When we talk about gender issues and gender roles, a recurring theme of gender debates is shame. A victim of sexual assault is blamed and shamed for wearing too short a skirt or walking alone down a dark alley drunk. A football player is scorned by teammates or fans as a “pussy”, for not being manly enough. People of all genders are shamed in different ways for not conforming to overarching gender norms and expectations.
But why do we feel ashamed? When shamed, why do we feel this overwhelming emotion that is not only uncomfortable, humiliating and embarrassing, but an emotion that wounds a person to the core? What is shame?
Shame is a very powerful and public emotion. The common ancestor of Germanic derivations of shame is skamo and it is thought to mean “to cover”, somewhat fitting in that the natural expression of shame is said to be covering oneself, either literally or figuratively. Hence shame, when it remains covered, or hidden, can be coped with – it is when shame is uncovered – is seen in the public sphere – that it becomes humiliating and disgracing. Shame operates in two ways:
- It is a failure of recognition
- It is recognition of failure
Firstly it is perceived failure by you, the individual, to recognize the importance of toeing the unwritten cultural boundaries, to do what is expected of you by family, friends and your community. You have overstepped the mark, and there will be recrimination/anger/hurt at what you’ve done, as the wider community recognizes your failure to abide by cultural norms and sees this as bringing your shame on your family, community or society. When people say, “He’s/she’s got no shame”, it means the individual’s behaviour is not constrained by those cultural norms.
Shame itself is not only a personal reaction to knowingly deviating from cultural norms which people invest heavily in emotionally, but it is also reliant on public discovery and condemnation to have power.
It’s a not-so-funny thing, this shame business. It’s a state of anxiety, a loss of control and even identity. If you’re associated with shame, then the way in which you’re recognized by everyone else is not the way you want to be recognized. The carefully constructed outer image of yourself that you put on show for the public has somehow failed, and a very private part of the self is exposed because you have failed to control it.
This is why people can live, for years, with a secret shame – a guilty family secret, fetishes condemned by society – while at the same time living “normal” lives, as respected family and community members in society. It is when that shame is publicly uncovered and subject to harsh reactions from one’s community that it may become unbearable to live with.
Because shame comes about as a result of an individual transgressing cultural norms, it is often very much associated with gender. Think of what makes a boy a boy, or a girl a girl. How different are boys and girls really when they shoot out of mummy’s tummy? It is only once they are born that the cultural norms of gender – what maketh a boy, what maketh a girl – start to crowd in, thick and fast. Boys don’t cry, pink is a girly colour. Teenage boys run around at lunch, girls sit around and watch them. A boy who sleeps with many girls is a stud, but a girl who does the same is a slut. Boys are better at math than girls, girls are better at listening and handling emotions.
There is a quote from Tuesdays with Morrie (if you haven’t read it, get on it) that says (speaking about Western consumeristic culture):
“The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves .. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”
Different cultures – not just of countries, but micro cultures of communities, sporting cultures, organizational cultures, college cultures – often perpetuate the shaming of individuals, particularly when they violate the gender norms of that culture.
Think how harshly organizations and societies come down on gay soldiers, or gay football players. Think of the prevalence of “slut shaming” (such a powerfully harsh term) or the high rates of honour killings (for more information on the complexity of honour and shame in connection with honour killings have a look at Unni Wikan’s In Honour of Fadime).
It wasn’t long ago in Western cultures that dashing young Mr. Darcys challenged each other to duels to fight over a lady’s honour, or were forced to marry a pregnant woman to save her honour, or that a divorced or single mother was dishonoured and ostracized by wider society.
What changed? A lot did. Industrialization, some wars came and went, a little pill was invented that revolutionized everything… But more importantly, to an extent, people stopped buying into the shaming culture, no longer coming down like a ton of bricks on the perceived violation of certain gender norms.
Men’s honour was no longer located between a woman’s legs, as women themselves became more empowered and in charge of their own lives and voices. Don’t get me wrong, shaming cultures persist everywhere, but these days on a more subtle (perhaps even more damaging?) level.
My point is – don’t buy into shame culture. Make your own culture. As Morrie says, “Create your own.” One where shaming is irrelevant and a thing of the past.
(photo of graffiti by Anthony Easton via Wikimedia Commons)