FF 2016 Day 9: The pink and blue boxes

Gender: the pink and blue boxes
Brain sex theory

Almost every part of life in our society has been put in the pink box or the blue box. Actions, activities, behaviours, feelings are gendered, are sorted as “masculine” or “feminine.”

In our (broadly speaking Western) culture, personality traits considered ‘feminine’ are put in the pink box: being small, quiet, pretty, vulnerable, warm, nurturing, empathetic. Things are considered ‘masculine’ and put in the blue box: being loud, powerful, large, assertive, logical. Activities are gendered. Sports, driving, drinking (etc.) are put in the blue box. Baking, childcare, shopping (etc.) are put in the pink box.

gender stereotypes.jpg

But then we put people in the boxes, on the basis of their perceived sex, from the day they’re born. These boxes are gender roles (previously referred to as “sex roles” until John Money introduced the new term to refer specifically to conventional/traditional roles assigned to men and women by society). They are the personality stereotypes (masculine and feminine) which are considered each to be appropriate for one sex, and which girls and boys are encouraged or forced, implicitly or explicitly, to adhere to. The contents of these stereotypes may vary between different cultures and societies  (geographically and over time) but they are the same kind of construction.

In our society, some contents of the pink and blue boxes (gender roles) have stayed the same, and some have shifted over time. We assign children different colours and different toys, play different games with them, show them different cartoons, depending on their perceived sex, and these are all ways in which we socialise children into their gender role, slowly building the pink box or the blue box around them. From TV, games, parents and family,  to friends, teachers, and people on the street, we have hundreds of influences on us which all contribute to what neuroscientist Professor Rippon calls the constant “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment.

Gender in our society defines femininity and masculinity in a way which gives men advantages over women (e.g. masculine-typed traits, encouraged in men but not women, include physical strength and assertiveness.) Our social norms don’t simply value masculine-typed behaviours, tendencies and actions over feminine-typed ones; if that was the case, women who acted exactly like their male counter-parts would have no trouble in the labour market. In reality, women who behave in a traditionally masculine way face punishment in the workplace, for failing to conform to gender norms.

Similarly, femininity in men tends to be socially punished, and traditionally feminine things or behaviours mocked and derided- telling a boy he is doing something “like a girl” is used as an insult.

Certain parts of feminine norms and expectations require women to change their natural body in ways that masculinity doesn’t require of men. Because of this, women’s failure to conform to feminine gender norms is sometimes seen as the attempt to be masculine, rather than simply non-conformity, as this blogger describes:

“…people ask me all the time, why do I want to look like a man? The answer is simple. I don’t. And I do not look like a man. I look like a woman who refuses to perform femininity. My unshaven legs do not make me like a man, they’re MY legs, and MY hair, and I am a woman. My “boy’s” clothes are worn on my body, the body of a woman. My naked, unpainted face is the face of a woman. I am a woman, and this is not defined by a haircut or a choice of attire, or by lipstick or high heels, or boxer briefs and men’s deodorant worn over fuzzy unshaven armpits. There’s nothing manly about me.”


So what do we expect of men in our society? Sociologist Robert Jensen puts it like this:

“That dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture is easily summarized: Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a real man is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it. Men who don’t measure up are wimps, sissies, fags, girls. The worst insult one man can hurl at another — whether it’s boys on the playground or CEOs in the boardroom — is the accusation that a man is like a woman.”

Emotion, vulnerability and caring are built into the pink box in our society, are marked as ‘feminine.’ Gender norms and expectations construct masculinity and femininity as opposites to one another, and so expecting men to be traditionally masculine is often the same as expecting them not to be traditionally feminine. The pressure not to express any sign of weakness takes a serious toll on men’s mental health. Working fathers are both happier at home and have greater job satisfaction the more time they can spend with their children, but the blue box our society puts them in pressures them to stay at work, while the pink box pressures women to stay at home.

Masculinity is toxic- expectations and norms of masculinity are harmful for women and men. At the same time, though, there is huge pressure to conform to that role, and it is fragile: it takes a lot to hold this conception together, and research shows that men use aggression to defend threatened manhood. This can help us to understand disturbing patterns of male violence (part of which we looked at on Day 1). Aspects of masculine gender norms, aggression and dominance, and the connected pressure on boys and men not to display supposedly feminine ‘weakness,’ are not limited to Western/neo-European cultures- take a look at the video below.


Gender roles continue to harm us even in societies we think of as progressive- we saw on Days 3 and 4 how gender norms and expectations of men and women lead to unequal divisions of labour in the home and at work, which leave women burdened with a double shift and disadvantaged in the labour market, while preventing many men from spending time caring for their children. We saw on Day 1  (and more today) how the demands of masculinity encourage aggression and dominance in men to the extent that men end up using physical aggression to defend against what they see as ‘threats’ to their masculinity. We’ve also looked at oppressive beauty standards (Day 2) and the ways in which women are sexually objectified (Day 5). The idea of female sexuality as passive and vulnerable is just one more thing in the pink box.

Some people believe that masculinity and femininity are not socially constructed, but are natural results of the way men’s and women’s brains have evolved. We’re going to take a look at this theory now…


Brain sex theory

One major proponent of brain sex theory (the idea that there is such a thing as a male brain or a female brain) is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who claims that “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” He justifies this to a large extent by reference to studies observing differences in behaviour between boys and girls, women and men, and assumes that these differences are caused by structural differences in men’s and women’s brains rather than differences in upbringing and other social influences. For example, he says:

“…studies show that when children play together with a little movie player that has only one eye-piece, boys tend to get more of their fair share of looking down the eye piece. They just shoulder the girls out of the way. Less empathy, more self-centred. Or if you leave out a bunch of those big plastic cars that kids can ride on, what you see is that more little boys play the “ramming” game. They deliberately drive the vehicle into another child. The little girls ride around more carefully, avoiding the other children more often. This suggests the girls are being more sensitive to others.”

Professor Baron-Cohen claims that this tendency is because girls and women are more likely to have a brain “hard-wired” to be sensitive and empathetic. However, another explanation might be that boys are expected (due to gendered stereotypes) to act more aggressively and in a more self-centred way, and this affects how much they are told off by teachers or parents. The often-quoted excuse “boys will be boys” may be used to allow boys more leeway in acting selfishly or playing roughly with other children.

Baron-Cohen claims that while socialisation may play a part in forming these behavioural differences, biology also determines this. However, recent studies have shown that brain sex theory simply isn’t true. One study, done in 2015 with 1,400 people, found that “there’s no functional difference between men’s and women’s brains,” but each person’s brain is “a ‘mosaic’ of features.” Another study in the same year, done with 6,000 volunteers, similarly concluded that differences between men’s and women’s brains are minimal:

“Sex differences in the brain are irresistible to those looking to explain stereotypic differences between men and women,” said Dr. Eliot. “They often make a big splash, in spite of being based on small samples. But as we explore multiple datasets and are able to coalesce very large samples of males and females, we find these differences often disappear or are trivial.”


Gender roles begin to be assigned from the moment we’re born, and are embedded in every aspect of life. We need to recognise the ways this happens in order to address the ways in which gender norms and expectations harm both women and men.



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