If you have siblings (especially if you're close), you may feel like you know too much about them. You've spent enough time together to memorize everything from their favorite pizza toppings to their emotional triggers. But while you've likely pondered just how much your sibling has shaped you and vice versa, you may not realize how much your relationship with your sibling is shaped by gender norms. It's no surprise, really, that siblings have a profound and lasting impact on each other — after all, the relationship you have with your siblings is arguably the longest-lasting relationship you'll have in your life. Because the gender binary is so insidious, though, the impactful relationship we have with our siblings is gendered in many ways we've long since internalized without notice.
As children, our earliest influences pertaining to gender norms come by way of familial interactions. We are exposed to belief systems from parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, and those beliefs directly affect how we view ourselves and our siblings in the context of gender. How does that old rhyme go? "Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, that's what little boys are made of ... sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of." From a young age, we are imprinted with the notion of what it means to be masculine and feminine, and those notions permeate our interactions with others — particularly siblings, with whom we spend so much of our formative years.
And while we may not be aware of it, those early internalizations follow us into young adulthood and beyond. Here are a few ways you may not have realized your sibling relationship is based on gendered norms.
1. The Advice You Seek
Most of us can identify in some way with being exposed to traditional gender roles growing up, whether that exposure came through our home life or school. For example, boys and young men are taught to be chivalrous and hold doors open for girls — not just because it is good manners, but because she may not be strong enough to do so herself. (Even though odds are, she's plenty strong enough to do it, and capable of opening doors for other people, too.) The paradigm of the damsel in distress is fortified through fairy tales. If you have brothers, this may very well continue to play out to this day (whether you like to admit it or not). For as fiercely independent and feminist as I am, looking at the way I interact with my siblings serves as a stark reminder of this. When I call my brother for advice, nine times out of 10, it is for his help with something "masculine": Moving, some sort of perceived threat, advice on how to fix something. When I call my sister for advice, it is often about our kids or something beauty-related. Face, meet palm.
2. Expressions of Affection
Don't get me wrong; I adore my brother, just as I adore my sister. We are incredibly lucky to be a particularly tight trio. However, there is a certain affection level I display with my sister that simply isn't present in my interactions with my brother. According to a study titled "Influences on Sibling Relationships," this isn't uncommon and is actually based on gendered norms — the "warmth-closeness characteristic" is greater between same-gender siblings. This is likely due to preconceived notions of what is considered appropriate behavior for a man versus a woman. Woman are widely accepted as more emotional, touchy, sensitive, and openly affectionate while men are expected to be more stoic and reserved with their affections.
For the record, I am a grownass woman and the only one assigning me chores these days is me. However, I do travel back to my hometown to stay with my parents during the holidays. It is during these extended stays that my siblings and I often fall into a familiar pattern of household chores. My brother (along with my husband and brothers-in-law) is assigned active and maintenance-related roles, such as firing up the grill or mowing the lawn. My sisters and I inevitably wind up participating in more domestic chores — over Easter, we cooked, did dishes, and kept the kids from throwing a coup. Anytime my siblings and I are together, this throwback to gendered childhood chores seems to surface. There is evidence to suggest this could be due to a phenomenon known as de-identification, by which siblings of the opposite sex are more likely to adhere to gender norms.
According to a study on gender role portrayals, researchers found that picture books for the preschool audience often feature male characters as more assertive and explorative and female characters as more passive and social. Think back to your favorite picture books growing up. Kinda makes sense, right? It's no wonder then that opposite sex siblings tend to fall into this archetypal hierarchy when together. Even when the female sibling is spirited and outspoken, as is the case with my fam, she may still defer authority to her male sibling when they are together. (Although, to be sure, this dynamic can be drastically different if a large age gap exists between an older sister and younger brother.)
When my sister and I hang out, yes, we absolutely do things of substance and discuss important ideas. However, we also enjoy activities like shopping, gossiping, getting mani-pedis and other traditionally "girly" stuff. I'm a firm believer that being feminine does not diminish my feminism. However, QT with my bro looks quite a bit different, and yours probably does too. Thanks to the gender binary, it's unlikely I'll ever drag my brother to Brookstone with me, even though I suspect he'd be in nirvana over those high-fangled foot massagers. And, despite his dire need for cuticle care, odds are slim I'll convince him to come with me on a mani-pedi date.
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