When we began to evolve from our ape ancestors, we took the form of man and woman. As our bodies changed, we designated functional roles to either sex based on what physical abilities we possessed. Man was granted duties that utilised his muscle power – hunting and protecting. Woman, on the other hand, was granted that which complimented her fertility – gathering and nurturing. We set about telling stories of gods and goddesses alike, the worshipped beings given traits that each sex in society exhibited at the time.
But as we grew to be more civilised, and built great towns and greater stories of gods, we did not change what we based our traits on – the physical abilities of our bodies, not minds. As centuries passed, power fixated not only on sheer physical strength but on mental capacity. However, mythology and religion did not evolve and remained as they had been, focusing on the capacity of a particular sex’s body. And since religion governed societal rules, the beliefs of masculine strength and feminine nurturing became embedded in societal mores.
From these, several other attributes were derived. Masculinity was granted what one might associate with strength: violence, aggression, passion, decisiveness, wisdom, courage, and even sexuality. Most importantly, we gave masculinity a sense of protectiveness.
From the ability to give birth, femininity was given gentleness, empathy, understanding, sensitivity, warmth, and comfort. We gave the female what should be protected by the male.
More importantly, our understanding of these traits was tainted with the societal roles that each sex played. Wisdom was the ardent talk of battle strategies by a bearded sage around a fire, and not an old woman teaching her daughter the recipe for a delicious soup. Gentleness was a tear on the rosy cheek of a young woman reading poetry, and not the heartache of a jilted male lover. So, we associated male physical strength with the qualities we deemed masculine, and female fertility with the features that we thought to be feminine.
Therein begins societies trouble to understand emotion, for we split emotions based on sex, rather than personality.
We gave sexuality to men, and so over centuries, female sexuality in Christian society was not explored. It was a sin for a woman to be dominating during sex, for in doing so she made the man subservient and harder for him to impregnate her. We gave any form of sensitivity to the woman giving rise to the problematic adage, ‘men don’t cry’.
Also read: The Hero: Can We Retell His Story?
Surely, if these gender roles were based purely on physical abilities, they would not transcend history and society today – for society evolved to not be controlled by strength and fertility. Unless of course, we associated these with a concept that every individual experiences at some point – the all-powerful emotion of love.
We spoke of the Trojan War, where the Greek Kings fought the Trojans for ten long years because Helen was kidnapped from Menelaus by Paris. The story revolves around the protection of the female by the male, and the need for that to occur. This is a demonstration of male protectiveness – derived from male physical power. The decision taken to protect Helen is one that is taken without her input. We do not see her ask for help, the Greek kings band together in harmonious bravery to avenge the ‘kidnapping’.
Furthermore, this protection is seen as an act of love. Menelaus seeks out Helen to save her from Paris out of his deep affection for her. We associate this love with a sense of belonging, control and imposed protection.
The story of the Ramayana is similar. Sita is kidnapped from Rama by Ravana. Rama then begins a battle with Ravana over Sita to bring her back from the Kingdom of Lanka. There are several parallels that we can draw to the Trojan War. We observe similarities in the dramatic question which would be ‘Will the man be able to save the woman he loves?’. We could essentially categorise the Ramayana and Trojan war as stories that at their core are about love.
We propelled these gender roles that were assigned to us due to physical abilities, with the concept of love. We have defined love by deeds and demonstrations of affection that are derived from gender. Ideal men must attempt tasks of masculinity to prove their love – they must protect who they love in order to show that they love them. They must engage in tasks associated with courage to show they are deeply, truly, in love! And perfect women must attempt tasks of femininity – they must demonstrate gentleness, acts of kindness and compassion or purity to prove that they are in love.
A brief search on how to make a man or woman love you (with pictures) on WikiHow only proves this concept. For a man, offering support is a point repeatedly mentioned while for a woman, cooking his favourite food and complimenting him are tips to be used. While there is nothing blatantly wrong with this, it only stands to show that romance has embodied our gender roles. The first vow of marriage in Hindu custom calls for the groom to provide for his family. His wife, in turn, promises to manage the home and food, thereby making love the binding factor to play these roles and assigning us personality traits based on them.
In order to break gender stereotypes, we need to change what we perceive as romantic gestures, and it goes beyond splitting the bill on a first date. Getting a man flowers – symbolic of sensitivity and gentleness, getting a woman sports items – symbolic of strength and aggression, would arguably help us disassociate emotions from one’s gender, and stop romantic gestures from propping those up, thus breaking the stereotypes that we hold true.
I shall now patiently and amorously await flowers from my lover, while you beloved reader, I ask to reconsider what romantic gestures are and evaluate the premise on which they have been based.
While this piece may seem heteronormative, relationships that do not adhere to that form already break societal beliefs of gender stereotypes, and hence have been more successful in battling the problem I am attempting to critique. Thus, with the threat of limited words, I have not included mention of them in this essay.
When not charging into battle, duelling knights, or saving damsels in distress and bachelors in a bind, Johann Vikram Singh occasionally writes. You can read his blog here.