How did you see yourself in the mirror when you were a baby, a child, a teenager, a young adult, and an adult? Keep this question in mind as you read.
Symbolic interactionism is a huge player on the communication studies field. If you refer to my previous blog, A Look at My “Me,” I give sort of an introduction to the theory where I sit beside myself and examine how the symbols I present are interpreted by both friends and family, and by the culture in which we live. For this blog, I would like to focus on how our individual self-concepts of our gender are created and influenced by culture. Basically, how do we develop a singular sense of what our gender is and is not, and how is that gender is influenced by the different cultures and circumstances we are a part of?
No matter what sort of life you lead, you are the person that you are because of the sense of self you have developed over your lifetime. In the same way, we each have our own gender identity. Some of you may be wondering what I mean by gender identity. The ability to understand how our gender identities is created and nourished is a fundamental aspect of knowing for sure who we are and why we are the way we are. You may think that gender is the same as sex, as in boy or girl. The fact at the foot of all gender-related study is that sex and gender are completely separate. Sex is the biological and physical form we have whereas gender pertains to certain characteristics we identify with. Gender varies across cultures and is socially constructed.
The best way, in my view, to understand how concepts of gender are created is through symbolic interactionism theory. As I mentioned before, it is a giant theory in the study of communication because it deals with how we form our own self images from infancy and into old age. According to Judy C. Pearson and Shannon Borke VanHorn in their article about gender identity, symbolic interactionism assumes that children are born into a social world and their identities are developed through their interactions. Newborn babies have no sense of self. It is learned as time goes on. With each interaction, we are constantly forming images of who we are and what that means in our culture. As people label us as smart or dumb, active or quiet, we start to form conclusions about the way we are. We basically soak up others’ views which we then shape and categorize into meanings of ourselves. Though not mentioned in our class text, this is termed the looking-glass self. Envision each person around us as a mirror and each reflection represents that person’s view of us. We see what they think of us and we use that to influence and change our self concepts.
To give an example of how symbolic interactions form gender, I am going to refer to my baby cousins who I observed in a previous blog, Attachment, Path to a Bright Future, along with another young male friend of mine. My cousins are ages three and four and are already forming excellent self concepts. Joseph, the elder, is relatively quiet and stays to himself more than his brother who is “wide open” most of the time and very playful with others. While both of them are encouraged to participate in activities that society tells us are “boyish,” their parents have taught the value that each of them should be individual and not to succumb to what society tells them. Yes, they love their trucks and hot wheel cars, but they are not made to think that those toys are what they should be playing with because of their sex. Jackson picked up a friend’s barbie doll on a play date one day and played with it. Instead of scolding him, his mother showed him where to find the other barbies. In turn, the boys are both very empathetic and understanding to each other and their peers; following a more feminine way of thinking. By allowing them to choose which toys they want to play with rather than restricting them, they are learning that gendered norms are not so much of an issue. Now, the other young man I refer to is around age thirteen. He felt from an early age that he should have been a female. He was caught playing in his mother’s closet and in her makeup bag on several occasions. His older brother is a homosexual and their parents have never been very keen on the idea of anything out of the norm. His brother and friends, however, encouraged him to be himself and not to let anyone stand in the way it. Because of his feminine activities, they tried to steer him away from any possibility of ending up like his brother, or worse. They enlisted him in sports and added mowing grass and other outside activities to his list of chores in an effort to make him more manly. This occurred for a few years, but all the while the boy kept his secret. He felt alienated in the body he was born with and he felt as if the feminine part of his gender was being ignored and shunned away. In an attempt to gain some attention and make his parents listen, he played around with a gun and pulled the trigger a bit too forcefully.
So, we see that in some cases children are encouraged to create their own gender identity whereas in other cases, when others feel that it is their responsibility to dictate how a child should or should not be, there can only be a life, or lack there of, of misery. According to noted communications author, Julia T. Wood, learning gender occurs when others define children by sex and link sex to social expectations of gender. However, when the learning is blocked by others’ ignorance, the future of the person is doomed. This is something we must remember as friends and family of children. Never, ever allow a child to believe that what he or she feels or thinks about him or herself is untrue, unless it is something irrational of course. It is our job to nurture the self images of children and the people around us. Always remember that if we make people believe that they are wrong or worthless, then they are going to feel that way. In the same way, if we are constantly giving positive feedback and appreciating every aspect of people, then they will feel accepted and their self and gender will prosper.