French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was the first to distinguish sex and gender from each other by stating that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. She pointed out the norms and roles assigned to women and men at birth, and the stereotypical expression of gender defined and expected by the patriarchal society. The little girl will become a wife, a mother, a grandmother. She will take care of the family; her future is all written from the beginning. Boys, on the other hand, are allowed to have an open future.
Stereotypes refer to general characteristics that define a group of people. By attributing categories to different people, stereotypes somehow help us to make sense of the world and to construct our social identities. However, stereotyping can lead to negative prejudice and can imprison people in specific roles. Moreover, they can translate into serious discrimination and inequality. Perhaps the most well-recognised demarcation is the one between men and women and the roles they traditionally fulfil. For instance: women work; men manage.
In 2014, women made up less than 5 percent of Fortune CEOs and hold less than 19 percent of board seats in the Western world, according to Mercer. This is why activists believe that women must claim their power and their right to reach higher job positions or, at least, to be more visible and active in the higher spheres of power.
“La Barbe” is a French collective of women whose goal is to denounce with irony and humour the privileges of men and mock their codes by wearing fake beards during their operations “in the field”. “We fight against the patriarchal system applied in all spheres of society. We claim power…with irony and humour, ”says Anne-Marie Viossat, member of La Barbe when she sat down with OURS Magazine.
The idea of La Barbe is to create discussion and increase the presence of women at the top of the hierarchy, because in politics, media, show business, sports, non-governmental organisations, finance and so on, women are less often appointed than men to high level positions.
Women think that they are not able to reach key positions, and this reality is probably due to stereotypes that we learn from a young age, according to Viossat. Caroline Dayer, a professor and researcher at the University of Geneva, explains that stereotypes based on gender are very present in social contexts such as family, school, friends, media and sports. “Their internalisation is embodied through explicit messages, like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls don’t play football’, and implicit messages,”she tells us.
Stereotypes based on gender are very present in social contexts such as family, school, friends, media and sports. “Their internalisation is embodied through explicit messages, like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls don’t play football’, and implicit messages. – Prof. Caroline Dayer
It is these imposed distinctions between men’s and women’s roles that lead to sexism, which in a patriarchally biased society is, as Dayer explains, “an ideological system that values men over women,” and it defines what is socially acceptable for men and women.
American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler says that we must “perform” our gender every day according to certain social norms and codes in order to socialise within a group. These codes and norms not being natural, however, it is actually a daily challenge for everyone to perform his or her gender. Which gene says that girls must wear dresses? Which gene says men should have short hair? These standards are so present all around us that it is very difficult even to notice them at work. Yet, when someone does not want to follow the so-called gender norms, identity tensions arise.
Deconstruction of stereotypes is therefore vital in order to liberate women and men from their assigned gender roles. “The deconstruction of these stereotypes is necessary because stereotypes confine girls and boys in moulds that limit their perspectives”, says Dayer, who is also the author of “Sous les pavés, le genre: Hacker le sexisme”.
Moreover, stereotypes based not just on gender, but on sexuality, are also strongly present in today’s society. In the same way that women suffer due to stereotypes generated by sexism, homosexuals face heterosexism.
Heterosexism is an ideological system which values heterosexuality over other types of sexuality, such as homosexuality, Dayer explains. The idea of heterosexism is to assume that everyone is heterosexual and heterosexuality is the only legitimate sexuality. This can lead to homophobic attitudes, prejudice and discrimination.
But, most people do not even realise that they are being heterosexist. For instance, a married man wears a wedding ring and brings his wife to his company annual party. Through implicit signs, he is showing off his sexuality, but nobody notices it; nobody is offended either. Heterosexuals are visibly and legitimately heterosexuals.
In fact, heterosexuality is not a private affair, whereas in many societies, homosexuality remains something very intimate. “Homosexuality is a sensitive subject; the intimacy [of homosexuals] is linked to their sexuality instead of their love relationship…on the other hand, it is not appropriate to talk about what happens in the bedroom,” says Sandrine Cina, co-founder of Invisible Experience, social enterprise that aims at making companies, institutions, youth organisations and public events more inclusive, in particular for homosexual people.
Cina believes that stereotypes are necessary to build one’s identity. “Our reality is complicated, so we need simple categories; it is not a bad thing to perceive stereotypes…it’s just that sometimes stereotypes must be deconstructed,” she says.
To date, homosexuality still remains taboo in many circles and is overloaded with stereotypical ideas, which cultivate prejudice, discrimination and homophobia. Sandrine Cina believes that to overcome negative judgment on same-sex love, the best way forward is to open a dialogue to make people realise by themselves their social perception of homosexuality and include everyone in the stereotype deconstruction process.
To overcome negative judgment on same-sex love, the best way forward is to open a dialogue to make people realise by themselves their social perception of homosexuality and include everyone in the stereotype deconstruction process.
“With our association, we offer another way of thinking…we believe that homosexuality is not only the concern of homosexuals, but it is the concern of all,” she says. “Diversity must be valued.”
While stereotyping may be funny in portraying people, it can generate negative representations. It’s high time we reconsidered our judgments on sexuality, gender and sex.
This is an excerpt from the 9th print issue of the magazine themed stereotypes.