When I was younger, I always wanted to be a boy. Of course this was influenced by the fact that I grew up in Riyadh, where women were oppressed in so many different ways. So my construal of what it meant to be a woman was negative due to the culture I was exposed to. No matter what way I looked at it, girls always seemed to draw the short end of the straw. In everything! I had to wear uncomfortable clothes because we’re visiting people and I have to look pretty. I had to sit for hours in absolute agony as my mom brushed and pulled at my hair in a feeble attempt to tame it. I wasn’t allowed to do anything that would mess up my clothes or hair and make me look ‘unpresentable’. I had to come back home early because it wouldn’t be appropriate for a girl like me to stay out any later. When I grew up, I wouldn’t be allowed to drive or probably even go out at all. I was expected to behave in a certain way and learn certain skills and why? All because I was a girl! My brother on the other hand was free to do whatever he wanted. Or so it seemed. But I wanted to be free too! I didn’t want to learn how to cook and put makeup on. I wanted to play outside with my friends without interruption. I wanted to run around all day and climb trees and get my clothes dirty and my hair all messy. I wanted to shout and laugh out loud in public and learn how to play football. And the only thing stopping me was the fact that I was a girl! Of course later I realised that there were other pressures placed on my brother. From a very young age he was expected to not display emotions and be tough and responsible. So why did my mom have certain expectations of me as a daughter but different ones for my brother as a son?
According to the evolutionary approach, my mom’s behaviour, traits and gender schemas are biologically wired into her brain. She had certain expectations of the different gender roles due to her genetic code. It was who she was. She believed that I needed to be quiet and composed because that was the way she was born to view the world; it was her instinct. This approach suggests that a very long time ago women were more likely to mate with men who possessed certain characteristics, such as dominance, and men were more likely to mate with women who possessed certain characteristics, such as docility. These characteristics were then more likely to be passed on to the next generations and so became the norms or gender roles we see today. This process is known as sexual selection. Behind this theory is the idea of essentialism: that men and women had evolved to become fundamentally different and that these differences were natural. But how does this theory explain my not wanting to conform to these roles? Was I just an anomaly? What about the differences in gender roles that exist within different cultures or the changes in gender roles that occur over different periods of time?
According to the cultural approach on the other hand, my mom’s behaviour, traits and gender schemas were taught to her by her parents and other members of her society. Maybe as a child she was able to relate herself to her own mom because they were both female, and so observed and imitated her behaviour. This is known as the social learning theory. Expectations were imposed upon her according to the social constructions and ideals of femininity and masculinity present in her culture, pressuring her to behave, think and be a certain way due to her sex until it became who she was. In turn, she mirrored the cultural pressures that had been placed on her, on me and my brother. She was taught that girls should look flawless and not stay out late and know how to cook and that boys had to be strong, unemotional and assertive. She made sure to teach me these gendered expectations when I was still a child so that I would grow up to conform to society’s expectations of me. However, because people conform and adopt these expected traits, they end up creating actual sex differences which in turn lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy taking place, where gender stereotypes are proven to be true.
So which one is it? Do gender roles arise from the culture or nature? Well, let’s look at it this way: In 1937, Disney released Snow White, a movie about a passive, naïve princess who was in danger due to her extraordinary beauty and was saved by her true love’s first kiss (Who btw she had only met once before!). In 2013, they released another princess movie: Frozen. But this time, it was about two independent, brave sisters, who embark on a journey of self-discovery and find out that all they really need is their love for each other (No prince, no true love’s kiss!). The gender stereotypes portrayed in movies represent the gender stereotypes and roles present in a society at a given time. The fact that these stereotypes have changed over time, would suggest that the cultural approach is more accurate in explaining where gender differences come from. On the other hand, in different countries all over the world, women are still being paid less than men, even though they do the same job, due to the belief that men are more adequate. It is also common knowledge all over the world that women cannot drive. These universally present gender stereotypes suggest that the evolutionary approach is the more accurate one in explaining gender differences. So which one is it you say? My answer is neither and both!