From inspirational quotes and images on Tumblr and Pinterest to the strict gender roles enforced by many religions, it is clear that many people like being told how to perform their gender. Self-help books like “Men Are from Mars…”, “Rules of a Lady” graphics, and even gendered advertising create the gender rulebooks that surround us. They tell us how to be a man or a woman, alienating all other expressions of gender and creating an environment in which people are punished for violating these societal codes. Though working against these gender rulebooks has been a major project of the feminist movement, it is not always easy to write off such deeply inscribed roles.
I am an atheist who fully understands why so many people believe in a higher power. I sometimes wish I was not so vehemently areligious, because I am able to recognize and understand the benefits that religion has for many people. Gender rulebooks have a similar pull for me. Challenging gender roles that have been surrounding you since before you can remember is exhausting, and sometimes all I want is for someone to tell me what to do so I don’t have an identity crisis every family holiday when I realize that I’m helping my aunts and grandmother in the kitchen while all my male relatives are sitting on the couch watching sports on television.
As a feminist, I am supposed to abhor the rules and the stereotypes the society has created for women, but there are many times when I have wished that I had a gender rulebook. We see this struggle play out in popular culture. The rise of appreciation for the 1950′s and 1960′s, influenced by shows like Mad Men and a focus on vintage fashion comebacks, has brought a similar rise in sexism nostalgia. Many people express a desire to go back to a certain era when things were “simpler” and “men did x” and “women did y”. Though we recognize that the Mad Men era was not a particularly good one for a black lesbian woman in New York City, that nostalgia through rose-colored, sexism-blind glasses does illuminate the conflicting struggle of feminism and our personal feelings about gender roles.
It is important for the feminist movement as a whole to recognize this struggle within every individual. We all identify as feminists in different ways. Our own personal gender expression is often influenced by the gender rulebooks that we either choose to follow or work against. My fourteen year-old sister will not call herself a feminist or accept the feminist ideas that I introduce to her. When I asked her why she doesn’t like feminism, she replied: “I like being girly. I like pink and sparkley things.” If that continues to be the roadblock between young women and feminism, I believe we have a big problem in the growth of the modern feminist movement.