Gender Stereotypes in Oral Culture

“A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Ora y transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in a their subtlety, and in the smallest of details.” 1

Oral culture is transmitted by word of mouth, through oral transmission. Generally speaking, oral traditions have been far more faithfully passed on through time than the written word as it was not only a word that was transmitted, but a way of living. Nothing could be preached or dogmatised because it was passed on through what was truly lived. It was an understanding of how people lived and therefore captured a way of living, not a definition.

We live in societies that have certain ideals and belief systems around masculine and feminine identities. Every man and every woman lives multiple roles on a daily basis conforming to the expectations society places upon them. These roles, which are culturally constructed, provide us with symbols and ideas out of which we construct a sense of what is real. This is what we then live in the manifestation of those roles as daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, professionals, young and older women and men, etc. If through oral culture we share a way of living, it is not hard to see that its main expressions (proverbs, aphorisms, anecdotes and everyday sayings) play crucial roles in the transmissions of patterns, behaviours and images of what is desirable that support such a way of living. Although oral culture may be a truthful sharing of a way of living, by no means, truth (as defined in the introductory comments) has to be part of a way of living though. This fact is clearly reflected by the amount of stereotypes that are present in the oral culture expressions that reflect ways of living that are reduced versions of what we may call true ones. Thanks to this, stereotypes ended up being part of the social coordinates of the world we live in that we internalise and accept as part of reality.

What are stereotypes? They are types of schemes used for orientation in the social environment to represent the opinions among members of a certain group about other groups. They also help people to organise their knowledge about the world around them by sorting and simplifying received information. Stereotypes are internalised during the socialisation process and they work well with the human need to categorise the world. This categorisation avoids to truly connect to each individual member of society as there is a general information pool that can be applied to all members of a group. Reducing different groups of people to stereotypes pretends that one understands and is able to predict behaviour and therefore is in control of social relations. You don’t have to connect to each individual and understand who they are and how they are likely to act as this is all contained in the stereotype. Due to simplification and generalisation that underlie them, stereotypes produce incomplete, subjective and sometimes false images of reality. Stereotypes are often based on traditional cultural aspects and very resistant to change. Although they can have both positive and negative undertones, the latter is much more common.2

Gender is perhaps the most stereotypical issue reflected in the oral culture tradition. If we look at female-related proverbs they describe a negatively tainted perception of women through various languages and cultures. Language mirrors a social reality and women have been perceived through the ages with mostly negative values. In contemporary use, for example, the words crone, witch and virgin are all negative description of women that transmit that they are evil, threatening or sexually inexperienced. But the meanings were not always the same. “The crone was the old woman whose life experience gave her insight, wisdom and respect and the power to enrich people’s lives. The witch was the wise-woman healer, the knower of herbs, the midwife, and the link joining body, soul and temporal life. The virgin was a woman who was unattached, unclaimed and unowned by any man and therefore independent and autonomous.”3

This shows that, over time, female identity became a very limited version or vision of what it used to be. In line with this, today, known versions of feminine identity recognise her only in the socially assigned roles of being a mother, wife, daughter, etc. that is, in a mere functional and instrumentalized way. Women are hardly honoured for themselves as women in their female power and for what they bring to society. Women are always seen in their roles and their social value is attached to those roles as perfectly described in the following proverb: “Single women are gold, married women are silver, widows are copper and old women are tinplate.”4

What stands out about women proverbs is the “fact that the majority of them may be easily understood cross-culturally, even though they originate from all sorts of ‘foreign’ cultures and are characterised by huge cultural differences.”5

This means they reflect some common characteristics, needs and experiences related to living in male or female bodies and the social roles assigned to them and the way of how they relate to each other. This can be attributed to how life is distributed generally based on the division of labor in many countries. The question to ask here is going deeper in terms of how could any organisation of social life bring this absolutely unequal, though universally common treatment of both sexes, where women are degraded, dishonoured, robbed of their basic human rights and reduced to their physical reproductive functioning and men are attributed a supposed freedom and power over others that totally disconnects them from who they truly are.

Looking at it from this perspective it seems more that both sexes have lost their equal place in a society where power and privileges over others have become the norm and men and women are aspiring this way of life battling for their appropriate place instead of arresting those ill patterns.

“What is required from people in all societies is learning to let others be themselves without labels, assumptions or categories” 6 and letting go of identities that force us into roles as wives/ husbands, mothers/fathers, etc as an all consuming occupation instead of understanding them as one aspects of our relationship with others.

We are not defined by what we do, but by who we are, and in our beingness we are all equal.

“Instead of getting hard ourselves and trying to compete, women should try and give their best qualities to men — bring them softness, teach them how to cry.” ~Joan Baez, “Sexism Seen but not  Heard,” Los Angeles Times, 1974


by Rachel Andras


1( e.php 30.04.2015) 2( 30.04.2015 and stereotyping-phenomenon-in-tv-commercials/ 30.04.2015 3Johnston (1997:39) 4 Cecilia Bohl De Faber: 15.03.2015 5 Kochman-Haładyj, B. (2012:266) 6 Kochman-Haładyj, B. (2012:276)



– Kochman-Haładyj, B. (2012) ‘(Negative) perception of women in proverbs across cultures of the changing world’ file:///C:/Users/ user/AppData/Local/Temp/ Kochman_Haladyj.pdf

– Malgorzata Wolska (2011) GENDER STEREOTYPES IN MASS MEDIA. CASE STUDY: ANALYSIS OF THE GENDER STEREOTYPING PHENOMENON IN TV COMMERCIALS: https:// media-case-study-analysis-of-the-gender- stereotyping-phenomenon-in-tv-commercials/

– stereotypes.ppt/sld003.htm – narrative/oral-to-written-cultur e.php

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