Cultural Construction of Gender

Gender is largely constructed through an understanding of the binary opposition of male and female—notions of masculinity and femininity that revolve around rigid norms of heterosexuality. There is no room for sexual ambiguity: a "man" is masculine and a "woman" feminine only if he or she has sexual relations with the opposite sex. A "chi-chi man" or "batty boy" is a homosexual male, a highly despised category. The attributes of men and women are regarded as both distinct and interdependent.

Men and women enhance sexual dimorphism mainly through dress, hairstyles, and bodily comportment. Differentiation in dress begins early and is distinguished particularly through school uniforms. Schoolboys from "infants" through high school wear khaki uniforms, while schoolgirls wear variously colored jumpers (depending on district and age). In adolescence, girls are encouraged to hold themselves as ladies by walking erect and maintaining restricted bodily movements that express sexual modesty. On Sundays, both men and women dress up; church ladies, young women, and girls put on frilly frocks and wide flowery hats, while men wear suits. Young women spend a lot of time and resources on elaborate hairstyles.

Sexual attractiveness varies by class and subculture. Generally, young men who are part of the reggae/

dance-hall culture are drawn to women who do not hide their voluptuousness and who demonstrate sexual availability. Working- and middle-class men seek out women who are neat and well groomed. Upper-class men seek "ladies" who aspire to a North American ideal: well coiffed, thin, petite, and "white." Even working- and middle-class men prefer women with lighter complexions, as do women who tend to refer to "black, black" men as "ugly." Rastafarians, by contrast, praise "black" women in the spirit of racial pride and "black is beautiful."

Gender over the Life Cycle Socialization of Boys and Girls

Having children is considered to be a normal, natural, and essential part of life in Jamaica, where children are generally welcome regardless of one's situation. Indeed, a childless woman is referred to derisively as a "mule." Working-class children grow up in multifamily "yards" in the cities and towns or extended family households in the countryside. Children are cared for not only by their parents, but also by older siblings and adults, kin or nonkin.

According to Sargent and Harris (1992), there is a strong preference for daughters, at least among women in the inner city. Boys are said to be harder to control and more likely to get into drugs, gangs, and crime. Girls generally help more around the house, do better in school, and are thought to be less likely to abandon their parents in old age.

The yard or home is the domain of women, and men avoid spending much time there. Their place is beyond the home, in the fields, the streets in the city, the square in the country, bars, and the work place. The yard is considered to be a place of safety and nurturance while the world beyond is seen as dangerous, especially in the inner city. Young children are closely watched and confined to the home until they are old enough to go to school.

There is little difference in the socialization of boys and girls until they begin "basic school" at the age of 4 or 5. From then on, however, they live in increasingly sexually segregated worlds. Mothers are strict with daughters and burden them with household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after younger siblings. Consequently, girls learn hard work and responsibility at an early age. Girls take pride in their household responsibilities but may resent the privileged position of boys.

Mothers give their sons some household chores, so they can learn to take care of themselves, but not to the same extent as girls. If a chore requires leaving the yard, or if it is "rough work," then it will be given to a boy.

Children are generally believed to be "rude," and are subjected to harsh discipline to teach "manners." Discipline takes the form of verbal threats, "bad words," and "floggings" by the mother or father and other adults in the household. Mothers are generally responsible for the discipline of young children and girls. Older boys are believed to be particularly "rough" and therefore in need of a father's discipline. Although a boy may have little contact with his father, who may not live with or near him, boys receive significantly more punishment than girls and physical abuse is a problem, particularly with stepfathers (Bailey, Branche, McGarrity, & Stuart, 1998).

Puberty and Adolescence

The socialization of boys and girls diverges more sharply in adolescence. Parents try to confine girls to the home to avoid pregnancy, which would bring shame on the girl and her family and interfere with her education and future employment prospects. Boys, on the other hand, are now hanging out on the street, the domain of men, and becoming independent. Mothers know that they should not be too "soft" on boys. If a boy stays at home and does household chores, he risks being labeled a "mamma-boy." Men are expected to be strong, tough, dominant, and providers. Boys need to move to the streets to develop these characteristics.

Girls attend school more often than boys, generally do better in school, and receive more education, mainly because school is essentially a feminine institution. The adolescent boy is learning that a man should be making money to support women, a household, and perhaps a flashy lifestyle. Consequently, boys tend to leave school earlier than girls. However, there are few economic opportunities for adolescent boys who drop out of school, at least in the formal sector. They gather in peer groups, on street corners or at "rum shops," talking, joking, drinking, dancing, gambling, playing dominoes or sports, and making advances to passing girls. Assuming they have money, adolescent males will dress up in flamboyant fashions and sport at dance clubs and bars in the evening. The lack of jobs and pressure to have money lead many in the inner city into drug dealing, gangs, hustling, and theft at a surprisingly young age.

The most pressing concern of adolescence is becoming sexually active. Parents rarely discuss sex with their children, who learn from older peers. While protecting their daughters, parents ignore or at least tolerate the sexual activity of their sons. Male sexual prowess is idealized in the culture. In order to be a man, a boy must become sexually active, preferably with several girls, and is under pressure from his peers to do so. He must also prove his heterosexuality, because men are homophobic. Boys generally become sexually active between the ages of 14 and 15, and girls between 16 and 17.

Attainment of Adulthood

A boy becomes a man when he is able to defend himself, dominate women, and is sexually active. He can then enter into a regular sexual relationship publicly. He becomes an adult when he earns enough money to establish a household and support himself, a woman, and his children. This is particularly difficult for working-class men, owing to a lack of good jobs. Consequently, for many men adolescence is prolonged well into their twenties, during which time they may continue to live with their parents.

A girl starts to become a woman with her first menses. In order to be an adult, she must break free of the generally severe restrictions of her parents. In the middle class, this is often accomplished through marriage. However, in the working-class majority, it is typically achieved through pregnancy, which could be seen as an act of rebellion or defiance. In 1996, 47% of women having their first child were under the age of 20. The first pregnancy for a teenager living with her parents assumes a ritualized process akin to a rite of passage. The pregnancy is first met with strong disapproval by her parents, causing the girl to seek refuge with kin or friends who intercede with her parents on her behalf so that she can return home. After the birth of the child, the girl's mother assumes full control over it, but it is understood that the daughter will be responsible for the care of subsequent children (Chevannes, 1993).

Subsequently, a young woman is freer to enter into the world of the street and adult life and form relationships with men, both casual and long-term, including co-residential unions. Typically, a working-class woman will have several "visiting" relationships in her late teens and twenties, resulting in children from several fathers. Pregnancy sometimes seems to be an attempt to "cement" a relationship (Brody, 1974). The illegitimacy rate is very high—87% in 1995. Of those born out of wedlock, the father was legally registered in only 41% in 1995, although a majority will acknowledge paternity informally and offer some support.

Middle Age and Old Age

Marriage is an exalted state of union in Jamaica, a special and relatively rare relationship, carrying high prestige. Slaves were not permitted to marry, but missionaries made marriage a priority following Emancipation, and marriage is still a major issue in Christian churches today. In the working class, marriage is the ultimate culmination of a relationship, not the beginning, and so it occurs late, if at all. In fact, marriage tends to occur near the end of, rather than before or during, child-bearing. Eighty percent of the total population is legally single, including 69% of those over the age of 16. On the other hand, many adults are involved in relatively long-term, often stable, co-residential "common-law" unions. The marriage rate has been increasing of late, rising from 4.7 marriages per 1,000 people in 1989 to 10.3 in 1999. The average age at first marriage is 33. According to a recent report in the Jamaica Weekly Gleaner (December 20-26, 2001), Jamaica has the latest age of first marriage for women and the second-latest age for men in the world. Marriage is more common, and occurs earlier, in the middle and upper classes, than in the working-class majority. One important reason for the low rate of marriage, and the late age of marriage, is lack of economic stability for men in young adulthood.

Marriage is a sign of conjugal and economic stability, and it garners respect in the community, signified by the use of the honorific titles "Mister" and "Mistress." It is perhaps a prerequisite for active involvement in church and community organizations and affairs.

Older adults often become parents again, in that a great deal of child-shifting goes on. The most common form is for a young working women, in a city or abroad, to send some of her children home to the country to be minded by her aging mother or parents.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

If Pregnancy Is Something That Frightens You, It's Time To Convert Your Fear Into Joy. Ready To Give Birth To A Child? Is The New Status Hitting Your State Of Mind? Are You Still Scared To Undergo All The Pain That Your Best Friend Underwent Just A Few Days Back? Not Convinced With The Answers Given By The Experts?

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment