What Does it Mean to "Man Up" Or "Be a Lady"?: How Gender Norms Affect the Upbringing of Children and Teenagers
By Angie Zhang, HS junior
Today at school, my advisory group talked about gender norms and what it means to “man up” or “act like a lady.” These phrases are very commonly used by parents to their sons and daughters-- but what does it even mean to “act like a lady” or to “man up?” When we think of traditional gender roles, men are supposed to act strong and not be open about their emotions or show weakness. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be nurturing, kind, sensitive, and subservient. When my advisor asked me and the other students how we felt about these phrases, most of the people, even the girls, didn’t seem to think it was a big deal that people said such things.
As an Asian-American teenage girl who goes to a fairly white upper class private school in New Jersey, I felt frustrated to learn that my peers did not think it was sexist to raise boys and girls differently, or that there “weren’t any consequences” from challenging social norms if one desired to do so. “Of course,” they said, “it’s not a bad thing for girls to be gutsy and outspoken, and for men to be emotional or sensitive when needed.” However, the whole “be a man”/“be a lady” concept runs deeper than mere inequalities between how society views men and women. When asked about the meaning of “act like a lady,” my peers responded that it wasn’t “necessarily a sexist thing to say, it just means ‘be polite.’” But what about “man up?” That doesn’t mean to “be polite,” does it? Being told to man up is basically saying, “Stop acting like a sissy and be aggressive; be tough. Take action by any means necessary.” If anything, that’s the opposite of polite. Girls are always taught to be nice and are seen as bitches if they’re not, but men aren’t ever taught to be nice (or as they say, “chivalrous”) unless they want to flatter a girl in hopes of getting laid. Additionally, if men aren’t aggressive and demanding enough, they’re also seen as bitches or pussies. “Bitch” is a derogatory term to describe females, but somehow, it pertains to men too in such scenarios; it’s funny how you can insult a woman by using a female derogatory slur, but you can also insult a man by using the same female derogatory slur.
Also, what my peers stated about not having to deal with any consequences for going against social norms is incorrect. We still need to care about issues like feminism and gender equality, because there are, in fact, many consequences one can face from not fitting into certain social norms, and gender is one of them. Girls still get slut-shamed for having sex, while men are praised for it. Men still get called “sissies” for crying, when crying is a basic human reaction to sadness or frustration. Girls get called “dykes” for having short hair, as if being a lesbian is even a bad thing or sexuality determines hairstyles; boys who dance ballet, take part in musical theatre, or experiment with cosmetics, are called “faggots.” Additionally, women who get called “dykes” are usually those who look masculine, whereas men who get called “faggots” tend to act or look feminine. However, masculinity and femininity in appearance or behavior don’t necessarily have to do with sexual orientation; even if they do, there’s nothing wrong with masculine women and feminine men. Teenagers get kicked out of their parents’ homes and forced to live on the streets after coming out as LGBTQ+. In many states, even today, queer people can get fired simply for being gay or transgender or bisexual-- so no, there are definitely consequences for going against social norms. The mere fact that my peers failed to recognize this definitely showed their unawareness of their privilege; after all, even if they chose to challenge certain social norms, they’re probably fortunate enough to have never had to deal with bigotry, while thousands others in the United States (those who can’t afford to go to nice accepting progressive private schools) suffer from racial, gender, socioeconomic, and sexual discrimination.
So how does this all relate to the bigger issue? If boys are being sent messages about equating masculinity with aggression and suppressing their feelings, or turning sadness into anger, and women are being sent messages about equating femininity with kindness and subservience, what effect does that have on our society? As women, we’re taught to be polite-- even to those who make us uncomfortable; we’re taught to hug people we’re introduced to and let them kiss us on the cheek, and when we refuse, we’re “rude bitches;” we have to sacrifice our own comfort for others, and not doing so makes us impolite. We are told to be forgiving; we are told from a very young age that if boys pull our hair or call us names , they probably have a crush on us. But then, what happens fifteen years later when our boyfriends beat us and yell at us and call us degrading names or frighten us, and then all of a sudden it’s considered abuse? What happens then, when we get asked, “Well, why didn’t you stand up for yourself? Why didn’t you leave him? Why didn’t you do anything?”
Of course, there’s also that saying, “boys will be boys.” But what does that mean? That boys can be reckless and not suffer the proper consequences? Clearly, that is what happened with Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist who only served three months for raping an unconscious girl behind a dumpster. Boys will be boys? No, boys should be held accountable for their own actions, just as much as girls are. We shouldn’t be saying things like “man up” or “act like a lady,” because all that does is reinforce the ideas that we should accept boys as rowdy and aggressive, while girls are held to this standard of always having to be nice and polite and docile. After having had this discussion, I can only think of one thing that has been on my mind for the longest time: do girls really mature faster than boys, or do we as a society just tolerate boy’s immaturity for longer?