For my First Year Seminar class, I was given an assignment to transgress a gender norm by performing an action or series of actions that are typically considered characteristic of the opposite gender. As soon as a child is born, the public immediately associates the child’s gender with certain interests that the child will have. If the child is a boy, family and friends will often assume the child will grow up to play sports, like to play with trucks, or play video games, to name a few. As for girls, society tells us that she will be a dancer or a gymnast, for example, and she will love princesses and playing with dolls. Taking a few steps back, the public generally assumes children will be cisgender, identifying their personality and gender with their sex at birth. These stereotypes continuously affect how parents raise their children and can contribute to a child’s confusion if they do not feel they fit into these stereotypes. Similarly, fixed societal stereotypes based on gender can make it difficult for parents to accept if their children do not conform to these constructed ideas. “Tomboys” are frowned upon in society, as are boys who are more feminine.
Even in college, these stereotypes play a role in many students’ outlook on the world. The fact that we live in a largely patriarchal society doesn’t disappear when one enters college. Even as adults, boys are still expected to be athletic, strong, and powerful while girls are still seen as frivolous and weak, which led me to challenge this stereotypical phenomenon by performing a social experiment. During a retreat that I attended as part of the CHARGE (Wake Emerging Leaders) group on campus, I joined in on an all-boys basketball game while the girls of the group sat on the sidelines and watched. While I expected the guys to question my actions and exclude me from the game, after some confusion and resistance, they were much more inclusive and accepting than I had anticipated.
Though I was nervous and intimidated to perform an action that would transgress this gender norm, doing so ultimately instilled hope and positivity within me. When I walked up to the court, I could tell that the guys playing assumed I was just passing by to go to the bathroom or refill my water bottle. When I stopped in the middle of the court and asked if I could play, they each had a unique expression of confusion and bewilderment. It remains unknown if they agreed to let me play because others were watching, or if they genuinely wanted me to play in their game. Nevertheless, I started playing, and I could tell the guys were shocked by my basketball skills (even though I don’t have very many). They were pleasantly surprised that I could keep up with them in the game. The most fascinating aspect of this social experiment was that after a few minutes, other girls began to join in too. Many of them were far better players than I was but were most likely nervous to join in on a game with all boys. Soon, the girl to boy ratio was almost equal, and we were all having a blast playing with each other. This gave me hope that it is possible to transgress gender norms, because it only takes one brave action to start a positive reaction. Of course, there are many other factors that played into this situation such as the maturity levels of the boys and the fact that they may have felt pressure to include me because it would have been seen by others as far worse to exclude me. If a young girl had done a similar social experiment with younger boys and without an audience, so to speak, there may have been different results. However, because this situation occurred, I am confident that if I or another girl were to approach the same group of guys at a later time and ask them to play, there would be far less hesitation coming from their side after having a previous successful experience playing with us.
This social experiment helped me to adopt an optimistic attitude when considering gender norms and stereotypes, but also confirmed some of my suspicions regarding this topic. Unfortunately, even in college age students, gender stereotypes and expectations still exist on the surface. However, though it is an uphill battle, it is possible and more attainable than I initially expected to change these stereotypes. Due to the fact that these stereotypes have almost always existed in society, they will never completely disappear. Some boys will always “be boys” and feel the need to appear strong both physically and emotionally. Similarly, some girls will conform to the stereotype created for them and feel the need to dress or behave a certain way. Nevertheless, for boys and girls who do not wish to conform to the stereotypes that correspond to his or her gender, it takes real bravery for girls to join in on an all-boys sports game or for boys to sit with all girls at a lunch table.