The World Needs You to Help Break Down Stereotypes

The World Needs You to Help Break Down Stereotypes

By Ella Cerón
Illustration by Tara Jacoby

There is a punchline in Wonder Woman so subtle and so brilliant, it almost goes unsaid. (If you missed it, don’t worry; it’s on HBO GO right now and I’ll wait for you to watch it until we continue.) The moment happens about halfway through the movie, just before Diana Prince reveals herself to be, y’know, Wonder Woman in the middle of a grey and grisly battlefield. But before she does, resident movie candy Steve Trevor tries to hold her back from scaling the ladder: That’s No Man’s land! No man can cross it.

Obviously, Wonder Woman is not a man. She crosses. She stops the barrage of German gunfire. The Allies storm the trench. She saves the day.

I suppose the sentiment is only funny to you, the audience, because you’ve known who she is all along. (And with the fanfare surrounding it, how could you forget?) But the joke lands a double, bittersweet punch if you have a frame of reference to which you can compare it. Ask anyone who isn’t a white, cisgender, straight man, and they will likely have a story for you. Or, they’ll be stumped momentarily because gosh, where do you even begin picking just one example? There are so many, to the point that being a woman stereotyped and underestimated becomes something like a hum, a current in a woman’s everyday life.

After New England lost this year, a driver held a lengthy conversation with the other guy in my rideshare, before thinking to ask me if I liked the commercials during the game; I told him I was more impressed by the total yardage covered by both teams. Last week, a dude at the gym asked me how I ended up squatting a weight heavier than his own, so I offered it to him and picked up a heavier bar. Mansplaining is a thing that exists, and men have kindly offered to help me swipe into an ATM bay at the bank, check if avocados are ripe at the grocery store, and correctly pronounce “margarita” while on dates. One problem on that last one: I am Mexican.

Could you imagine living life like that? If you can’t, take it from me: it’s exhausting. And here’s the thing: we need your help when it comes to tearing down every old assumption placed upon us to begin with. Because again: we didn’t give ourselves these stereotypes. For the most part, men did — maybe even ones just like you. And whether or not you’re guilty of stereotyping (but then again, who isn’t?) you need to do better to right all of those wrongs. All of us do.

It would be easy enough to count incidences of stereotyping off as simple miscommunications if they didn’t happen so frequently, and if women weren’t constantly made to feel gaslit and question what they knew at nearly every turn in their lives. We are conditioned to say “I think,” before asserting ourselves in meetings, and to apologize for interrupting. The language we use is coded: think how often you hear “you guys” when “y’all” would do just fine, and many of the insults people lob at each other are crudely about human anatomy that has been traditionally coded as female. (And while we’re on that subject, no, it is not a requirement that all women have vaginas. It’s also none of your business or mine if a woman does or doesn’t have one. That’s private. Knock it off.)

We live in a patriarchy and one that could kill us if we are not careful. And I mean all of us: Toxic masculinity doesn’t care if you are “one of them;” it will ruin your life, too. But if you’ve read Twitter at any point during the past few years, you already know that women are fighting back with tools that men have given us. Underestimate us, and it won’t hold us back so much as it will provide another opportunity for us to dunk on you while we prove you wrong. More often than not, stereotyping women only reveals the other person’s weaknesses; if I want to show you up by being able to push more weight than you, I’ll take it. (I’m petty like that.) But the issue extends beyond isolated incidents in the gym.

These moments of doubt, and of antiquated standards follow us every day of our lives, most frequently for women who aren’t white, cisgender, and/or straight. You’ve probably even witnessed them a few times, whether you’ve noticed it or not — perhaps it’s your guy friends who make snide remarks about what their girlfriends “care about.” Maybe you offer to speak at a team meeting, even though your female coworker did the bulk of the work but you think she’s shy so it’s really helping her out, right? (Just wait until she is your boss.) And I am sure you’ve also heard the inverse of this argument: that “true feminists” don’t want you helping them, so just keep doing you and get out of our way.

But you also should understand this: just because women could, in theory, do it all, doesn’t mean that we should be expected to. We didn’t create the mess known as the patriarchy (though women aren’t entirely blameless in its perpetuation, either). And we’re absolutely going to need help dismantling all of the old rules, and forging new ones. So what is an ally to do?

For one — and this is truly the laziest of suggestions because it really is that easy — stop thinking that women need to be treated any other way than simply as people. (And if you feel yourself making an assumption in the back of your mind, text your mom to distract yourself. Bonus: She’d like to hear from you.) That’s it! Don’t even bother with the kid gloves, just treat us like you would anyone else. Our feelings will be just fine if you don’t mince words around us — so long as, again, those words don’t actually reveal some deeply rooted misogyny. (Maybe stop calling people “bitches,” just a thought.)

Treating everyone as equals and ditching stereotypes doesn’t mean that chivalry is dead; it’s just been updated for a modern time. (Also, my dude, you’re probably not a knight. Maybe let the antiquated feudal idea go.) If you are hung up on the fact that you were raised to open doors for women, you don’t need to worry; try opening them for your guy friends, too. Everyone will think you’re nice. And no, I don’t mean that as a stereotype, either. It’s 2018; underestimating someone because you think you know who they are can chill.

Ella Cerón is Teen Vogue's Deputy Editor. She lives in New York, but please don't hold that against her.

In honor of International Women's Day, we are sharing the perspectives of six different women who have written about the five tenets of IWD's #PressforProgress initiative. As part of this project, Bonobos will be donating $5,000 to a charity of the writer's choice. In this case, we'll be donating to the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, an organization that subsidizes legal support to those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace.