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Brené Brown: on Shame and Gender

2012 May 23

Over 4 million people have seen Brené Brown’s fantastic TED talk about Vulnerability. She’s a researcher who looked into what successful people have in common, and found that they were all willing to make themselves vulnerable.

I was excited when she gave a follow-up talk in March, but I didn’t imagine I’d be posting about it on BadRep. The reason I am is that at 15.00 minutes, it became ALL about gender. (I strongly recommend you check it out – both videos are excellent):

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Shame is often strongly gendered; we are intended to feel it when we don’t live up to our society’s imposed, sexist expectations. She cites a study from Boston College which got women to answer the question:

What do women need to do to conform to female norms?

The answers were: be Nice, Thin, Modest… and ‘Use all available resources for appearance’.

For men, they were: Always show emotional control, Work should be your priority, Pursue status… and ‘Violence’.

That they’re different answers for men and women should be enough to prove the need for some real changes in our society by itself, but that the actual points are also so disgusting just seals it for me. Nice. Thin. Don’t make a fuss. Physical appearance is everything. Emotionally cut off. Violent. Competitive. Judged hugely by job and status. Not one of these things is good for society. We could lose them all and it would only improve everyone’s lives. (Well, ‘nice’ could be okay, if it were applied to the more powerful groups in society, but in terms of gender you’ve then still got the ‘chivalry’ problem – that men can forget about power differences if they treat women ‘nicely’ while giving up nothing.)

Brown’s previous point had been that successful and happy people have to allow themselves the risk of being seen as weak, or to fail. However, in reaching that conclusion (and it’s definitely true), she only interviewed women. In this second talk she relates how a male fan pointed out to her that men often feel unable to choose this route.

Shame feels the same for men and women, but it is organised by gender…

For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations [as it is for women], shame is one: Do Not Be Perceived As Weak.

Brené Brown

The fan claims that it’s the women in his family who reinforce this for him. In terms of how strictly the two sets of ‘norms-to-conform-to’ listed above are enforced, I often see that men have a lot more leeway in dropping one or two of them… but only if they replace them with ‘money’.

So the next time I’m looking for a shorthand example for why feminism is important, I’ll reference what people perceive as the biggest demands by society on who they are allowed to be. It’s a flawed, gender-binary test, but the fact that the public returned those answers counts for a lot. That a list so gendered and outrightly harmful to society should be the TOP pressures many of us seem to be facing is something we just don’t need. It may not be set in law, but this stuff is a strong daily message.

…Which makes me want to find a solution. Well, first to scream F*** THAT and opt out, and then find a solution. Equality means removing this heinous bullshit for everyone. The goals listed as the top answers in that survey are both unattainable in size and harmful in practice, but what choice do we have? It’s fine for me to urge people to stop conforming, but for many if they do the reality is they’ll never pass a job interview again. (Although not shaving your armpits or legs sometimes works out just fine).

I refuse to give up. Reducing inequality towards any gender is so fundamental to everyone’s happiness that stuff like this just makes me more determined to keep fighting: we’ve all got to keep educating each other, pushing for change and making the issues visible. Whether it’s about who they marry, if they have sex, issues of consent, or who their political leaders are, women have a lot less freedom than men internationally. That’s not in dispute. Gender inequality is measurable. If you really can’t see it, you haven’t spent two seconds looking. Yes, I’m also concerned with the pressures sexism places on men, and I think these ‘norm lists’ showcase exactly why there’s so much still to do for everybody.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Emily permalink
    June 22, 2012

    I am a transsexual Male to Female. My shame voice for years berated me because I wasn’t living up to the male role expectations. Finally, I am free to a great extent of that shame 2 1/2 years into my transition. But, now I am starting to see the effects of female shame in my life. I have an eating disorder I am working on and if I stand up for what I believe in and value, my shame voice calls me a drama queen, because women are to be seen and not heard. However having been raised male I have a strong sense of my human birthright to be treated with respect, since it is so important in the male world to respect other men. This causes a lot of problems when I interact with the world having this expectation for how I should be treated. Mostly with men who don’t want to respect me.

  2. April 23, 2015

    Re: Emily, I’m a straight guy (from Pakistan :P) and I respect you and admire your courage. Respect yourself, as you fully deserve to, entirely and wholeheartedly, and ultimately you’ll see past (and perhaps even forgive) the small heartedness and fear that causes others to wrong themselves by treating you with disrespect.

    Hope your doing well two years on :)

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