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. Read more