How Society Polices and Enforces Gender Norms

“Man Up, Man!”

I have a vested interest in representation, and one ritual that always makes me stop and cringe when I see it taking place is the way society enforces and polices gender norms: Man up! Act like a lady! You look out of place in that outfit! You should be ashamed of yourself! Aren’t you embarrassed to act like that/wear that/be seen with that?

Gender norms refer to the social and behavioral expectations considered appropriate for one’s perceived sex. After all, society works hard at teaching us what it means to be a man or a woman, so why would anyone challenge or question time-honored traditions? In order to maintain the status quo, various tools are used to discipline naughty individuals. Through punishment we learn how we SHOULD or are expected to express or perform our gender through characteristics or behaviors associated with notions of masculinity and/or femininity. For their non-conformity, girls are called tomboys and boys are called sissy if they act or dress in presumably inappropriate ways.

Pink and Blue

Our lessons in gender begin even before we can ever understand what is going on. They usually begin even before we are born when our parents, friends, and family shower us with the stereotypical pink or blue gifts. A baby who isn’t even capable of understanding the socially constructed differences between “boy” and “girl” or “pink” and “blue” is already inundated with gender specific items that contain messages meant less for them and more for the adults around them.

The healthcare kits one might find in any baby section of a store are gender specific not only in color but also in the addition of an extra word on the pink “girl” boxes. The addition of this one word speaks loudly about gender norms to which girls will be held. The girl’s healthcare kits are also “grooming” kits. From day one, gender norms teach girls that their appearance is their most valuable asset. Thus, adults give baby girls diamond ring rattles and baby boys saw rattles, and they design and buy young girls t-shirts to wear that emphasize their looks over their intellect.

Smart Like Daddy, Pretty Like Mommy

From the moment they are born, children typically grow up with adults telling, showing, and guiding them both verbally and non-verbally how to behave, dress, speak, act, interact, and more based on their gender. In an example similar to those given in the previous section, the onesies also begin early on to emphasize female looks over male intellect for babies too young to even know the difference. It’s the adults around them who care.

From Babies to Young Girls

Sociologist, Dr. Erving Goffman’s ground-breaking study, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, explores what he refers to as society’s “ritualized cultural performance.” In his book, he recognizes that everything surrounding us teaches us what our society considers proper, normal, and expected when it comes to gender roles. Therefore, go down any toy aisle in the store and “girls'” toys are immediately identifiable by the color pink.

In the video below, Anita Sarkeesian shares her opinion about LEGO’s launch of their new line “just for girls!” Even as children get older, their toys continue to reflect their perceived gender, and boys are taught that they should never want to play with anything pink or girly.

Goffman examines advertising and multimedia, uncovering ubiquitous patterns of masculine and feminine ways of posing, for example.

So, Are You A Boy or a Girl?
The model below represents cultural performances through stances or poses that signal what our society considers sexy or feminine. The video, Codes of Gender, explores advertising to demonstrate how gender is encoded in the ads we see. A teaser video is provided below, but I would recommend that anyone see the entire thing. It will really make you look at print media in a very different way!


Some clever individuals have showcased how stereotypical poses are such as those above by doing mock or spoof images of what our society considers “sexy” or “feminine.” Photographer, Rion Sabean, featured men in hypersexualized poses found in older pin-up girls calendars. At the same time, each of the men in these images embodies a masculinity that requires strength signified by their clothing.

A staff member at Jezebel interviewed Sabean to find out his motivations for this particular project:

“What inspired you to make a series of pin-ups featuring men (and call them Men-Ups)?
I had had the idea for such a long time, and just never went for it. The imagery of showcasing the feminine/masculine ideals in one single image just struck me as something that could really work. Hilariously enough, and beyond my fascination with gender binaries and their inherent nature to be completely incomprehensible to me, I first began tinkering with the idea, because I will at any given moment strike very specific poses that would be defined as feminine by society; more specifically, the pointed toe. Haha. From there, it was completely obvious that pin-ups and all the associations with them would be the right choice in moving forward.”

Similar projects appear on the web, indicating that we have different expectations for the way men and women present themselves to the world. Specifically, the way men and women walk and pose are powerfully gendered moves that seem natural but are actually adopted based on how society teaches us and enforces our gender.

The pose is powerfully gendered as indicated in the examples of “Girls & Cars.” What has become analogous to the 1940’s and 1950’s pin-up girls are the calendars and advertisements that feature girls with and on cars. While we can say that the men are being humorous by imitating these sexualized and gendered poses, does that mean that men and women purposely showcase their gender and sexuality in very different and obvious ways?

Sex and the Gender Binary

It is apparent that gender isn’t something that happens naturally. Society manufactures gender. Gender is socially constructed with ways for us to interpret the ideals attached to men and masculinity and women and femininity. Gender is not sex. Sex refers to our bodies’ physical, hormonal, and chemical make up, but even these are not cut and dry. Like gender, sex is also fluid and runs along a continuum. But I digress. I will save this topic for a later post.

Evidence that gender is enforced and policed comes in the constant barrage of media messages that tell individuals what they should be like, what they should wear, who they should marry, and so forth.

Of course, the unquestioned assumptions that come with these messages is that if you are a man you should be strong, brave, tough, not wear dresses, not wear pink, marry a woman, and never, ever, ever be charged with being “too feminine.” A woman should be soft, independent yet vulnerable, tough yet selfless, love pink, love to wear dresses and high heels, marry a man, and never be too assertive. If you follow these rules, you move through life much more smoothly than if you flout gender rules or norms.

However, if you cross the lines of gender, you will find yourself being reminded, harassed, and possibly beaten and violated for not performing your gender correctly. The life and death of Brandon Teena is a classic example of the way our society polices and enforces gender, often through violence. For those unfamiliar with Teena, he was brutally raped and murdered in 1993 for daring to pass as a man.

The True Story of Brandon Teena (pt. 1 of 6)

Gender distinctions are sets of characteristics that allows society to place us in boxes that have borders we should never, ever cross. People feel threatened when someone dares to cross these borders, because that means they challenge definitions and roles already set in place and accepted as “normal.” Therefore, gender crossers challenge definitions of masculinity and femininity that have become normalized (i.e., by normalized, I mean what society considers to be “natural” rather than taught).


Parents, teachers, movies, books, religion, etc. reinforce gender roles. Family, friends, and even strangers will try to get you to follow the rules. In this section, I discuss two examples of the way gender is enforced and policed. The first example came after a J. Crew ad appeared in 2011.

Jon Stewart referred to the apparently tragic event in J. Crew as “Toemageddon.” What began as an image of a mother bonding with her child was turned into an apocalyptic event that threatened the very fabric of our society. Yes, apparently gender norms being flouted can lead to the downfall of civilization. News reports that Stewart includes in his segment on J. Crew make this readily apparent.

Dr. Keith Ablow’s rhetoric on this so-called tragedy exemplifies how threatened some people feel when gender norms are not followed. He points to society’s need to enforce and police gender norms and warns his viewers on Fox News, “Gender distinctions have a place in society,” and he sees what he refers to as one mother’s indulgence as “an attack on masculinity.” His fear of a joyful moment shared between mother and son raised three questions in my mind. First, exactly what place do gender distinctions have in society? Second, how is painting a little boy’s toenails pink an attack on masculinity? If she had painted them another color, would he still interpret the act the same? Third, how does Ablow define “masculinity?”

As I’m trying to show, masculinity is socially constructed, so our society constructs it differently than other cultures do. In Africa, Niger’s Wodaabe men emphasize male beauty through accessories, poses, and gestures that Western society labels as feminine. This example indicates that femininity and masculinity are not only socially constructed; they are also culturally constructed. I guess Fox News’ viewers are just supposed to know what Ablow means, then, when he refers to the J. Crew ad as an attack on masculinity.

Ablow goes on to say, “This [the J. Crew ad] is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity.” If gender identity only relies on what he calls “trappings,” then isn’t gender just a show or a performance?

Ablow’s seeming acceptance of masculinity and femininity as fixed is blown out of the water when he refers to them as trappings, meaning, we can question, challenge, or change gendered accessories or adornments at any time. Therefore, there is nothing natural about gender at all! The place gender distinctions have in society is that they separate the men from the women, right?

Putting People in Boxes and Nailing the Door Shut

These so-called distinctions place people in boxes that are guarded, and woe to the person who tries to get out of that box! Brandon Teena was killed for stepping outside the box. Similar violence takes place all the time against men and women who defy the trappings of gender that Fox News and Ablow perceive as natural and normal.

When someone’s gender is ambiguous, people tend to get nervous and unsettled. Most people want to place others in pre-defined boxes that clarify who and what we are. We want to be sure about our world and what we see.

The character, Pat, on Saturday Night Live is a fictional androgynous character that plays on society’s tendency to be more comfortable with obvious displays of gender. Sometimes, we will go to great lengths to discover someone’s gender even to the point of violence. Which leads me to talk more about the 3 images near the very top of the blonde model named Andrej Pejic in the HEM ads. He is also featured in the reclining pose below. Pejic is a man but is often photographed or does runway shows as a woman.

Gender characteristics allow people to place us in boxes that have borders we should never, ever cross. People feel threatened when someone dares to cross these borders, because that means they challenge definitions and roles already set in place and accepted as “normal.” Therefore, gender crossers challenge definitions of masculinity and femininity that have become normalized (i.e., by normalized, I mean what many consider “natural” rather than taught).


With this brief lesson in how gender is constructed, policed, and enforced, try to notice how often you see stereotypical representations of masculinity and femininity in culture. Please send me more examples and I will add them to my piece and talk more about them in the context of this Hub Page.