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Proper men, proper women: Gender roles in contemporary UK society

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019
Do women have a need for feminism in a Britain where they can enjoy porn while men help out with childcare? It might be too soon to assume the arguments have been settled, warns Stephanie Taylor.

Most of us have watched enough wildlife programmes to know that nature doesn't provide any simple model for 'proper' female and male roles. (If you're not convinced, look up the various child rearing arrangements of, say, elephants, seahorses and Emperor penguins.)

In fact, the term 'gender' originally came into widespread use in the social sciences to refer to those female-male differences which are given by society and perpetuated through upbringing, as distinct from differences which are dictated by biology.

It might have seemed obvious that the non-biological differences could be erased more easily. Perhaps this is why there's a widespread general assumption that, in the UK at least, many former social constraints have disappeared, so that women are no longer tied to the home or held back in their careers.

Likewise, men can be in touch with their own feelings; show their emotional sides, and involve themselves with their kids in ways that their own fathers were held back from.

A man comforts a child, albeit not very convincingly
How men are? Do British men get in touch with emotions and help with the kids more than their Dads did?

These are, supposedly, new ways for new times. And tied to the same assumption is the idea that nowadays we live less as (constrained) social beings and more as (free) individuals who make choices about how to live, including the choice to leave behind those old social roles associated with being female or male.

However, most social scientists now understand people to be more complex and use the term 'gender' without assuming any neat separation between the social and the biological.

What it means to be either a woman or a man does differ in different societies, including across history, suggesting that there is a strong social or cultural element, but our experience of ourselves as female or male is far deeper than some kind of social brainwashing.

This raises a new question: how does the social or cultural become so deeply engrained that gender identities and gender differences seem fundamental to who we are?

As Rosalind Gill has written, "how it is … that socially constructed ideals of beauty or sexiness are internalized and made our own, that is, really, truly, deeply our own, felt not as external impositions but as authentically ours?"

This is one of the important problems of the contemporary social sciences and the particular concern of psychosocial theorists and researchers who investigate how the social, or cultural, is also psychological.

It's also obvious that in contemporary UK society gender roles have not disappeared at all. In many respects they've even become more distinct.

Think of the shops and product ranges which target women and men differently with the expectation that they'll have separate tastes and lifestyles.

Pink tools
Tools targeted at women: Hammers and knives with pink handles

And it's well-known that women do more housework and childcare than their male partners, even in combination with paid employment, and in their careers women earn less and are less likely to end up in top career positions, such as company directorships.

On the other hand, there are well-publicised differences between boys' and girls' school achievements, with girls doing better in many subjects, and in parts of the UK young men are more likely to be unemployed than women of the same age.

All of these points suggest that gender still impacts on how we live and our wider opportunities. We are not so free to ignore its constraints as we might like to believe.

Some social scientists argue that the idea that we're all free individuals who are not bound by society or culture is itself part of contemporary culture. We're socialised into thinking that we're not social beings but entirely free individuals!

This culture of individualism sometimes creates extra burdens for us. For example, the social psychologist Valerie Walkerdine describes a young woman who refuses to believe that she faces any obstacles in her working life that result from her class or the career itself or her workplace. She's determined to succeed and she assumes that any failure to progress is her own fault, because she isn't working hard enough. This might sound like the beginning of a celebrity success story.

In this case, however, Walkerdine suggests it's the story of someone who blames herself when the problems lie elsewhere, taking her whole work experience as her individual responsibility instead of recognising that she is part of a larger social context which impacts on what's possible and achieveable for her.

A strong tradition of gender studies which focuses on the experience of women, and especially young women, has its roots in the dreaded 'f' word - feminism!

There is a view that feminism is redundant: it succeeded, we're now all equal and so there's no need to talk about it any more! It's rather as if women have graduated from some useful but restricted experience, like school or army training. They've finished with feminism; they have their rights now so they can take off the dungarees and choose to do what they like.

They can dress in feminine ways if they want; they're no longer tied to the home or held back in their careers; and young women, in particular, are also free to live like (some traditional) men in some respects - for example, drinking to excess, choosing their own sexual partners on a 'use them and lose them' basis, and using pornography.

However, academics like Gill and the sociologist Angela McRobbie have argued against this story of feminism as a battle which has been won. They suggest that many of the supposed freedoms of contemporary young women are illusory, that the pressures on these women to live in certain ways, to achieve in their careers and groom and dress their bodies to comply with fashion and be sexy and sexually available is a new form of the inequality which feminists, past and present, set out to oppose.

Gill and McRobbie argue that the extra twist in this contemporary situation is women's idea of themselves as individuals who are making free choices about their lives, failing to notice how similar those choices are or to recognise how far our gender roles and identities are given by society.

Further reading

The sources I have referenced in this piece are:

Culture and subjectivity in neo-liberal and postfeminist times
Rosalind Gill writing in Subjectivity2009, 25, pages 432-445

The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change
Angela McRobbie, published by Sage
I discuss this book in a review published in Feminism & Psychology

Reclassifying upward mobility: femininity and the neo-liberal subject
Valerie Walkerdine writing in Gender and Education 2003 15, pages 237-248

Why more and more women are using pornography
by Tanith Carey in The Guardian, April 7th 2011

You might also want to look at Rosalind Gill's book Gender and the Media, published by Polity


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