The world is racing against time to combat the global health emergency that is COVID-19. Besides health workers doing their jobs round the clock, the average person too is doing their bit by practising social distancing and basic hygiene, and wearing masks when leaving the house. Ideally, at this moment, our focus should solely be to help flatten the ever-rising curve of new cases and protect ourselves. But given how deeply embedded the patriarchy is in our collective consciousness, it isn’t surprising that our rigid notions of gender have revealed themselves even as we battle a pandemic.
A child in Taiwan was recently bullied for wearing a pink mask to school. His classmates are reported to have mocked him for wearing a ‘girly’ colour despite being a boy. News of this incident went viral on social media to the extent that the Minister of Health and Welfare of State, Chen Shih Chung, put out a statement on the Ministry’s official Facebook page. In his statement, Chung said that, “All mask colours are good as they can protect you” and “There is no gender in colour.” Attached was a photograph of the minister himself at a press conference, flanked by four health officials, all of them wearing pink masks. The minister is also quoted to have said that, “No colour is exclusive to boys and girls” and “Gender equality lies at the heart of Taiwan values.”
Such a strong statement against gender bias from a government official was much needed at a time when we are just starting to unlearn as a society. Because of how deeply entrenched gender stereotypes are, we seldom notice when we may have unconsciously internalised them. It is thus important that people in administrative positions use their authority and influence to call out problematic behaviour where they see it, and set a precedent for everyone else.
This labelling of pink as ‘girly’ and hence unappealing by school-age children just shows how all-pervading the patriarchy is, influencing our opinion on everything from the clothes or masks we wear to the colours we see around us. This compartmentalisation of colours, clothes, toys, activities and even human emotions as ‘girly’ and ‘boyish’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is something that has been subtly and systematically programmed into our minds from early childhood. I remember when I was in kindergarten, our school uniform consisted of a shirt with a motorcycle embroidered on it for boys, and a blouse with a songbird on it for girls. The message was clear. Motorcycles are for boys, and girls are birds for some reason.
This chasm between boyish and girlish only kept widening as I grew up. When I once expressed my admiration for superhero-themed footwear at a store, I was told it was for boys. The “girls’ footwear” on display was predominantly red, white and yes, pink, embellished with boring hearts and flowers. I also remember attending a school friend’s birthday party where a lot of the boys didn’t want to eat the birthday cake because it was pink and had a Disney princess on it. Quite offensive to their masculine sensibilities, I imagine!
Over time, it became clear that not only do boys and girls like different things, but ‘boy’ things are somehow superior in value to ‘girl’ things, like these pink masks. Girls may increase their value and become ‘cool’ by doing boy things but heaven forbid if a boy were found enjoying girl activities. It was a hierarchy of sorts where being “one of the boys” was something worth aspiring to for a girl, but it was beneath a boy to be involved in anything remotely associated with girls.
And this is not just me. Men everywhere are mocked and have their gender or sexuality questioned for liking ‘girly’ colours or showing interest in female-dominated activities. One of the most common ways to insult a man in North India is to tell him to wear bangles. Words like ‘hijda’, ‘chhakka’, ‘baayla’ are commonly used in India for men who do not conform to traditional notions of masculinity. And the stereotype of the gay man who wears pink, likes fashion and has exaggeratedly feminine mannerisms is as old as time.
Due to this constant derision of ‘femininity’ as something deserving of contempt, many women feel the need to disassociate from their ‘feminine’ characteristics to become ‘cool’ and ‘not like other girls’. This kind of ‘internalised misogyny’ is especially toxic as it turns women against their own by making them view other women with contempt for being traditionally feminine.
It is high time we as a society understood that gender is an arbitrary concept. Nothing is intrinsically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ and it becomes so only after we ascribe these identities to it. Moreover, definitions of masculinity and femininity are constantly changing so what may be considered ‘girly’ today must have been the hallmark of masculinity at one time. Pink, for example, was considered a colour for boys and blue a colour for girls until the middle of the last century, and the opposite started gaining popularity only in the 1940s.
Similarly, we often hear that men shouldn’t cry as it is a sign of weakness, but there is evidence that the ability to cry was once considered a noble, manly quality. Men’s and women’s fashion too varies across cultures. A skirt would be seen as women’s clothing in most cultures but there are places where skirts are traditionally worn by men. The Indian lungi too could be considered a kind of skirt.
The bottom line is, we should stop burdening children with notions of what is ‘appropriate’ for their gender, and leave them to enjoy what they want. They should be encouraged to wear, eat, play, watch, read, and be whatever they like without having to worry about whether it’s ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. And if those cute pink Hello Kitty masks are protecting them from a life-threatening virus, I say they should keep it on for as long as they can, regardless of their gender.
Featured Image Source: Women’s Agenda