Gender Stereotyping, Recursively

It is always hardest for the outliers.

I’m going to run the risk of defining a newly-resuscitated blog as being part of a genre I don’t actually spend that much time in, but I’ve been obsessing about something for a few weeks, and we all know that never ends well.

Some background: I grew up evangelical fundamentalist. I basically remained so, until I got out of college, started my first job, and suddenly had the space and time to form my own opinions about things. I’m also not stereotypically feminine, in a number of ways.

Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity, as it embraces gender stereotypes, reinforces them through religious and moral motivations…

Nope, nope. Far too abstracted. I’ll try again.

Suppose you’re a girl in a fundamentalist church. More specifically, suppose you’re an introvert who has a difficult time with small talk, enjoys playing video games and reading science fiction, and has way, way more of a logical bent than an emotional one. You hear sermons and lessons about what being a good Christian woman means, and you want to hear these, because seriously, who doesn’t want to be the best person they can be? But part of this is hearing that God has designed women to be emotionally-oriented, nurturing, supportive, and good at verbal communication,1 because leaders and teachers in your church believe that this sort of stereotype of what women are like is true and useful. These things, individually, are all good traits to have, but not every woman has these traits, and you definitely do not have all of these traits. So, now what?

Different people have different responses to this, but most of the responses involve leaving, changing part of yourself, or hiding part of yourself. The part that took me the longest time to figure out was how much of the changing or hiding is completely beneath the surface. The changing and hiding also explains why you end up with a situation where a lot of women in a given church really do seem to meet a stereotype, which reinforces teaching that stereotypes have a basis in fact, and look, here we go around again.

So. You’re not about to leave the church because you don’t fit in, because that’s not what you want, because you have a vested interest in being the best sort of woman you can be, so what do you do instead? You emphasize those parts of yourself that match the stereotype, and ignore, downplay, or just don’t bring up actual character strengths that you have, but which don’t match the stereotype. Or you figure out a way to describe your individual strengths in the language of the stereotype. For instance, you’re not great at the small talk thing, so you focus on being a listener in those social settings where women are talking amongst themselves. You read a lot, so you start reading what the other girls are reading, to have some sort of commonality. You resist the urge to tell people when they’re not making logical sense, because since women aren’t supposed to be good at that sort of thing, maybe you’re wrong about yourself anyway.2 The stereotype reinforces itself.

There are more complicated social aspects as well, which are actually really interesting in a social observation sort of way. I’m a bit of a loner, but I know that social interaction is important. Churches also recognize this, and conservative or fundamentalist churches, especially, really want most of your meaningful social interaction to take place within the church, or with like-minded believers. But organized or off-the-cuff social activities among women in the church tend to reinforce the sorts of things women are commonly supposed to enjoy doing, like cooking, or gardening, or talking about books, or arts and crafts, or decorating, because it’s assumed that they’ll benefit or be of interest to most women there, since the stereotype says so.

None of this is actually as intentional as I’m making it sound; it just kind of happens, as a result of everyone working from the ‘women are like this, not like that’ playbook. In order to have these social interactions (which, again, are supposed to be a Christian woman’s most meaningful interactions with other women), individual women need to either like doing these sorts of things, or learn to like doing these sorts of things. Activities like cooking and gardening and scrapbooking and visiting Victorian-esque tea houses are fantastic if you’re the sort of person who enjoys them, but so are things like building computers, playing MMOs, and fixing small engines, and you won’t, generally, find women doing these other sorts of things as social activities in fundamentalist churches. Again, the stereotypes reinforce themselves, this time through activity, rather than personality.

In fact, changing what sorts of things you enjoy doing, in order to get social interaction that you need, makes changing who you are in order to match ‘how God designed women to be’ a bit easier. Both of these threads play off of each other in complicated ways.

This whole process causes problems. Individual strengths and interests get ignored, left behind, or completely covered up, because they don’t fit into the picture that conservative and fundamentalist pastors and teachers draw of Christian women, and that these Christian women draw of themselves. Some people spend incredible amounts of time working on characteristics that fit the stereotype, while their own individual strengths wither away, unacknowledged. Because almost everyone has spent years unconsciously learning how to downplay or ignore or restate certain aspects of themselves (because almost no one matches a stereotype exactly), hypocrisy is easy. Because almost everyone has put aside vital parts of themselves, in some way, the church is less than it could be. Because everyone is focused on being the same sort of person, fewer people outside the church can see themselves in it.

I’ve referred mostly to women and girls throughout this, because that is what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve observed the most, but I’ve talked this over with male friends from similar backgrounds, and this same sort of process happens for men in fundamentalist churches as well. It makes sense. This is a human process, not a female one.

Every once in awhile, someone will say to me “Well, of course individuals have their own individual strengths, and that’s a fantastic thing, which we celebrate” about two minutes after they’ve got done telling me about how wonderful and vital God’s design for men and women is. I laugh, or I cry, depending on how much I care about the person, because you really, truly, cannot have both. Every Christian really wants to be a part of God’s wonderful design, and no one, absolutely no one, wants to be the exception that proves the rule. People will bend themselves very, very far out of shape in order to fit themselves to what they believe that design is, and will continue to do so at great personal cost.

I’m not sure where to end this. Don’t become a part of this, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to unwind yourself from? This is a way of making sense of the sameness you see in people from certain churches? There’s also an entire other discussion about how this whole concept of our gender telling us who we are influences marriages and the ways we think about them.

Maybe it’s just enough to say that this is a process that happens, and this is how it hurts people in ways they shouldn’t have to be hurt, simply because we find it so easy to categorize people and to use gender as a shortcut for talking about the complex individual differences God has given us.

  1. There’s a whole thing in here about how this sort of teaching leaves women who don’t have a lot in common with this stereotype feeling particularly accidental, or unintended, or less than those who do, but that’s another topic for another day, and I have a Tales game that needs some more playing. [return]
  2. This is actually really important. Downgrading your own strengths, because your gender is not generally supposed to have them, is a really big thing that happens really, really often in these circles. [return]