What my summer job taught me about gender norms

“Is it ok if I change my mind about these even if I’m not a woman?”

The above is a comment I received from a man during my summer job at a garden centre; it was regarding a flat of pansies the man wanted to exchange.

The man-made the comment in passing and went on with his shopping, I awkwardly laughed in response then hastily walked away. The joke that he probably soon forgot was left rolling around my mind for the rest of the day.

I wasn’t necessarily offended by his comment as much as I was shocked. I was shocked because at university I am generally surrounded by people my age who understand how silly gender norms are and who are educated enough to identify and avoid sexism. But at my job, I was faced with a different demographic. And as it turned out this comment was not a one-off thing, but part of a trend brought on by seemingly harmless flowers.

While at work, I was faced with a few overtly sexist or misogynistic comments such as a man asking if he could buy one of my female co-workers for $11.99 (the price of a hanging basket), but the most common pattern was men acting embarrassed to be seen buying flowers. In short, it was a fear of engaging with what was traditionally stereotyped as feminine, aka toxic masculinity.

Most often we had older men act defensive when we asked them the most basic of questions (“Do you want a sun or shade plant?”), most responded that they had no idea what they were looking for and would explain they had no opinion as they were buying the flowers as an errand from their wife. They would then act offended that I assumed they even cared about flowers.

As I was writing this article I realized I wasn’t 100% sure what the definition of toxic masculinity was so as any good student would do I went to my secondary sources, in this case, the New Yorker. The New Yorker explains “toxic masculinity” as “What can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak.”

Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly

So how is a fear of flowers an example of toxic masculinity? Well, bear with me for a few lines.

Traditionally in ancient Greece flowers were a symbol of femininity as they represented fertility, this idea seems to have carried to our current time as items marketed to young girls and even women are signified often by the presence of flowers. As flowers are linked to women, flowers are then linked to emotions due to the stereotype that women are more emotional than men. This association with emotional women and flowers is strengthened due to the fertility associated with flowers and during a woman’s time of the month (this assumption, of course, is not always true and inherently sexist, but I digress).

Hence flowers as a symbol of fertility and femininity are closely linked to excess emotion, and traditional masculinity dictates a lack of expressing emotion.

Thus, the man who made the comment about changing his mind probably felt he had to justify the fact that he cared about flowers by making a sexist joke likening himself to a woman but at the same time putting himself as a man on higher ground.

The men who acted frazzled and annoyed when asked about flowers probably didn’t want to seem “feminine”. Obviously caring about what flowers are going in your garden is not feminine or masculine, it’s just about wanting your garden to look nice.

Now, this isn’t anywhere close to the most harmful type of toxic masculinity. In fact, it’s very surface level. Still, it’s indicative of a trend that needs to end. The trend that some things that are deemed “manly” and others that are deemed “womanly”.

People should be able to dress how they want, do what they want, and act how they want without worrying if they’re upsetting some imaginary gender equilibrium.

This summer I learned that Geraniums thrive in the sun and Begonia’s in the shade and I also learned that outside of my own bubble the world isn’t always as progressive. That’s why it’s important to educate younger generations so that in the future anyone can change their mind about a flat of pansies (or whatever else they want to change their mind about)—regardless of gender.

Featured Image sourced from https://media.giphy.com/media/O9tF0Fq4GhdxS/source.gif


Tessa Warburton is an Online Contributor for MUSE Magazine

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