gender norms

Don’t Buy Into Shame Culture

Photo of spray-painted word "shame" on a wallby Matilda Branson

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

Posted on by Matilda Branson in Feminism, LGBT 4 Comments

Canada’s Top Chef Contestants Create “Boy” and “Girl” Dishes

Maple Bacon Donut from Voodoo Donutsby Jarrah Hodge

In board gaming sometimes we talk about themes that seem “tacked on”. It’s what happens when a game designer makes a game and then decides to set it in, say, Ancient Egypt, even though it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the way the game is played.

And that’s kind of how last night’s episode of Top Chef Canada felt to me as well. As usual, I enjoyed most of the episode, but I thought the theme deserved a little critique.

(Alert: spoilers ahead)

For the elimination challenge, the chefs were paired off and asked to create hors d’ouevres for a baby shower for last season’s host Thea Andrews and current judge Shereen Arazam. Since one of the women is expecting a boy and the other expecting a girl, the chefs were tasked with creating a “girl dish” and a “boy dish” for each team.

This made no sense to me because food doesn’t innately appeal to someone based on gender. I watch a lot of cooking shows and though it may have happened, I’ve never seen a judge say they didn’t like a dish because it was “too masculine” or “too feminine”. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism 2 Comments

The History of Pink for Girls and Blue for Boys

So I’m at my doctor’s office the other day and notice they’ve got new keychains for the restroom keys: a pink baby shoe for the women’s and a blue one for the men’s. Even though there’s no words on them, the colour-coding is enough to tell us which one we should take.

But did you know that pink hasn’t always been a colour for girls, or blue for boys? In Michael Kimmel’s outstanding Manhood in America: A Cultural History, he points out that clothing wasn’t colour-coded in America until the early twentieth century, before which little boys and girls were dressed pretty much identically. Even when people started pushing for more gender-specific children’s clothing, there was a huge debate over which colour to assign to which gender. It started out with boys wearing pink or red because the colours were seen to indicate strength, while girls wore blue because they were “flighty” like the sky. From a 1918 editorial called “Pink or Blue” cited by Kimmel:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

So basically the colours changed based on which colour was seen to denote the strength of boys and delicacy of girls, but the idea that those traits are inborn and inalienable did not. It’s not just clothes: walk through the girls’ section of any Toys R Us and you’ll see shelf after shelf of pink, pink, pink. While little girls enjoy some leeway to play with blue toys, many boys get mocked if they want to play with pink “girls’ toys” and sometimes their parents and relatives start panicking that they might even grow up to be (gasp) gay. The fact that parents worry about the sexuality of their kids at all is crazy enough in itself, but that’s for another time. Back to colour-coding.

If you think boys and girls just forget about coding gender based on colour once they hit puberty, you’d be wrong. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio made headlines when he started forcing male inmates to wear pink underwear to humiliate them. He says it’s a deterrent to reoffending because inmates don’t want to come back and be forced to wear pink again. How screwed up is it that we’ve given a colour so much meaning in less than 100 years that it would make grown male criminals tremble just to think about wearing it?

This is about more than policing convicts, it’s about policing the boundaries of masculinity and reinforcing homophobia. Kimmel states: “Homophobia is more than the irrational fear of homosexuals…[it] is the fear of other men – that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, are not real men.”

The pink and blue shoe keychains might not seem like a big deal, and indeed most people don’t think twice about them. But imagine how much harder it could be for some trans and intersex people to negotiate a restroom ritual like this. Gender-neutral washrooms are a big step towards fixing this issue, but so is realizing that blue-pink colour coding is just the tip of the iceberg of things we use to arbitrarily divide “masculine” from “feminine”.


Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 15 Comments