Stuck Stereotypes

What is your experience with courage, voice and choice?

I was recently honored to share my BRAVO (Building Relationships and Valuing Others) program with over 1600 teenaged youth and several hundred service providers in Sault Ste Marie, Northern Ontario. The Algoma Council on Domestic Violence was my host. The Council is a truly inspirational example of how a community network of organizations can work together for a common cause. Their dedication to a safer, healthier community is admirable and the opportunity to boost their good work was a great honor.

The week-long traveling road show took us to towns like Elliot Lake, Blind River, Wawa and of course, “The Soo.” In the youth presentation, I use drama, humor and stories of my work with Los Angeles gang members to open a conversation about identity.

Over the last 20 years working first with young people and in recent years, business staff and management, I have discovered that a great deal of our problems stem for our inability to truly know who we are. People stuck fulfilling others ideas on who they should be causes a great deal of intolerance, In the youth version of the BRAVO program we the expose the stereotypes and pressures of being masculine and feminine. I share with the audience what young people tell us when you ask them what does it mean to, “Act like a man,” or “Be ladylike.” In other words, what are the expectations to fit into based on gender differences.

The young people are very astute and give these characters nicknames. Here is a sample of what is commonly shared. To act like a man, “Biff” should:

Muscles, Sports car, Macho, Money, Hairy, Controlling, Protection, Don’t cry, Ego, Belch, Good looks, Anger = punch, Scratch, Woman (lots), Smart, Stud, Pays, Makes first move, “Big Feet”, Drives

(And yes the grade 9 kids a very aware of what “big feet” means.)

To be ladylike, “Bambi” should:

Cooks, Clean, Large breasts, Takes care of kids, Model like, No facial hair, Dainty, Shaves legs, No pit hair, Emotional, Gentle and kind, Talk on phone, Pretty, Passive, Thin, Keep your man, Do what men say, “Put out”

How these stereotypes get reinforced is a long chat that includes influences that can range from popular media to peer put downs. On the peer put-down side of the conversation I ask the assembled youth to put their hands up in response to a direct question.

Before I ask the question, I pose a scene where a young man expresses his feelings and cries or a young woman who doesn’t want to be passive so she speaks her mind and stands up for herself. I share a few put-downs that peers use to label such behaviors. Queer, fag, momma’s boy, etc. and bitch, dyke and feminist, etc.? Now the question to the hundreds of youth in the audience. Hands. How many have heard any three of those put-downs since you arrived at school today? With little exception from school to school, over half the hands go up, and sometimes the assembly started at 9am!

How these stereotypes can impact our interpersonal relationships will be explored in the next newsletter when I share how the two young women talk about the celebration of values that it takes to leave abusive relationships.



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