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Pink for Girls, and Blue for Boys. Gender Role Lies We Were Told Growing up

by Ioana Pelehatăi, illustrations by Livia Coloji

Coddled, fragile, sensitive. Virile, strong, cerebral. The homemaker and the breadwinner.  Family versus career. The list of stereotypes that was born out the masculine/feminine construct could go on forever. And it’s so extensive that it seems to have been here since the dawn of time.

Just that it hasn’t.

There is no such thing as a “natural”, innate, way of being a woman, a man, or anything else for that matter. There are rules, obstacles, “dos and don’ts” that we hand down from one generation to the next. We use them to build societies. And these prohibitions that allow us to live our gender so one-sidedly, affect each and every one of us.


 “What were you told that a lady/man should never do?”


Inspired by the 12th edition of the Ideo Ideis National Festival of Youth Theater that asked its teens the question “Who’s lying to you?”, I asked three men and three women about what interdictions helped them build their gender identities and how they managed to rid themselves of them. We wanted to find out from different generations of artists, journalists, and social science professionals who lied to them when they were children.  

 “I’m not a man, I’m just a child, but I have a good chance of becoming a man one day, so it’s not fit for me to cry”

I remember a scene from my childhood. I’m at the kitchen table with my mom, dad, and sister. We’re eating. Someone, most likely my dad, criticizes me about something. I start crying. I am a child and crying comes just as natural to me as laughing does. I laugh and cry easily. When I cry, people laugh at me. They tell me men never cry. I am not a man, not yet. I am just a child, but I have a good chance of becoming a man one day, so it’s not fit for me to cry. Crying is for girls and women, so I’m told. When I laugh, they don’t tell me anything. Laughter is unisex, but crying is just for girls and women. This is what they keep telling me.

Meanwhile, I became a man. I am father of two. I’ve never been embarrassed to cry in front of my children. Crying is our way, the people’s way, of showing our emotions, I keep telling them. It’s important to express our emotions, be it through words, or otherwise. Crying is another way to do it. What I was told as a child seems so stupid to me now. I cry at movies, at everything that touches me. My children are the ones that make me the most emotional. They are the most touching movie there is. Sometimes, I just hold them in my arms and start crying. I cry tears of joy just because they exist, and that is exactly what I tell them when they ask me why I am crying. (Iulian Tănase, writer)

 “You write well, like a man!”

“A lady must not smoke, drink, wear short skirts, or sloppy clothes, talk dirty, go out alone late at night” and so on and so forth. Naturally, some of these rules influenced my life. But I see that I’ve broken pretty much all of them, except for the one about drinking. I don’t drink at all, but hey, just give me a second, because I feel like starting just to tick everything that’s on that damn list.

And let’s not forget that, when we came into this world, society also handed us, women, a list with some things that a lady simply “must” do: children, take care of her family and her man (because a man with wrinkly socks and a food stain on his shirt is simply mirroring his wife, duh!), pretend she doesn’t notice when he strays, shut up when he comes home from work angry. As for myself, I don’t have children, I chose my husband from the category of men who share the housework with their wives, and doesn’t wait for someone to wash his underwear. As far as the rest of the items on the list, it’s out of the question, so that’s settled. But I still know my place when I see that a reader likes how I think and what I write, but doesn’t like me when I use the word “shit”; so, even though he deeply regrets it, he’s forced to unfriend me. I keep thinking of a story about a 2017 Romeo who leaves Juliet for saying “shit”, and then goes on to kill himself like an idiot and how it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.  

All in all, you’d think that I’ve freed completely myself from under the weight of gender stereotypes, right? Yahoo! NOT! When myself and Mihai Radu wrote Women are from Venus, men are drinking (Femeile vin de pe Venus, bărbații de la băut) and the other one, there have been moments when I chose to give him some of the jokes, so that I don’t ruin them by adding my feminine touch to them. I’m no prude (I do write “poo”, ha-ha!), but there are things that sound off when they come from a woman, and so damn funny when they come from a man. There still are.

The paradox is that even though I don’t feel free to write just about anything that a man could, I’ve been told so many times in the last 10 years, that “you write well, like a man”. Because – and we’ve known this since the dawn of time – “women aren’t all that at writing”, the same way “there aren’t all that good at many things”. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. (Simona Tache, journalist and writer)

 “A man never gets depressed”

A man never gets depressed. He doesn’t have the right to do it, not if he does all the things that he needs to do right, if he works hard, if he’s reliable. And if he does get depressed, then it’s certainly because he doesn’t have something to do, he’s being melancholic and lost, just like a woman. From an evolutionary standpoint, the man had to go hunting to put food on the table, so he didn’t have any time to lose and ponder immortality, otherwise the deer would flee. The woman was the one who stayed at home and had time for all that useless crap.

In all of the countries I’ve lived in, from the US to Italy, this is the conventional wisdom, even in those cases where depression isn’t being discredited, but treated as a real disease. In some strange cases, I’ve heard about this limit of masculinity even from women who consider themselves feminists. Assertiveness, ambition, persistence, and sometimes aggressiveness, were all ingredients considered necessary to make it in our modern society; they were perceived masculine qualities, traits of a warrior. Depression has never resonated with this.  

There are many men who have gotten this idea into their heads, without even knowing it. That’s why it’s so hard for them to ask for help when they need it. (Dani Sandu, sociologist)

 “I chose to be upset, rather than upset others”

A lady must always try to appeal to others. To be mysterious, not have any radical opinions, not get into fights, and always look perfect put together. I’ve never actually been told these words, but somehow, in my subconscious, I’ve always known this. The romantic concept of women in movies and fairy tales, a role you constantly try to act out in order to meet your own expectations. I’ve felt both boyish and feminine, but always in a safe percentage. Nobody’s ever told me “you’re not allowed to do this because you’re a girl”, but I’ve assumed it so many times, that it started coming to me naturally. I chose to be upset, rather than upset others.

So many subtle things contribute to this perspective, that they enter your system and become part of you, you recognize them as being part of your feminine nature. But they are not. Your own brain is fooling you. Years and years of improper education, genetic information, and the exposure to a certain type of society – all these things will create a woman who will have trouble finding her own identity. But when she does find it… „Hold onto your hat!” (Raya Al Souliman, director)

 “To think an effeminate man is degrading is simply the result of the idea that being a woman is degrading.”

I’ve played with girls and dolls all throughout my childhood. Girls were my friends. Boys would bore me to death. It was much more interesting and creative getting some rags, and making clothes for your dolls, dress, and fix them up. Then we would put up performances, presentations, fashion shows. During the summer I was 12, I used to wear black knee-high boots and very short jeans. I was a fan of Ambra Angiolini. I would play elastic all day long. I could sense all the ironies and insults, but my passions simply shone through all of that. When I was 14, and my moustache started peeking through, they settled on the question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”. That shade of a moustache was enough to be placed in the category that most people like. When the ironies and insults turned into aggression and various threats, my survival instinct was much stronger than my passions and I said to myself that I needed to conform. But nothing really changes the way you think. You know that you are different, and you start feeling an intense sense of fear, that you can’t really shake. The only way to truly shake it is to enter a new environment that supports you and to rediscover yourself the way you were before fear settled in. To think an effeminate man is degrading is simply the result of the idea that being a woman is degrading.

I’ve unfriended some Facebook acquaintances just the other day. They were absolutely disgusted by the London subway’s decision (that came a bit too late, if you ask me) to stop using the phrase “ladies and gentlemen”, to discourage this type of sexist mentality and to include everyone. Their disgust went even further, with them being genuinely worried and asking themselves if, God forbid, unisex bathrooms were next. That’s exactly right. That is what should be next. Along with other countless measures meant to correct these regressive binary mentalities. But the bigger question here is when will some men learn not to pee on the seat? (Bogdan Georgescu, director & playwright)

 “Girls prefer the nest, they have softer ambitions, and let’s not even talk about sexuality…”

I’ve seen this idea floating around quite a bit, the idea that women’s overly sensitive character is specifically meant to shield them. (For example, the dynamic of Cassavetes’ female characters, includes the neuroses of the women whose men used this very issue to mock them. An issue caused by the more or less vocal confirmations from their female partners.) Girls prefer the nest, they have softer ambitions (in a submissive sense), and let’s not even talk about sexuality… The boys’ exhibitionism has always been considered funny, well-received by the provincial audience of the environment I grew up in. Whereas, the the much more feminine desire was met with laughter/gossip and slightly abject remarks. There were also some very concrete things that went well with the irreversible sadness that joins the statement “boys will be boys…” (Things meant for those with a much more nomadic lifestyle, spiced up with dozens of social activities, compared to those that were “fit” for girls.) I fondly think of my grandmother, who every single time I travel or move to a new place, she gets tense and concerned and calls me to say “will you be OK alone? You being a girl and all…” Maybe (I sure hope so) this is her way of expressing her vague disarm facing her own relationship with a world where gender stereotypes still exist.

But for me, the issue shifted a bit, or maybe it has always been in this space: the most intense troubles come with the vulnerability expressed towards the person who doesn’t socially validate a certain lifestyle. Let’s say they prefer a lonelier existence (and are happy with it), and they only find pleasure in their semi-chaotic idiosyncrasies (that feed interests that do not partake to the standard idea of family, sexuality, etc.). Or when, from time to time, they do spend some time with another person and they switch into priceless adoration mode, and give everything right then and there. Can I quote myself on this? Let me live my troubles in peace! (Cosmina Moroșan, poet)


Translated from the Romanian by Cristina Costea.

For more fresh English-language cultural journalism, brought to you by the new voices of Romania, look here.


The 12th edition of the IDEO IDEIS National Festival of Youth Theater, took place in Alexandria, Teleorman County, between August 7-13, 2017. Last year, 10 young participants had this to say about the future.  

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