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How Society Shapes Gender Identities

1. Introduction

A society is a group of people that share a geographical or communal region. Typically, societies are exemplified by patterns of relations that share unique customs and traditions. Thus, a society is a sum of distinctive cultures. Social science argues that societies are stratified into groups that enable its members to benefit more as a unity than as an individual. In practice, groups assign work, behavior, and other characteristics of people to differentiate them from members of a different group (Ridgeway, 2015). One primary way people group or rather get stratified in society is through gender differentiation. Gender ascription is shaped in the early life of an individual. The society in which a person grows plays a vital role in shaping an individual’s gender identity in many ways (Ridgeway, 2004). Thus, as children grow, they identify themselves as either female or male. In fact, most societies around the world have a fundamental division in their social-economic systems that assign a particular behavior and quality to females and males (Ridgeway, 2004). As a result, the social-economic systems help to shape the gender identity of a person.

Gender identity refers to the extent to which a person identifies with a particular gender. Better stated, gender identity is an individual and subjective experience of a person as being a male or female. Studies show that gender identity is shaped at the early age. According to Tobin et al. (2010), most people start to experience their gender from a tender age of three of four years. In fact, as stated by Tobin et al. (2010), by the age of three or four years, most kids are aware that their social world is of two types – male and female – and they attribute to one of them. The question how this awareness affects the children’s growth and development has for a long time intrigued developmental psychologists. However, one thing is apparent; gender identity is an important part of a person’s behavior and actions.

Currently, gender identity has not been entirely comprehended. It is one of the controversial topics in physiology and other fields. Some investigators hint that the advancement of gender distinctiveness is associated with hereditary or hormonal effect. These researchers draw their argument from a biochemical concept of gender identity, which insinuates that individuals gain their gender individuality from heritable and hormonal aspects and not through socialization. According to Hubbard (2012), sex-determining hormones produced at the initial stage of fetal maturity determine people’s gender and identity. Hubbard (2012) argues that during the first phase of fetus development, high level of androgen production stimulates the formation and growth of a penis and scrotum. Otherwise, little production of androgen encourages the development of the labia and the clitoris. Implying that when the prenatal hormones are altered during gestation, phenotype progression may also be changed. Thus, the innate tendency of the mind and a person’s sex may perhaps not correspond to the heritable composition of the fetus, which is the external sex organ. Further, Cook (2007) states that several surroundings and disparities within the prenatal period could potentially shape a person’s gender identity (Cook, 2007). Alternatively, a likely situation that might cause chromosomal modification give rise to a state when an infant may not possess the two typical DNA of XX and XY for female and male respectively (Cook, 2007).

However, other scholars argue that gender identity has a higher correlation with a social environment of a person than biology explains (Ridgeway, & Correll, 2004). Social scientists argue that the surrounding environment including people, authority figures, mass media, and peer influence determines and shapes peoples’ gender identity (Ridgeway, & Correll, 2004). It is believed that children are shaped and modeled by their surrounding as they grow; thus, by the time they are adults, their gender identity is ultimately shaped mainly by the people and their surroundings (Ridgeway, & Correll, 2004). This report will discuss how society shapes gender identities.

2. Literature Review

The environment in which children grow has a certain influence on their gender identity. Some of the encouraging dynamics of gender identity in children comprise the mass media, authority personalities, and languages (Ridgeway, & Correll, 2004).

2.1. The Mass Media

Since the 1970s, children’s exposure to television advertising has witnessed an upward trend (Pike & Jennings, 2005). Currently, most parents are concerned with the nature of adverts’ contents and lessons shared with their children on television screens. Pike and Jennings (2005) point that TV commercials present gender stereotype communications and statements about activities and language. Since their establishment, the influence of television and its content has been a concern for lots of mass media researchers. Gender identity and television has been one of the topics intriguing most communication scholars (Pike & Jennings, 2005). The effect and inspiration of the television on gender identity may possibly be elucidated with two hypothesses – cultivation model and social theory (Pike & Jennings, 2005).

Cultivation theory argues that people who spend more time watching television are more likely to see the world around them in terms of the image, values, and ideologies as portrayed on the television screen (Gerner et al., 2002). Gerner et al. (2002) argue that heavy television viewers usually express themselves with the opinions similar to those presented by television anchors, commentators, commercials, and others. In the United States, over 17% of television viewers are children (Roberts, 1999). In fact, Roberts (1999) argues that children spend over 5 hours watching television per day implying that they are more susceptible to ideas and messages presented on television. Thus, as children imitate and express their ideas, they mimic the gender stereotype behavior as shown on television. As a result, they realize the concept of self that contributes to shaping their gender identity (Roberts, 1999).

On the same point of television effect on gender identity, social learning theory states that learning is achieved not only through direct experience but also observation and imitation. According to Bandura (2002), people learn a great deal of what is happening around them through what they see and hear. Bandura (2002) points that social learning theory is based on the facts that people learn through observing the type of reward others receive. Therefore, people tend to imitate or learn behaviors that are rewarded rather than those that invoke punishment (Bandura, 2002). Based on this argument proposed by social learning theory, Bandura (2002) points that television and films can simulate real life experience; thus, they are models that invoke a person’s behavior. Therefore, television influences gender identity in the sense that it acts as a model from which children mimic and imitate experience actions (Bandura, 2002).

Televisions have been analyzed in terms of male presence or presence of female characters in the past. Researchers in the 1980s show that television commercials were directed more to boys than girls. However, during the 1990s, the television marketing was equally targeted at boys and girls (Larson, 2001). Overly, television commercials portrayed stereotypic gender roles. Typically, television commercials display boys showing more aggressive behaviors than girls (Larson, 2001).

The effects of television on children indicate that they perceive gender roles stereotypes and apply them according to characters (Klinger, Hamilton, & Cantrell, 2001). In fact, Morgan (1987) found that television content had fostered gender-stereotyped attributes in children.

2.2. Peer Influence

Lamb & Sutton-Smith (1982) argue that peer interaction should not be mistaken for the preparation for life; it is life itself. The social interaction that children have among themselves develops and shapes their gender roles (Ridgeway, & Correll, 2004). It implies that the peer influence children experience at elementary school is vital for their understanding of self-concept. According to Handel (1988), children’s engagement with each other may look aimless, but it has a more profound effect then it may appear. The study states that peer groups are a means of socialization and serves many functions. Peer group aids in making new rules rather than having rules handed down. Therefore, they provide alternatives to standard adult rules. Through making up of rules and games, they receive immediate feedback from friends. Because of the understanding that peer groups have standards that are different from the adult ones, children move further to understanding of self.

From a young age, a same-gender peer engages in gender-typed activities and receives reinforcement that continues throughout childhood. Peers encouragement to enact typical gender role behavior has been found to be a stronger reinforcement than adult enforcement in young children (Katz & Walsh, 1991). Further, Thorne (1993) states that peer groups play a central role in the perpetuation of gender-typed play interaction in children. Thorne’s study found that boys and girls engage in gender-divided plays; while playing, they display gender-related messages about sexuality and aggressiveness. In fact, a study by McAuliffe (1994) found that children punish their peer members in playing grounds when they deviate from gender appropriate activities by making critical remarks or ignoring them.

2.3. Authority Figure

Children are often shaped and modeled by people that are around them, especially authoritative figures. Some of the authoritative figures that have a significant influence on gender identity include parents, teachers and peers among others. Parents play a central role in shaping a child’s gender identity. They interact with their children through day-to-day activities. They offer approval and disapproval of the children’s actions and behavior. Consequently, they reinforce the significant messages of society to the children. Besides, some parents buy gender-specific toys and games for children to encourage them to behave according to their tradition roles (Pasterski et al., 2005). Thus, as children begin attending school, they have already developed some concepts of their gender and roles. While at school, the teachers use their influence and curriculum to shape children’s identity further.

According to Martin, Wood, & Little (1990,) children develop gender identity through three stages. First stage involves learning to recognize the things that are associated with a particular sex. Usually, parents play a considerable role in distinguishing the type of toys that are regarded as proper (Pasterski et al., 2005). Therefore, a child does something in conformity to the reply he or she gets from the parents. The second stage is when children discover what is relevant to their sex but not with the opposite. Lastly, children learn about the connection related to the opposite sex. Overly, as the child grows and passes through the three stages, he/she acts and behaves in agreement with what they have learned previously.

Therefore, as children grow up, they develop new ideas and receive reinforcement of previously learned information from authoritative figures. This development of new ideas shapes and defines their concept of self. Consequently, they develop and understand their gender roles. Some of these gender roles can be characterized as being stereotypic. Thus, as the children grow into adulthood, the gender stereotypes character is perpetuated throughout life (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990). As a result, the society through its authoritative figure shapes the identity of children and, thus, those of adults through perpetuation.

2.4. Language

The correlation between gender identity and language is noticeable in the linguistic text. The idea of difference in verbal communication and sex in the beginning was drawn to semantics in the 1800s (Tannen, 1995). While responding to a report given by Rochefort about the sex-variance among the Carib language, Tannen (1995) argued that women and men spoke different languages because of differentiation of their traditional social-economic responsibility (Tannen, 1995). Traditionally, the gender roles are embodied as either male or female. Boys are expected to be agentive with no emotions while girls are expected to be emotional, expressive, and focused on the need of others (Tannen, 1995). Thus, as children gain knowledge of articulating their actions or behavior in their language, they discover how to separate masculine and famine individuality in language. As a result, they involuntarily modify and assume their prearranged and given or approved roles in society (Tannen, 1995). The point is that particular language spoken in a given society can be used to shape gender identity. Tannen (1995) states that the pattern of communication used by males and females often differs. Tannen argues that boys use a direct and more forceful style in conversation while females employ a more direct and intimate style when interacting. A similar study by Herring (2000) shows a difference in the use of language between males and females. Herring (2000) explains that women are more probable to make an apology or be grateful and get distress by a violation of courtesy customs or good manners than male persons. Overly, gender similarity and difference in language use is a significant means by which peoples’ gender identity is shaped (Herring, 2000).

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