Breaking barriers

Gender norms are pointless and harmful


Cartoon by Brenna Batchelder

Gender norms are imposed on every gender in all aspects of society, from arts to sports to politics to fashion.

Morgan Weir, Opinions Editor

A September gender reveal party in California sparked national controversy after igniting a wildfire that grew over 10,000 acres. As the story spread, people discussed not only similar antics pulled by expecting parents that got out of hand, but also the merit of gender reveal parties in the first place. 

Gender reveal parties subject us to the deeply entrenched gender norms controlling our society before we even enter the world. Expecting parents impose a personality on their child based on the color of confetti that comes out of a balloon or the color of frosting in a cupcake. They paint the nursery pink or blue, buy dolls or trucks and pick out flowery dresses or blue striped shirts. These norms are reinforced throughout the rest of our lives in every aspect of society: arts, music, fashion, government, business, sports–all of it designed to put people in a box and limit self-expression. From a young age, people tell us that we should be unapologetically ourselves, yet they also send implicit messages that we should only express ourselves within the confines of gender norms.

However, some high-profile figures have been attracting attention for confronting these norms and challenging the ways in which they are upheld.

One recent viral example is Harry Styles’ Vogue cover. Not only did the cover make Styles the first man to spotlight the magazine solo, but it also made him the center of controversy because of his fashion choice. He wore a Gucci ball gown and declared that “anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself.” Critics claimed that by wearing a dress, he was destroying masculinity. Conservative commentator and author Candace Owens tweeted that it was “an outright attack” that threatened society and demanded we “bring back manly men.”  Her Tweet received over 100,000 likes, demonstrating the popularity of these narrow-minded beliefs. 

There has been an outpouring of support for Styles’ choice, with people praising him for his willingness to challenge traditional stereotypes on a large platform. Fashion has long been a central avenue to broaden the limits of gender expression. It never has, and never will, lead to the complete downfall of society like Owens and her followers suggest. However, it will lead, hopefully, to the downfall of the ruthless patriarchal society that relies on these gender norms. To defend that system is to support a part of society that perpetuates gender-based violence, street harassment, body image issues and other toxic behavior. To defy that system, like Styles did, is to make people feel more comfortable exploring their personal style and expressing their true selves. It is far past time to question the norm and recognize that it isn’t serving us, that gender norms are pointless and limiting and that there isn’t any reason a man shouldn’t be able to rock a dress on the cover of Vogue. 

Another place that people have been smashing gender stereotypes is in public office. Sarah McBride became the country’s first transgender state senator when she won in Delaware in November. Last week, she shared a screenshot of a text exchange with someone who asked “are you a boy or a girl?” She responded with “I’m a senator.” This simple response challenged the widespread desperation to judge people’s abilities based on how they identify or express themselves. Women (especially trans women) have not been given the chance to show what they can do because they have been limited to what people think they should be doing. 

With more women than ever elected to Congress in November, gender boundaries are being pushed, but they aren’t gone completely. Women in office are expected to behave, react and lead a certain way. This double standard prevents a lot of women from running. Women are much less likely than men to view themselves as “qualified” for office, which means that less women run and, consequently, less are elected, so less women are seen in office. This reinforces the idea that women are not qualified for politics, and the cycle continues. It takes women who are willing to defy the boundaries and stereotypes to break the cycle—women like Kamala Harris, who will be the first female vice president and the highest ranking woman in the U.S. government when she is sworn in. Much like Styles’ choice to wear a dress will make other people feel safer to express themselves, Harris’ victory and leadership will inspire women to pursue careers that have been traditionally considered men’s’ work. 

Gender stereotypes persist not only in government but also in arts and entertainment. In music genres that are typically male-dominated, female artists have been making their names known and demanding more room for new creative voices in music. In the 2021 Grammy nominations released in November, women commanded a historic majority in some surprising genres. They took every single slot for the best country album, and they took the majority in other country categories like best country song and best country solo performance. They also dominated another typically male-heavy genre: rock. For the first time, all six nominees in best rock performance were women, and women had the majority of nominations in best rock song and best alternative album. Like fashion, music is a way for historically marginalized groups to defy the pressure to conform and to challenge the status quo through artistic expression. It’s huge that such a major, mainstream platform like the Grammys is allowing those expressions to take center stage.

These challenges to gender norms on major platforms are long overdue. Not only are stereotypes pointless, but they are also harmful. They’re not just about the clothes we wear or the careers we choose, they are about the society we live in—a society that puts down women in order to keep men at the top of the social stratum, that leads women to face higher rates of assaults, violence and poverty. When people challenge gender norms, this is what they’re standing up to: not just ignorant internet trolls or bullies, but an entire social order that is both socially and physically harmful to people, especially to women and nonbinary people who don’t fit within the “masculine” box perfectly. 

Gender norms only limit us. They dictate the clothes we wear, the way we express ourselves, the way we talk, the careers we pursue and the way we live. Everyone would benefit from challenging that, whether it be by wearing a dress, running for office or exploring career options that society has discouraged us from. Society needs people who are willing to challenge long-standing beliefs about what we should be in order to show the world what we can be and what we are capable of when we live without these limits. 

“What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away,” Styles said in his interview with Vogue. “Once you remove any barriers, you open up the arena in which you can play.”

It’s time that we open up to a society without boundaries, where people are allowed to go outside the box and occupy new spaces.