Culture And Gender


Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

Gender, the way it is defined and lived, and gendered relations are usually determined by culture. As research shows us, the way we live in a place usually relates to the environment and the history, as well as the economics and geography of the place.

Historically, much of Bahamian culture was determined by colonial Victorian influence. Victorian morality and respectability determined that men behaved in a certain way and women behaved in another.

However, as social historian Barbara Bush and literary and historical specialist Moira Ferguson show, women were subject to men and their behaviour was determined by masculine understandings of what acceptable female behaviour should look like.

At the same time, feminine behaviour was also determined by class. With the development of colonial outposts to “manage” a plantation economy, racial differences were also introduced and further complicated the way gendered behaviour could be understood.

Only European women could be deemed respectable and acceptable. Enslaved African women and Mulatas were not respectable, although they worked extremely hard to fit into the Victorian strictures of respectable femininity.

Masculinity was also determined by class. Gentlemen were well educated, could shoot, ride and conduct business, for example. To be a gentleman was valued. However, many “gentlemen” were also rogues under the cover of dark.

This roguish behaviour has been a real part of Bahamian social life for decades, if not centuries.

Roguishness meant that a respectable man could have his family, and, as long as he could afford it, his dalliances. Society had a funny way of turning a blind eye to men’s affairs as long as they did not disturb the status quo by bringing home an unacceptable woman.

Women, on the other hand, were not so lucky. It was extremely easy for a woman to fall from grace based on her choice of husband or boyfriend.

Today, this history still haunts us, but the culture has been completely transformed, except in certain ways.

Historically, men were in charge of the public sphere and women controlled the private sphere in a rather quiet sort of way, but they were still chattels.

Now, the idea of respectability has been turned upside down with the increase in the proliferation of American popular culture and social media.

In fact, this has been rather explosive. Culture has continued to work in a particular way to define acceptable masculine behaviour and femininity, but these have been left far behind by the use of Facebook and the popularity of showing everything online.

We have become a culture of women and men exposing it all. Young girls find it completely acceptable to post images of themselves in all their glory. Videos of girl-on-girl fights, sexual acts and myriad other socially irresponsible acts have been shared. People “like” these and they go viral. Persons become famous for five minutes.

At the same time, young women are happy to indulge in sexual acts for a “thigh snack” and a blue Mystic – the cutters’ special.

School students appear in videos performing sexual acts on campus. These are posted to social media and the girls supposedly suffer, or are made to suffer by the social structure, not the boys.

At the same time, males have a hard time building themselves on the old understanding of what it meant to be a man. They do not have reliable employment, nor do they have adequate education. This is especially so in the wake of yet more job losses.

While young men are unable to define their behaviour in ways their grandfathers or fathers would have because the culture has changed so much, they are made to understand that toughness and coldness are the way to be.

As both femininity and masculinity have changed, they have been increasingly defined as violent, rough, tough and out for cash.

The tensions between the old and the new.

We inhabit a time where culture is shifting as fast as globalisation pushes it, we are always catching up with what has already happened. Sadly, the real economy in the Bahamas today needs qualified people and we tell young men that they should not be qualified.

Images from social media encourage that tough, uneducated, feared gangster role. We also discourage young men from educating themselves because that makes them “soft”, according to street culture.

Respect has changed. It used to be that women were respectable when they conducted themselves with Victorian virtue and morality, and men were respectable when they behaved as gentlemen.

It now means being in fear of and fear-filled respect for someone who, if not respected will kill you, if you are a young man, or slap you if you are a young woman. Some young women care little if people know about their sexual exploits, in fact, they will celebrate them.

We often talk about teaching our children the right way to be, but for whom is it right?

We encourage bullying and violence in the streets and teach them no other way to behave, yet we expect them to leave street behaviour in the streets.

How can they change their behaviour when they have no other skills, they know no other way of being? There has been an absolute shift in respectable and acceptable behaviour, especially for youth from lower socio-economic groups.

What was not acceptable in the past is now celebrated with five minutes of fame on social media.

The political race for the White House between the Democrats and the Republicans has similarly transformed into what would have once been disrespectable, unacceptable behaviour, yet the images of masculinity and femininity that emanate from that show a new kind of respectability and accepted gendered behaviour.

The person who can be the most divisive and verbally threatening or violent takes the race.

So much for old ideas of gentlemanly conduct and respectability!

If this is the trend in the globalised world, and we teach our children no differently, how do we expect them to behave?

To be respected now means to be feared and to be accepted now means to have five minutes of fame from social media be it through sexual exploits or gun-toting thuggery. Everyone is now respectable; all that matters is that they have tweets, followers and likes.


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