Have you ever considered how the first book you ever read may have shaped the person you are today?
The more we learn about our formative years, the more we realise that our identity is formed at the very beginning. Part of this is about language. It surrounds us and develops our understanding of how we should behave as future members of society.
The words and attitudes we hear are constantly influencing who we are and how we should identify ourselves. This includes making us think about our gender.
If you think about it, language is everywhere – in the music you listen to, in the television you watch and in the books you read. Language is frequently being used as a major organising principle for society - a way of categorising us as being either male or female.
Here’s what I mean.
Most of us vaguely recall that pivotal moment when we learnt to read, that clever yet natural process of relating now- familiar sounds to letters. It was during this time in our lives that we were first introduced to the world of fiction.
There’s a vast range of narratives that allowed girls to discover fairy kingdoms while boys uncovered the land of pirates and superheroes. This encouraged children to let their imaginations expand, it may also have influenced the formation of gender stereotypes through carefully selected language choices.
In other words, it seems that we are probably brainwashed from infancy to conform to the gender expectations because of the language and stories that were presented to us.
Let’s not forget about the media’s advertisements and their substantial involvement in the creation of our gender identities. These skilfully manipulated language in order to highlight the ‘key characteristics’ associated with each sex.
Advertisements specifically aimed at boys tend to include terms that encourage the ideology that men must be are strong, dominant and fearless. Words such as ‘fast’, ‘soldier’ and ‘guns’ are used to highlight attributes commonly associated with expectations of masculinity. On the other hand, advertisements aimed at young girls often encourage a nurturing and caring nature - characteristics required for the role of a mother. Terms such as ‘mummy’, ‘baby’ and ‘loving’ are frequently used to encourage this behaviour within young girls.
These are classic examples of how the media is consciously involved in the construction of our gender identities. So we are encouraged to aspire to the stereotypical gender roles from infancy through the language that we encounter in books and on screen.
It seems simple to say that everyday language is consistently being used to demonstrate the masculine and feminine identities as being completely separate beings. In reality it has become more apparent that the lines between what define a man from a women are beginning to blur.
Growing up today, educators and the language found in new books are beginning to recognise that we do not have to fall into these stereotypes. Are we finally beginning to witness the development of a world where we can simply be whoever we want to be? I hope so.
-- Zara Barton is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds