Dialogue Nights #7: Breaking Gender Stereotypes

| Mitch Bogen
Participants engage in dialogue at Dialogue Nights on breaking gender stereotypes

Paired icebreaker activity at Dialogue Nights

Questions of identity are among the most fraught a person can face. This is because they are at once intensely personal and intensely social. We are constantly defining ourselves, and being defined by others, with real consequences for our ability to succeed and be happy in life. And when the identity questions relate to gender and sexuality, which are so immediate, the intensity only increases. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there was such a strong turnout for the July 27th Ikeda Center Dialogue Nights event, on the theme of “Breaking Gender Stereotypes: Revealing Our True Nature.”

To open, Ikeda Center Program Manager Lillian I welcomed the nearly sixty university students and young professionals in attendance and explained how the thinking of Center founder Daisaku Ikeda helped shape the evening’s approach to the topic. She said that for Mr. Ikeda, the “important thing is not that society come up with a particular model for how men and women ought to behave, but that people first and foremost make tenacious effort to live as decent human beings, and allow others to do the same.” The main purpose of the evening, she added, would be to discuss how to “challenge and overcome” the gender stereotypes that hold all of us back from achieving our full human potential.

Lillian then introduced the two video clips that would serve to structure the evening’s conversations. The first, called Miss Representation, looked at how media portrayals of women and girls encourage us to value them in terms of their youth and beauty. The second, called The Mask You Live In, showed the way boys and young men struggle with how our culture defines male success in terms of dominance, power, and aggression. Before showing the first clip, Lillian clarified that even though the videos only address matters of male and female stereotyping and thus do not deal directly with current “genderqueer or transgender” issues, the act of confronting traditional gender stereotypes can still help us on the path toward a “world where everyone is respected and valued just as they are.”

Miss Representation

From just the brief excerpt of Miss Representation that was shown, it was clear that even those women who have achieved substantial success in the United States are judged on the most superficial aspects of their appearance and frequently are vilified for deviating from a traditional feminine “ideal.” The clip also examined the way that the female stereotypes employed in advertisements induce anxiety in young women. On the positive side, it showed how mentorship of young women as they pursue professions can help them overcome obstacles presented by gender stereotyping.

Breakout groups during Dialogue Nights on breaking gender stereotypes

After the video, participants broke into small groups to discuss their initial reactions to the film, as well as general thoughts about the stereotyping of women inspired by the viewing. Here are some of the key ideas group representatives shared with the whole gathering.

  • The content of the film, said one young woman, is a good way to introduce some of the problems of gender stereotyping. However, she believed that the focus on the portrayal of women in media might steer attention away from other important factors such as social and racial power dynamics.
  • A young man shared how he has seen his female family members adjust their personas depending on whether they are at home or at work. In other words, they employ coping mechanisms that are ultimately limiting.
  • Another group representative discussed a study she saw that showed how the stereotyping of boys and girls can begin as early as infancy. In it, adults were asked to engage with infants and toddlers whose gender identities were concealed, leaving only their names and attire as their gender signifiers. The result was that girls wearing boys’ clothing were treated as stereotypical boys, and vice versa. Thus, for example, the female toddler in boys’ clothing was given spatial reasoning toys, unlike the boys in girls’ clothing, who were given dolls and talked to in a “cutesy” voice.
  • Speaking for her group, a woman shared how surprised they were by the statistics highlighted in the film about women’s representation in Congress. Sure, they knew about the reality of sexist imagery in the media, but had no idea how bad the US is in terms of Congressional representation, especially how much the US lags behind what many of us might consider less developed or progressive countries in female representation. “Obviously,” said the young woman, “this needs to change.”
  • A young woman talked about how critical it is to always show respect for the real person who is right in front of you: to meet people where they are, free of whatever set ideas of masculinity and femininity you might bring to an encounter. This is the key to “breaking down these prisons” of stereotypes that limit and hurt us all.
  • The last speaker mentioned that the problem of the media’s stereotyped representation of women is “so pervasive,” that his group wondered what a single person can do to change things. Is the onus, he asked, simply on corporations and “capitalist systems” to rectify things, or is there something “I as a consumer” can do in response?

The Mask You Live In

The same team that produced Miss Representation produced the video about male gender stereotyping, The Mask You Live In. The clear message of this film is that the mask of masculinity that men are supposed to wear conceals a toxic mixture of pain, shame, anger, and humiliation. A number of debilitating notions fuel this negative pattern. A major one is that respect is earned through violence. Further, boys and men are hurt by what a speaker in the video called “the three lies.” The first is related to the cult of adolescent sports, which holds that boys are best judged by size and strength, only setting men up for disappointment later in life. Then there are the lies that manhood is best judged by economic success and sexual conquests. The film argued that the human qualities of men and women overlap to a very high degree, a fact belied by the media fixation on hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity.

After viewing The Mask You Live In, the small groups engaged in dialogue on thoughts that the video triggered. They discussed the extent to which they could relate to the content, as well their take on the cultural impact of gender stereotyping and the need to challenge these stereotypes.

  • The first group representative talked about how the second video seemed more relevant than the first, since the focus on “toxic masculinity” is tightly connected to “systemic” problems, as opposed to just media problems. However, she detected an irony. “What does it say that it felt more relevant to learn about how men are taught to treat women than it did to learn about how women are taught to view themselves?” Is this, she wondered, another subtle manifestation of patriarchy?
  • Speaking for another group, a young man observed that “crying is human” yet “men are instructed not to cry.” He also shared how one group member expressed “revulsion” for the frequently invoked command to “man up.” Generally, his group felt that all of us are damaged when we aren’t inclusive of the experiences of those who fall between the “extremes of masculinity and femininity.”
  • One young man shared how he was raised by two mothers, and though they never spoke of things like patriarchy, he did grow up unencumbered by gender stereotyping, say, urging him to be a jock or to go out and chase girls. He feels that he was raised to “see what you are capable of doing and see what you could become, and that has nothing to do with gender.” However, this Dialogue Nights discussion helped him see how widespread the problem is and that he should continue to increase his awareness about gender stereotyping.
  • An interesting thing about the clip, offered a young woman, was how it showed older men talking with younger men about how to break the crippling stereotypes of toxic masculinity. However, in her experience, that doesn’t happen often enough, and women and non-binary folks end up unfairly having to pick up the slack, expending the emotional energy they might otherwise spend on themselves to help men “unlearn toxic behavior.”
  • A young man underscored how inner conflict and suffering is caused by the expectation that men should repress their emotions. What is needed, is a “platform” for “men to really be who they want to be,” where they can “express their emotion or their pain or their struggle.” This group also observed that there are complexities about gender and objectification that the videos didn’t capture, for example the way many gay men are “sexualized” in their community.
  • The last group discussed the impact of gender stereotypes in “the mental health realm.” They observed that girls often manifest harm internally through eating disorders and forms of self-injury, whereas men tend to manifest external behaviors, such as joining gangs or groups that encourage reckless behavior. The heart of the matter is that “people want to feel they can be who they are and also just feel connected to something.”

What We Can Do

To introduce the evening’s concluding dialogue, Lillian I shared a lesson she learned from Betty Reardon, who collaborated with the Ikeda Center on a series of student-based nuclear abolition seminars over the course of several months. Betty taught that when educating and leading for social change, one must always start with a vision, and then ask questions to deepen your thinking. If you keep repeating this process, said Lillian, “that’s when you can start to think outside the box and challenge these mindsets we often have that say that ‘nothing can be done’ or ‘this is the way things have always been.’”

Lillian then asked groups to engage with this quote from Daisaku Ikeda: “The goal of gender equality is to open a path for all people, irrespective of gender, to bring forth the light of their inner dignity and humanity in a way that is true to their own unique self.” Specifically, she asked them to discuss three questions.

  • Can you imagine how this kind of society can be made possible?
  • What actions can you take to get there?
  • After today’s discussion, what is one thing you would do differently in your daily life?
Participant shares reflection at Dialogue Nights

After small group dialogue on these questions, several participants shared their visions. A thread running through their comments was the need to find a way to connect the necessary internal work of acknowledging and transforming one’s gender-related biases with efforts to challenge social norms and structures of power. Here are some highlights, in their own words. (Participants also wrote down brief “determinations” for overcoming gender stereotypes. You can read those here.)

  • “I really felt that I judge myself so much based on these gender stereotypes that I [start to believe I] should behave in some way or be someone when it comes to work or maybe relationships. I think I really have to be open to my unique self so that I can be open to other people as well.”
  • “We talked about … when and how to say something, whether it’s appropriate to call someone out in a group or [whether it’s best] to talk to them on the side. [And] if that’s not working, what to do.”
  • Recalling her conversation with Ferguson activists, a participant shared this: “What they were talking about was this idea of deconstructing within our own hearts and in our own lives all the oppressive forces from the outside… . And someone wisely asked, ‘Okay, how do we do that? That sounds great.’ The idea is that we have an automatic response to a stimulus. Someone looks a certain way, you react. Someone behaves a certain way, you react. But rather than just reacting from the default setting, [try] putting a little halt in there [and ask] ‘Why am I reacting this way?’ It’s in that pause to ask ‘why do I see this way?’ that we start the deconstruction.”
  • “A lot of what we talked about is how to move from these sorts of personal biases to dealing with the systemic. With systemic biases, a lot of the reason why they consistently proliferate is because those in power are those that benefited from that system.” Citing her personal perspective the speaker added, “I think people have to go a bit more personally into themselves, think about how they’re doing with these sorts of biases, how they can help communicate with others, and help change those sorts of mindsets to be more inclusive. So it’s all about taking that first step and being an advocate and consider being a model and representative of helping set that as a social norm.”
  • “Our group talked a bit about the way in which we have difficult conversations with others and the process by which we go about deconstructing things and ideas ourselves. I think it’s really important to approach these things in a really non-judgmental manner. We talked about how no one is born having preconceived ideas about gender and different types of people. There are disparities in access to certain ideas, so it’s really important to acknowledge [that reality]… .  I’ve found in my own experience that I can get really angry when people say certain things that I find offensive. But in my response I don’t want to attack them because then they’re just going to be defensive and they’re not going to be open to new ideas. So being non-judgmental is really important.”

Conclusion: The Greater Self

To conclude the evening, Center Executive Advisor Jason Goulah returned to the topic of Daisaku Ikeda’s understanding of and attitude toward gender identity and identity in general. To begin, he noted that Mr. Ikeda is inspired by the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism, which, said Dr. Goulah, “does not discriminate among sexes and, unlike other forms of Buddhism, emphasizes the equal potential for all human beings—men, women, and those who identify as non-binary, to attain enlightenment in this life.”

Specifically, Mr. Ikeda urges us to simultaneously consider both the particular and the universal. First, said Goulah, Ikeda “encourages all people to embrace and create value, or meaning, from their gender identity, including affirming the fluidity of nonbinary identity where present.” However, at the same time, said Goulah, Ikeda “exhorts us to ‘cast off the transient and reveal the true’.” In so doing, “we reveal a profound and most fundamental and universal sense of identity rooted in the shared dignity of every human being beyond the more surface dimensions of identity characterized by race, gender, class, nationality, and so forth, important though these are.”

Ikeda calls this universal identity the “greater self,” said Goulah, adding that for Mr. Ikeda, it will be through a “wide-scale awakening to this greater self” that we will begin to realize our potential as individuals and as a global community. So, yes, it is crucial that we support one another as we develop identities within which we are comfortable and of which we are proud. But as we do, said Goulah, we should keep in mind Mr. Ikeda’s conviction that, “Whether male or female, being noble or base depends entirely on what a person has done. It is one’s actions and sincerity that count.” By this standard, the Ikeda Center’s seventh Dialogue Nights was an unqualified success.