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Are gender stereotypes evolving with the times?

By Laura Hooberman

Illustration by Paul Windle

In 2018, when the French men’s soccer team won the World Cup, the players reacted to the win with obvious and predictable enthusiasm. In one video, taken in the immediate aftermath of their victory, players are shown storming their coach’s post-game press conference, gleefully dousing their coach, as well as several reporters in the room, with champagne and beer. There was no outrage surrounding this scene at the time. In fact, if you Google (as I did) “2018 French celebration world cup controversy,” nothing related to the incident shows up. But why would anyone have written contentiously about this event? If it were not for the fact that “2019 American celebration world cup controversy” yields a ton of results pertaining to how the US women’s soccer team celebrated their victories throughout the World Cup this year, I would never have thought to investigate whether a winning team’s celebrations had ever lent themselves to public scrutiny and debate.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the controversy, the events I’m referring to here are these: in early June of this year, the U.S. women’s soccer team, defending champions after their 2015 win, headed to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. They performed exceedingly, exceedingly well. But when the players were seen actively, uninhibitedly celebrating a 13-0 win against Thailand, the Internet erupted with criticisms that the team had demonstrated “bad sportsmanship.” These claims accumulated. When Alex Morgan, a player on the team, celebrated her goal with an act of hyperbolic restraint, this, too, was seen as a faux pas.

Leaving arguments about what constitutes ‘good sportsmanship,’ aside, let’s focus, for a moment, on the gendered underpinnings of this narrative. As Morgan herself said: “You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is.” From my perspective, as is (depressingly) so often the case, what’s happening here seems to have a lot more to do with how society expects women, in particular, to act, rather than expressing an issue of decorum across sports broadly. And as is (again, depressingly) frequently true, the script delineating how women should behave seems grossly and unreasonably narrow.

One could argue, perhaps, that my perspective here is misguided. It’s 2019! Our understanding of gender itself has evolved substantially, and so of course, gender stereotypes, too, must have evolved. Right? Curious about this, I looked to see if any research had examined the evolution of gender stereotypes across time. And as it turns out, a team of researchers in 2014 set out to examine this very topic.[1]

In this study, the researchers asked 191 participants (78% of whom identified as White/Caucasian, and whose ages ranged from 19-73), recruited online, to estimate how likely it was that a man, a woman, or a person whose gender was not specified had characteristics, or demonstrated behaviors typically associated with masculinity (e.g., authoritativeness) or femininity (e.g., nurturing qualities). This same design was used in a study in 1984,[2] and so the researchers were able to compare these earlier results against the results of this study to examine the extent to which gender stereotypes had (or had not) evolved in the twenty year interim.

The results? The authors found no difference across the two studies in the extent to which participants associated ‘feminine’ traits and behaviors with women, nor ‘masculine’ traits and behaviors with men. In other words, despite the increased and increasing visibility of women in the workforce, higher education, and, yes, professional sports, as a culture we are as likely to stereotype women as docile nurturers concerned fundamentally with the emotional needs of others (read: not the sort of people who should be openly celebrating a monumental athletic achievement) as we were in 1984.

This feels patently absurd, but not terribly surprising. Who among us could forget (even if you desperately wanted to, as I so often do) that Hillary Clinton, competent, experienced, but ultimately, damningly, unlikable, lost the U.S. presidential election to a man who might be described as a mishmash of cartoon alpha-male qualities all wrapped up in one childishly angry, profoundly thin-skinned package? Our national security, then, is implicated in the extent to which this country engages in gender stereotyping. This, to me, further solidifies the earned status of the U.S. women’s soccer team as a national treasure – not only for their well-earned victory this year, but for their continual efforts to dismantle the ubiquitous narrative that there’s a certain way that women ‘should’ behave. Oh, and for Megan Rapinoe’s soundbites. Every one of them.

[1] Hains, E., Deaux, K., & Lofaro, N. (2016). The Times They Are a-Changing…or Are They Not? A Comparison of Gender Stereotypes, 1983-2014. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(3), 353-363

[2] Deaux, K. & Lewis, L.L. (1984). Structure of gender stereotypes: Interrelationships among components and gender label. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 991-1004

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