As a part of my job, I get to talk to teenagers about gender role stereotypes. They are usually able to rattle them off pretty easily:
Men shouldn’t cry or show vulnerability.
Women shouldn’t be assertive or show anger.
Men should be buff.
Women shouldn’t have any body hair.
Men should initiate dating/sex and be the dominant ones in relationships.
Women should be passive.
These stereotypes are harmful for cisgender people, but they completely erase transgender and non-binary people. Most of the young people I work with have a deep understanding of the damage that can come from pushing people into categorical boxes that are far too small and rigid for the breadth of our humanity.
In fact, I think some of them understand so well, that they are like, ‘Why are we talking about this? We didn’t come up with these stereotypes. We were born into this cisnormative, heteronormative, "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." Well, they don’t always quote bell hooks – but they do articulate that these stereotypes come from culture, media and in their words, old people.
The main reason we unpack gender role stereotypes in a sexual violence prevention program is because research shows that people who conform to gender roles are more likely to enact sexual violence. Unravelling societal expectations around gender can also free up space to explore one’s own identity and preferences with more permission and fluidity. I feel like I’m learning a lot from gen Z about the beauty and power of fluidity.
These conversations with high school students provide an interesting contrast to the marketing of masculine/feminine embodiment workshops that I see on social media. Full disclosure, I’ve had a foot in that world since I was 18 years old. That was about the time I started reading David Deida’s books. I found his writing poetic, sensual and enlivening. In my mind, a lot of the foundational ideas around masculine/feminine embodiment and polarity come from Deida’s work.
I actually think Deida did a better job of including nuance than many of the teachers that came after him. He specifically said his work was not therapy or a replacement of therapy. He consistently made a point of differentiating between women and ‘the feminine’ and men and ‘the masculine.’ Rather, he said that most people have either a feminine-essence or a masculine-essence, but some people have more of a balanced essence. He believed that people would live more ecstatic lives if they aligned with their essence. Deida also understood Ken Wilber’s concept of the pre/trans fallacy and integrated it into his work. The pre/trans fallacy explains the way two people or groups might be displaying a set of states, traits, and behaviours that look very similar on the outset, but may be coming from a regressive (pre-rational) or transcendent (trans-rational) place depending on the stage of development of the person enacting them.
Even with these distinctions, Deida’s teachings still formed boxes that led people to believe they were too much or not enough of something. Not present enough. Not receptive enough. Too flowy. Too heady. Not purpose-driven enough. Not orgasmically-open enough.
My friend coined the term, ‘purpose anxiety’ to describe the subset of men who engaged in Deida’s work and subsequently had their mental health negatively impacted by unsuccessfully questing for their purpose. Side note, for anyone struggling with this, check out the episode of The Good Life Project pod with Elizabeth Gilbert called, ‘Curiosity and the Passion Fallacy.’
In the realm of masculine/feminine embodiment and polarity, there are a few trends that I find particularly troubling. One such trend is the spiritual influencers, who despite their token disclaimers, clearly believe that women should be more ‘feminine,’ and men should be more ‘masculine.’ It’s no wonder they have no idea how to include non-binary and trans people into their work – because what they are offering is spiritualised gender essentialism.
Ironically, this work is usually marketed as a way to connect to your authentic self. But baby, if you’ve already decided who and how I should be based on a bunch of sex characteristics, that isn’t authenticity, it’s dogma. This is the kind of regression that is emblematic of the pre/trans fallacy.
Another trend in this realm is marketing feminine/masculine embodiment work as a way for people to attract, neigh, magnetise their ideal partner. The copy directed at hetero women goes something like this, ‘If you want a strong, purpose-driven, alpha man, you need to be ultra-surrendered. Come and read my book/receive my coaching/do my course so I can show you how to be the feminine goddess of his dreams.’ It makes me sad because it’s dehumanising for everyone involved.
If these women ‘surrender’ their way into a relationship, it’s likely they will maintain the infantile fantasy and expectation of their partner always being hyper-masculine and in control – instead of just being a fucking human. Laura Doyle’s books, ‘The Surrendered Wife’ and ‘The Surrendered Single’ are exemplary case studies of repackaging gender essentialism and selling it as if it’s something new or radical. I imagine Laura Doyle could have easily been friends with Blanche Ebbutt, who authored a delightful little book called, ‘Don’ts for Wives’ in 1913.
Recently, I’ve also seen spiritual influencers rail against the ‘feminisation of men.’ Viewing this as a bad thing implies that there is something wrong with men having ‘feminine’ traits which implicitly denigrates that which we associate with ‘feminine.’ It’s equivalent to saying, ‘Don’t be a pussy.’ Neither of these statements should be seen as an insult, and both of them serve to restrict a person’s humanity.
If you’re using phrases like ‘the war on masculinity’ or ‘the rampant feminisation of men,’ it could be a good idea to look around and see the company you’re in. Hint: antifeminists, misogynist pick up artists, incels, Fox news etc. These statements stem from the myth that there’s actually such a thing as a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’ rather than understanding gender roles as archaic patriarchal constructs.
This brings me to the final trend; spiritual influencers embracing and espousing traditional values. In my social feeds, this has looked like spiritual people turning to or returning to Christianity. Although sometimes I’m not sure who they love more, Jesus or Jordan Peterson. Perhaps due to the influence of Christianity and Daddy Peterson, some of these influencers are also using their platforms to promote their love for patriarchy. I am convinced and somewhat hopeful that this is only because they are pedalling a decontextualised understanding of patriarchy.
The above values along with order, social hierarchy, objective morality, and role conformity typify the blue stage of Spiral Dynamics. Gender essentialism also finds its home in this stage of human and social development. Much like J.P, the blue stage promises the antidote to chaos – and in a post-covid world that’s a pretty appealing promise.
However, the order and certainty that emerge at this stage, often do so at the expense of inclusivity and fluidity. In relation to the masculine/feminine embodiment sphere, there are ways to explore categorisation and polarity that don’t require the romanticisation of conservatism.
One example is Gen Z. A lot of people in this generation seem to have a way of observing the stereotypes and labels that they inherited, and then saying, ‘Nah, these don’t work for me.’ From there, they choose to create new definitions and possibilities for themselves. They understand language and their sense of self as fluid and evolving, and as things they can take an active part in creating.
The second group that I think many spiritual influencers could learn a lot from is the BDSM community. Polarity play within BDSM uses the language of Dominant/submissive or top/bottom. In these terms and communities, there’s less room for gender essentialism, heteronormativity and cisnormativity, which correspondingly makes more room for the LGBTQIA+ community. For people who aren’t into lifestyle BDSM, these labels are also more easily taken on and off. There is no expectation for people who enjoy being sexually submissive to always be submissive. I know people say the Bible has answers, but BDSM has answers too.
Both gen Z and BDSM spaces are also far less likely to flatten the complexity of the human experience in order to sell dogmatic and simplistic belief systems to people who are looking for certainty.
If you’re interested in learning more about gender essentialism and how it is repackaged in spiritual language, Hayla Wong recently released an amazing two-part infographic series called, Divine Feminine Ick. You can find her on Instagram @Haylawong.
I’m grateful to my partners, friends, and family for having conversations with me about these topics. Exploring together and hearing their ideas really helped me unravel my own.