" This temporary lesson actually applies on a wider scale to life. Clothing, in our society, is closely integrated with sexuality and gender definition. Men often determine who they will have a sexual interest in based on the clothing of the person in question. A woman in a housecoat is not generally seen as a sexual target in the same way that a woman in a leather miniskirt is. Because women are seen as weaker than men and as belonging to them sexually based on the gender roles of our society, men tend to think they have power over people wearing women's clothes, whether that person be a boy or a girl. This is a power they would not assume that they have over boys, and it is the association with femininity and the stereotypes that are perpetrated about females in general that causes this.
A reflection of how gender roles are determined and enforced in society can be seen in a number of sources. For one example, research has shown that children's literature is influenced by gender role definitions, as well as helping to make and encourage those definitions. " in children's literature, males typically are portrayed as competent and achievement oriented, while the image of females is that they are limited in what they do, and less competent in their ability to accomplish things. Female characters are involved in few of the activities and assigned few of the characteristics or goals that are accorded prestige and esteem in our society." (Kortenhaus) This separation of the abilities of boys vs. girls in something as influential as children's literature creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because everyone is lead to believe that boys are capable of certain things and girls are not, boys tend to be the ones to have the confidence to pursue those things while girls become contented to submit to not reaching their potential. This kind of stereotyping actually encourages gender-bending in girls as they "must identify with the male figures in these stories if they are to acquire any sense of competence or achievement from the literary role models."
Kortenhaus) Girls must take on the role of a boy in order to be independent or have strength, while boys must take on the role of a girl in order to be nurturing or sensitive. The necessity to properly fit into gender roles to be considered "normal" leads parents to foster these prejudices to continue in their children. Even parents that hold more liberal views in general will try to protect their children by attempting to mold them into the proper gender behaviors. "Parents want to teach their children sex-appropriate chores and family roles (Thrall, 1978, p. 264). Even "liberated" parents do not wish to risk having their children become misfits in society as it is currently constituted... In essence, gender-equal parents feel some social necessity for traditional gender norms in socializing their children."
Peters) the attitude that parents have about their children's gender identity and behavior has a significant impact on their self-esteem and ability to develop into healthy individuals. "Parental attitudes toward their children have a strong impact on their developing sense of self and self-esteem, with parental warmth and support being key factors...Sex role stereotypes are well established in early childhood. Messages about what is appropriate based on gender are so strong, that even when children are exposed to different attitudes and experiences, they will revert to stereotyped choices." (Wit) Yet, despite the fact that parents and other authorities will try to convince children that it is for their own good that they are being forced into the stereotypical gender roles, it has been found over and over again that people able to break free from those gender roles are healthier and happier individuals. "Androgynous individuals have been found to have higher self-esteem..., higher levels of identity achievement..., and more flexibility in dating and love relationships." (Wit)
If being blind to gender roles leads to healthier for children's development, then why is gender conformity so strictly enforced? It is because Christian fundamentalists and other extreme conservatives hate homosexuality because they believe that their God wants them to do so. Also, men want a clear cut definition of who they are allowed to beat, rape, and be openly sexual towards, and keeping males and females molded into their gender roles makes this simple. Without keeping gender roles clearly defined and enforced, additionally, gender segregation for the purpose of "moral purity" is harder to maintain. The media encourages children to self-impose gender-specific behaviors as well, there are examples like the literature mentioned before, and one never sees gender-bending children on television. A boy in a skirt would possibly show up on an independent film channel late at night, but never on regular T.V. because the censors would not allow it.
Boys tend to have a lot less leeway when it comes to failing to conform to gender stereotypes. For example, girls can wear pants, but as a boy wearing a skirt to middle school was seriously punished. I actually got briefly expelled from school and hospitalized for my habit of changing into a skirt in the bathroom after being dropped off at school. Several girls made a habit of wearing men's shirts and occasionally ties, however, and it was simply considered a cute fashion trend. There has been a lot of leeway gained in the past 100 years for boys and girls in our society that have decided to adopt a variety of masculine and feminine behaviors. For example, "Prior to 1970, children's literature contained almost four times as many boys as girls in titles, more than twice as many boys in central roles, almost twice as many boys in pictures, and nearly four times as many male animals as female animals. Children's literature published after 1970 shows a more equitable distribution of male and female characters in all categories....the instrumental role of females in children's literature has increased twofold between the 1960s and 1980s." (Kortenhaus) However, in the past three to four years under Bush, it has become increasingly difficult for people refusing to conform to gender stereotypes in some places. For example, the recent November 2nd elections in states like Ohio were focused on enforcing the masculine-feminine divisions.
It is still difficult for me today to know if I should be completely closeted or flamboyantly open. Should I dress like a guy and try to survive as a straight boy would? Or should I dress like a girl and try to pass convincingly, hoping that no one will discover my secret? Or should I just be out completely? No matter which way I choose -- and I do generally choose one of the "closeted" options rather than being open -- I always feel strange and alienated. Being all masculine or all feminine simply does not fit me. I never feel that gender and sex roles allow a person to be completely real.
Kortenhaus, Carole. "Gender Role Stereotyping in Children's Literature: An Update." Sex Roles a Journal of Research. February, 1993. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2294/is_n3-4_v28/ai_13810759
Peters, John. "Gender Socialization of Adolescents in the Home: Research and Discussion." Adolescence. Winter, 1994. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2248/is_n116_v29/ai_16477249
Witt, Susan. "Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles." Adolescence. Summer, 1997. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2248/is_n126_v32/ai_19619406