Culture and Subcultures

41 Gender and Culture

Racial stereotypes are not the only issue facing consumers today: the use of gender stereotypes in marketing and advertising are also in need of elimination. The wrongful depiction of genders has manifested into systemic discrimination; prolific inequality and inequity; and profoundly negative effects on self-esteem and self-worth. Whether the marketing examples depict rape culture, hyper-sexualized girls, or toxic masculinity, gender stereotypes are shaping attitudes and informing judgements and behaviour. Gender, as we’ve come to understand it, is in fact merely a fabricated identity!

The terms sex and gender are frequently used interchangeably, though they have different meanings. In this context, sex refers to the biological category of male or female, as defined by physical differences in genetic composition and in reproductive anatomy and function. On the other hand, gender refers to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are associated with masculinity and femininity (Wood & Eagly, 2002). You can think of “male” and “female” as distinct categories of sex (a person is typically born a male or a female), but “masculine” and “feminine” as continuums associated with gender (everyone has a certain degree of masculine and feminine traits and qualities).

Beyond sex and gender, there are a number of related terms that are also often misunderstood. Gender roles are the behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that are designated as either masculine or feminine in a given culture. It is common to think of gender roles in terms of gender stereotypes, or the beliefs and expectations people hold about the typical characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of men and women. A person’s gender identity refers to their psychological sense of being male or female. In contrast, a person’s sexual orientation is the direction of their emotional and erotic attraction toward members of the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes.

Gender, Identity, & Sex

Historically, the terms gender and sex have been used interchangeably. Because of this, gender is often viewed as a binary – a person is either male or female – and it is assumed that a person’s gender matches their biological sex. This is not always the case, however, and more recent research has separated these two terms. While the majority of people do identify with the gender that matches their biological sex (cisgender), an estimated 0.6% of the population identify with a gender that does not match their biological sex (transgender; Flores, Herman, Gates, & Brown, 2016). For example, an individual who is biologically male may identify as female, or vice versa.

In addition to separating gender and sex, recent research has also begun to conceptualize gender in ways beyond the gender binary. Genderqueer or gender nonbinary are umbrella terms used to describe a wide range of individuals who do not identify with and/or conform to the gender binary. These terms encompass a variety of more specific labels individuals may use to describe themselves. Some common labels are genderfluid, agender, and bigender. An individual who is genderfluid may identify as male, female, both, or neither at different times and in different circumstances. An individual who is agender may have no gender or describe themselves as having a neutral gender, while bigender individuals identify as two genders.

It is important to remember that sex and gender do not always match and that gender is not always binary; however, a large majority of prior research examining gender has not made these distinctions. As such, the following sections will discuss gender as a binary.

The Enculturation Process

We now understand that cultures, not nature, create the gender ideologies that go along with being born male or female and the ideologies vary widely, cross-culturally. What is considered “man’s work” in some societies, such as carrying heavy loads, or farming, can be “woman’s work” in others. What is “masculine” and “feminine” varies: pink and blue, for example, are culturally invented gender-color linkages, and skirts and “make-up” can be worn by men, indeed by “warriors.”

Masculinity studies goes beyond men and their roles to explore the relational aspects of gender. One focus is the enculturation processes through which boys learn about and learn to perform “manhood.” Many U.S. studies (and several excellent videos, such as Tough Guise by Jackson Katz), have examined the role of popular culture in teaching boys our culture’s key concepts of masculinity, such as being “tough” and “strong,” and shown how this “tough guise” stance affects men’s relationships with women, with other men, and with societal institutions, reinforcing a culture of violent masculinity. Sociologist Michael Kimmel has further suggested that boys are taught that they live in a “perilous world” he terms “Guyland.”

Smoking Advertisements and Women

Woman wearing leather jacket smoking a cigarette.
Marketing to women has often been out-dated and out-of-touch reflecting a male dominance in the advertising industry.

In 1968, a cigarette company in the United States decided to target women as tobacco consumers and used a clever marketing campaign to entice them to take up smoking. “You’ve come a long way, baby!” billboards proclaimed. Women, according to the carefully constructed rhetoric, had moved away from their historic oppressed status and could — and should — now enjoy the full complement of twentieth-century consumer pleasures. Like men, they deserved to enjoy themselves and relax with a cigarette. The campaigns were extremely successful; within several years, smoking rates among women had increased dramatically. But had women really come a long way? We now know that tobacco (including in vaporized form) is a highly addictive substance and that its use is correlated with a host of serious health conditions. In responding to the marketing rhetoric, women moved into a new sphere of bodily pleasure and possibly enjoyed increased independence, but they did so at a huge cost to their health. They also succumbed to a long-term financial relationship with tobacco companies who relied on addicting individuals in order to profit. Knowing about the structures at work behind the scenes and the risks they took, few people today would agree that women’s embrace of tobacco represented a huge step forward.

Perhaps saying “You’ve come a long way, baby!” with the cynical interpretation with which we read it today can serve as an analogy for our contemporary explorations of gender and culture. Certainly, many women in the United States today enjoy heightened freedoms. We can travel to previously forbidden spaces, study disciplines long considered the domain of men, shape our families to meet our own needs, work in whatever field we choose, and, we believe, live according to our own wishes. But we would be naive to ignore how gender continues to shape, constrain, and inform our lives. The research and methods of anthropology can help us become more aware of the ongoing consequences of our gendered heritage and the ways in which we are all complicit in maintaining gender ideologies that limit and restrict people’s possibilities.

By committing to speak out against subtle, gender-based discrimination and to support those struggling along difficult paths, today’s anthropologists can emulate pioneers such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, who sought to fuse research and action. May we all be kinder to those who differ from the norm, whatever that norm may be. Only then will we all — women, men and those who identify with neither category — have truly come a long way. (But we will leave the infantilizing “baby” to those tobacco companies!)

Gender Stereotyping

How do our gender roles and gender stereotypes develop and become so strong? Many of our gender stereotypes are so strong because we emphasize gender so much in culture (Bigler & Liben, 2007). For example, males and females are treated differently before they are even born. When someone learns of a new pregnancy, the first question asked is “Is it a boy or a girl?” Immediately upon hearing the answer, judgments are made about the child: Boys will be rough and like blue, while girls will be delicate and like pink.

Different treatment by gender begins with parents. A meta-analysis of research from the United States and Canada found that parents most frequently treated sons and daughters differently by encouraging gender-stereotypical activities (Lytton & Romney, 1991). Fathers, more than mothers, are particularly likely to encourage gender-stereotypical play, especially in sons. Children do a large degree of socializing themselves. By age 3, children play in gender-segregated play groups and expect a high degree of conformity. Children who are perceived as gender atypical (i.e., do not conform to gender stereotypes) are more likely to be bullied and rejected than their more gender-conforming peers. Gender stereotypes typically maintain gender inequalities in society.

How does marketing contribute to gender stereotypes, and thus gender inequalities in society? Well, have you been to a children’s toy store recently? There is a clear delineation between “girls'” toys and “boys'” toys when you walk down the aisles. How do children’s toys reinforce stereotypes and contribute to enculturation? Explore the op-ed below to learn more about how sex-typed products work against gender equality.

Student Op-Ed: Child’s Play Solving Adult Problems

Despite the recent promising efforts to dispel ancient gender norms, there is one place you’re bound to find them ever present. If you haven’t been inside a toy store lately, prepare yourself for a clear delineation between the genders. Sex-typed children’s toys simply reinforce already entrenched gender roles and stereotypes, which only confine play and restrict imagination. According to Solomon (2017), these are toys with masculine or feminine attributes that align with and reinforce gender archetypes, which may influence children to form identities that fit these molds. On the other hand, gender-non-specific toys foster agency and collaboration and encourage children to create and imagine freely.

In an episode of Abstract; The Art of Design, Cas Holman, the inventor of Rigamajig and Geemo, states that the toys in the market are too prescribed; they underestimate how sophisticated children are and restrict play to the confines of a gender binary (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). The need for toys to be sorted by gender illustrates the concept of uncertainty avoidance, which Solomon (2017) regards as society’s intolerance and avoidance of uncertainty and ambiguity. However, Holman stands in opposition to this need for predictability. She contends that deep learning takes place when children discover something on their own, without the aid of color-coding or rigid instructions (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). This is a part of Holman’s greater philosophy: “Easy is boring” (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019, 41:53). Most toy manufacturers today make toys that do not encourage critical thinking; typically, there is only one way to play with these toys, which children find boring after a while (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). According to the designer, it is “not something children get something out of” (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019, 12:22).

Sex-typed toys expose children to gender stereotypes, reinforce binary role playing and fail to foster collaborative and imaginative play among different genders. In many cultures where a gender binary is fundamental to identity formation, children grow up adhering to enacted norms. These might prescribe what boys and girls should and should not do, thereby defining children’s abilities and the expectations placed upon them. In fulfilling these roles, children receive positive reinforcement and encouragement to maintain these identities as they mature. Here, the notion of enculturation also comes into effect, which refers to the processes of learning the beliefs and behaviours embedded within a dominant culture (Solomon, 2017). Holman states that children, through play, learn to be either hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine because those are the only options available (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). The designer condemns this – “There are children who like pink, and children who like blue. Why have we assigned that to boys and girls? It’s absurd” (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019, 28:34). Note the themes of violence and power that can be attributed to G.I. Joe advertisements, which rely on production elements such as rock music, bold color tones, and a narrator using his lowest, ‘manliest’ voice to present a hyper-masculine model of a man. Conversely, the use of pink tones in Barbie ads, the focus on appearance and servitude, as well as the sexualization of the doll create norms for what it is to be a girl in western society.

Holman argues that toys should encourage learning and creativity rather than assigning roles. She believes that good toys help children grow to become good people (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). In this sense, gender-non-specific toys help children develop a sense of agency; they are free to form and execute their own ideas, which encourages deep learning (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). Based on children’s reactions to playing with Rigamajig, a giant wooden construction set, Holman concludes that children appreciate being entrusted with responsibility; they are playing with real material and are free to build something larger than themselves (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). These open-ended toys encourage thinking outside gender archetypes and foster collaboration and team building from an early age (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019). According to Holman, “if we can play together, we can live together” (Chai Vasarhelyi, 2019, 43:31).

Growing up, I would sneak over to my neighbor’s home and play with her giant Barbie collection. We would build homes out of Lego and create a whole imaginary life. I also vividly remember, my parents forbidding me to play with dolls because, “that’s not what boys do.” That was the first time I noticed the different expectations placed on boys and girls. More so than playing with dolls, I enjoyed the time I spent with my neighbor. Looking back, I smile thinking about the imaginative stories we used to create and the mini-plays we’d put on for anyone we could perform to. For this reason, I think it’s incredibly important that children have as many options as possible to play and collaborate together, rather than separately. The hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine notions of what it is to be a boy and a girl, simply perpetuate stereotypes and contribute to gender inequality. The variation in personalities, preferences, and ideas among children is far too complex to fit into these limited binary selection of mainstream toys today. Gender-non-specific toys, on the other hand, encourages limitless play, unbounded by the confines of gender norms. As a result, it fosters valuable life-long skills like creativity, agency and, collaboration.

Media Attributions

Text Attributions

  • The second and third opening paragraphs; the section “Gender, Identity, & Sex”; and the third and fourth paragraphs under “The Enculturation Process” are adapted from Brown, C. S., Jewell, J. A., & Tam, M. J. (2021). “Gender“. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers.
  • The first two paragraphs under “The Enculturation Process” and “Smoking Advertisements and Women” are adapted from Mukhopadhyay, C., Blumenfield, T., Harper, S., and Gondek, A. (2017). “Gender and Sexuality“. In Brown, N. and McIlwraith, T. (Eds), Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, by Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
  • “Student Op-Ed: Child’s Play Solving Adult Problems” is by Stephenson, C. (2019) which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.


Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children’s social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(3), 162–166. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00496.x.

Chai Vasarhelyi, E. (Director). (2019). Cas Holman; Design for Play. Abstract: The Art of Design (Season 2, Episode 4) [TV series episode]. In S. Dadich, B. Hermes, J. Kamen, M. Neville, D. O’Connor, K. Rozansky, J. Wilkes, and A. Wu. (Executive Producers). In Abstract: The Art of Design. Godfrey Dadich Partners; Radical Media.

Flores, A.R., Herman, J.L., Gates, G.J., & Brown, T.N.T. (2016). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

Kane, E. (1996). Gender, Culture, and Learning. Academy for Educational Development. Washington, DC.

Lytton, H., & Romney, D. M. (1991). Parents’ differential socialization of boys and girls: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 109(2), 267–296. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.109.2.267.

Solomon, M., White, K. & Dahl, D.W. (2017). Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, Being Seventh Canadian Edition. Pearson Education Inc.

Wood, W., & Eagly, A. H. (2002). A cross-cultural analysis of the behavior of women and men: Implications for the origins of sex differences. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 699–727. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.128.5.699.



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