Despite Western culture’s progress beyond dueling, chastity belts, or smelling salts, most of us can agree that we have some work to do before we can cross “gender equality” off the ol’ to-do list. The popularity of many gender stereotypes certainly isn’t helping, especially when you consider just how long some of them have been around. To do a quick survey of some American stereotypes, let’s take a look at three American literary classics.
Set during the Salem witch trials in Puritan New England , Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” begins when two girls fall ill after getting caught dancing in the woods at night. Locals immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re involved in witchcraft, and because denial is more dangerous than confession, the girls have little choice but to agree… After which they implicate a bunch of other people just for kicks.
As the witch hunt spirals out of control, it’s interesting to note that those suspected are almost exclusively women. This establishes an interesting chain of logic: woods > witchcraft > women. The seventeenth-century association between femininity and the wilderness implies that, by contrast, structured, civilized society falls under the domain of men. Which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you, considering how few women in The Crucible occupy positions of political power. (See also: none.) We guess that’s why they call it Mother Nature and not Uncle Earth.
Another familiar gender stereotype can be found in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. After taking off down the Mississippi River, Huck must keep his identity hidden in order to prevent people from figuring out that he’s a lost and endangered child. During his first foray into town, Huck poses as a girl on her way to visit some relatives. Although the woman Huck stays with isn’t fooled, she good-naturedly decides to give him some advice on how to pass for a girl.
Important on this list of female attributes is throwing awkwardly and without accuracy, implying that physical prowess is primarily a male trait. (And if the expression “throw like a girl” has anything to say about it, the stereotype is alive and well today.) Recognizing that men are, on average, stronger than women is one thing, but insisting that women are physically inept is another one altogether.
Which brings us to Harper Lee’s Civil Rights masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. The beloved narrator of the novel is a six-year-old tomboy named Scout with a quick mind, a sharp tongue, and a mean right hook. She holds her own with her brother’s friends and must sometimes be held back from fighting boys that are older than her. Her frilly Aunty Alexandria struggles in vain to wean her onto dresses, polite language, and tea, but with little success: Scout is hell-bent on never becoming “girly.”
Although you can easily argue that a little girl who emulates her rambunctious older brother is no more nonconformist than a little girl who emulates, say, her prim and proper mother, this is exactly the point: so much of human behavior is a simple matter of conforming to a given social atmosphere that it’s difficult to say what unadulterated masculinity or femininity might actually be like – or if these states even exist in the first place.