Generalizations are regressive. They hurt. Let me explain why.
Stereotyping, according to a psychology textbook, is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a community, a group or a set of people. It is the cognitive pigeon-holing of individuals into fixed categories.
Now let us look at some of the common stereotypical notions that society holds about women. Women are irrational. They are sensitive. They don’t understand mechanics or traffic or cars or electrical appliances. Women get hysterical easily. Women cry a lot. They suck at maths. They want serious relationships, not casual sex. They are emotional by nature. In her stereotypical role, a woman is supposed to be the caring, nurturing homemaker. Men, on the other hand, are rational by nature. They are commitment phobics and prefer to flings to serious relationships. They are not emotional, don’t cry easily and are therefore much more sensible than women.
Now to the part about how these over simplified and generalized statements about the complex nature of human beings are harmful and regressive as a whole to the entire women empowerment movement. To put it very simply, it is regressive because, due to this stereotyping, we still tend view women through a lens that is centuries old with the dust of generalized beliefs that have little basis in fact or reality. A woman (and indeed, most of them don’t) who does not fit into these categories of emotional or sensitive is simply brushed aside as an ‘exception.’ A woman, then, who is rational and good in maths (being masculine, these are seen as positive traits) is simply an exception to the rule. We can thus never really break free of these stereotypes because the people who don’t conform to them are merely taken as exceptions. When we group all women together as one and assign to them the unwanted traits of being sensitive and irrational, whether they fit them or not, we undo years of women empowerment movements which have tried to assert the fact that not all women fit these stereotypes.
Secondly, the trouble with stereotyping women is that all ‘feminine’ qualities are used as synonyms for weak. Being sensitive is seen as a negative trait. The word ‘unmanly’ itself is always used in a negative sense. Moreover, why should being sensitive be seen as a negative quality? Why should crying be seen as a weak thing to do? What is so great about being ‘manly’ anyway? Why is ‘be a man’ used as an alternative to be courageous, be brave. Statements like these imply that women are weak willed and cannot be courageous, that being strong is the exclusive domain of men. When we categorize some qualities as masculine and some as feminine, we automatically and simultaneously seem to assume that the qualities of the ‘weaker sex’ are unwanted ones. We also work on the presumption that these two categories are mutually exclusive, which is untrue.
We often come across statements like ‘women are emotional fools.’ The worst part about them is that they are written not by misinformed men as we would like to believe, but by women themselves. Stereotypes, over a period of time, are internalized by the community they are directed towards. Women internalize the stereotypical notions that society holds about them and mould themselves accordingly. They pepper their conversations with statements like ‘be a man’ when they want to say ‘stand up for yourself.’ They teach their young boys that crying is unmanly and teach their young girls that their primary purpose in life is to raise a family. The problem begins when women start believing the ideas that others hold about them and begin to suppress their true nature in order to conform to them. Their behaviour is thus governed not by natural instincts but by society’s expectations.
In other words, generalized and simplified beliefs lead to a loss of individuality. Women are viewed not as individuals with their own capabilities and talents, but as a group devoid of any positive, manly virtues. Stereotypes are thus directly responsible for loss of individuality in a group. A woman who is sentimental will never be viewed as an individual who is sentimental, but as a representative of womankind as a whole which is sentimental by nature. A woman who is not sentimental, on the other hand, will be branded an exception. In viewing women with the lens of centuries old notions, we take away from them the right to be individuals. This in itself is extremely harmful because it takes away from a woman the right to be a person, an individual in her own right.
If we are to hope for any change at all in the way that society perceives women, we have to first make a change in the way we perceive ourselves. I come across so many articles written by women who make careless claims like ‘we women are emotional by nature and get attached too quickly.’ How equally quickly these writers discard the mere possibility of there being women who don’t get attached too quickly.