Sexual stereotypes confuse people’s thinking about the differences between men and women. These timeworn attitudes overstate the qualities that distinguish men and women, and place the two sexes in artificial categories. Typical stereotypes of men involve them being tough, powerful, unfeeling, insensitive, and logical. Personally, they are afraid to commit or form an attachment and are driven by sexuality. Professionally, they are career-driven and capable. Typical stereotypes of women involve them being helpless, emotional, sensitive, unstable, and irrational. Personally, women can easily form deep emotional attachments and are less interested in sex. Professionally, they are less interested in their careers and more driven toward marriage and motherhood. These traits may seem black and white or exaggerated, but to varying degrees, a surprising number of people buy into their validity. Too often, men and women conduct their lives to preserve these illusions. He must be the best all of the time. He cannot falter, be fearful or insecure. She must be submissive and passive. She cannot be powerful, self-sufficient, or independent. At times, men and women manipulate each other in order to preserve these illusions.
When we look at some of the ways society depicts men and women, we can see that these depictions actually pit men and women against each other. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that people are often criticized or ridiculed for not complying with these stereotypes. For example, men who openly express affection may be teased for being “soft, sappy, or whipped.” Women who seek power have been called “ruthless or bulldozers.”
Destructive dynamics start to play out when people accommodate to unfair gender roles. A man may develop vanity as a means to maintain superiority or demand an unrealistic build up from his partner. A woman may develop a victimized approach to life in order to illustrate her powerlessness. Rather than assert herself to achieve her goals, she manipulates her mate with indirect maneuvers such as weakness, helplessness, and emotionality. Men and women are betraying themselves when they adopt these defensive approaches in their relationship. The more a man relies on the build-up of vanity, the more he rejects the part of himself that is sensitive and vulnerable. The more a woman relies on indirect manipulations to achieve her goals, the more she rejects the part of herself that is strong and powerful. As the split within a person becomes greater, the more alienated he or she becomes from their true self. By really tossing aside these old gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes, the freer we become, and the more we allow ourselves and our partners be who we really are.