this earth why men can’t be preschool teachers and women, engineers,” she said. “There is no reason why simply giving birth should determine who is the primary caregiver.”

Despite progressive beliefs similar to Stokes’, many people still believe women should be the primary caregiver.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of men and women think young children are better off if their mothers don’t work outside the home or work only part time, 38 percent felt the ideal situation for mothers with young children was not to work outside the home and an additional 44 percent thought that part-time work was ideal.

However, women make up 46 percent of the U.S. labor force, and about 75 percent of women eligible to work are employed, according to the United States Department of Labor.

While the argument on gender roles has often been a point of discussion when it comes to jobs or child rearing, the validity of gender roles in romantic traditions is also of concern.

For example, some women question whether or not to take their husband’s last name when they get married. According to a survey conducted by, 86 percent of women surveyed who were married in 2010 took their husband’s last name.

Despite progress in the feminist movement, traditional gender roles, such as assuming the man’s last name, are holding strong because of the desire to uphold those traditional values, Stokes said.

“While we see all of this progress, people still want to hold onto tradition and still want to have both,” she said. “It’s a little unsettling that there is this large number of people who want equality but also believe the mother is the caregiver and the wife should take the husband’s last name. They’re somewhere in the middle.”

Gender roles are not only exemplified through marriage and child-raising, but also in other traditional relationships such as dating. The idea that men should be “chivalrous” and commit selfless acts, such as pay for the meal, is one ideal that is deeply engrained in American culture.

“I was raised that in a relationship, the man is to lead,” said Nate McGinnis, a senior studying meteorology. “That does not mean the man has the right to boss around his partner, but instead (partners) work side by side in making decisions that better their relationship. I believe chivalry still exists and is important to a healthy relationship.”

Even some women who consider themselves progressive and feminists have no problem with chivalry in the dating scene.

“I haven’t felt too affected by gender roles when dating,” said Eliza Smith, a sophomore studying child and family studies, who said gender roles are of great interest to her. “I don’t mind paying for my food on a date sometimes. I think guys feel like they should pay on the first date, and it’s nice. It really is, but it isn’t always necessary.”

Chivalry might be considered a positive trait to some, but Stokes said that although the theory is romantic, it can imply some negative perceptions about gender roles.

“I much prefer gallantry, because it’s not picking up a woman because she can’t walk over a puddle; it’s just being a gentleman and is appealing to me personally,” she said. “The problem exists when it implies a woman cannot be strong on her own behalf.”

Gender roles are harmful and confusing not only to those in heterosexual relationships, but also to LGBTQ individuals and those who feel they do not belong in one gender, said Jason Armstrong, an Athens resident who identifies as queer.

“Gender roles force people to judge those around them,” Armstrong said. “You look at someone and assume a gender. Then you expect this person, that you gendered yourself, to fulfill specific duties that are ‘assigned’ to their gender.”

Since these expectations are long lasting, the ideas behind stigmas and gendering can be assigned early, especially for those who do not feel they belong in one gender category, Armstrong said.

“Gender roles, without a doubt, affect non-binary individuals,” he said. “Being dual-gender, growing up, my family had strict expectations and guidelines for what was male, what was female. Because I do, and enjoy some things that are ‘male’ and others that are ‘female,’ I was ostracized by both groups. This caused me to doubt myself on both accounts. Should I stop wearing dresses because men don’t? Should I not enjoy chopping wood because women shouldn’t?”

Gendered thinking can also affect those in a position of power. When thinking of feminists, many may think of the stereotype of masculine, bra-burning, second-wave feminists. Yet a wave of “lipstick feminists” has embraced “feminine” and “girly” attitudes while still exhibiting power and succeeding in a business setting.

Although there has been progress in the world of gender roles, Stokes said women should be wary when being concerned with appearances or feminism.

“It’s fine to be concerned with how you look and to be ‘objectified’ by men once in a while and dress how they did in the 1950s,” she said. “But it’s a whole other thing to be passive and submissive, much like they were before the second wave of feminism. I think that’s why a lot of people tend to have a problem with it.”

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