Margaret Mead

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In Mead’s Sex and Temperament, how are gender-based expectations of behavior reinforced by society? Does society expect different behavior from men than from women? If so, in what ways? How is this possibly harmful to people?

Mead explains how societies develop gendered behavioral expectations based on the actions and temperaments of some members of each sex. For example, consider how in hunter-gatherer societies, men did the hunting. Male involvement in such a dangerous activity led to the social expectation for men to be brave. This can be dangerous because it can lead people to repress their emotions or aspects of their authentic identity if they oppose the gendered expectations of their society.

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In Sex and Temperament, Mead discusses how certain traits that some members of a biological sex possess have developed into expectations for the entire sex. For example, consider how women are often considered to be more compassionate than men. These expectations for females emerged from cross-cultural social behavior in which women would act maternal toward their children. Yet this expectation was rooted in care-taking responsibilities given to women, not an inherent biological capacity to be more caring than men. Mead also explains that when a trait like care-taking is assigned to one sex, it is “disallowed” in the other (Mead 286). Men were historically hunters in early human societies, which led to the socially constructed belief that male temperament is inherently more brave and aggressive than female temperament. Mead goes on to discuss how once such expectations develop from social behaviors, socially constructed norms continue to reinforce them.

When considering the presence of this trend in our society, consider how Mead discusses the influence of war. She writes, “If a society insists that warfare is the major occupation for the male sex, it is therefore insisting that all male children display bravery and pugnacity” (286). Here Mead suggests that the links humans created between males and bravery back in hunter-gatherer societies, created a social pressure on boys and men to exhibit bravery. Gendering social institutions or actions like war perpetuate gendered social expectations.

When reflecting on how this may be harmful, consider how young boys and girls may respond to social pressures enforced on them solely on the basis of their biological sex. For example, Mead writes that sometimes a society goes so far linking gender to expectations of behavior, that “men are forbidden to show fear” (286). Human experience of course tells us that all humans feel fear. Social pressures to repress such important emotions like fear might lead men to express those emotions in inappropriate, harmful ways. You might also consider how many men and women do not feel they possess the traits identified with their gender. In a society that does not permit defiance of gendered expectations, this might alienate people from understanding their own identities.

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