What Does Gatekeeping Really Mean?
A fun TikTok term yes, but also something much more sinister, says Jade Carpenter.
You know when you have loved a musician or band since they were up-and-coming and under-the-radar and suddenly they become very mainstream and all your pals who wouldn’t listen to their music before become fans? We’ve all been there, you can’t help but state that you ‘knew them before they were big’ right? It’s like a knee-jerk reaction. Even though you’re actually delighted your fave tunes are being played on road trips with the gals, part of you has an inexplicable rage that they believe they are just as big a fan as you are when you’ve known the artist longer…
It’s the classic, ‘oh you like The Rolling Stones? Name five songs.’ The idea that they aren’t ‘real’ fans because they don’t know as much as you or for as long as you. While it’s irrational, we’ve all felt it in some way and it’s not that big a deal because at the end of the day people are allowed to like whoever they want, and we know we are just being internally petty.
But this feeling, or the action of acting on this feeling and saying ‘If you didn’t like Harry Styles at his One Direction, you don’t deserve him at his Harry’s House’ for example, is known as ‘gatekeeping’ in pop-culture today.
Like how people on TikTok say they are ‘gatekeeping’ where they got their favourite dress so everyone can’t go buy it. Or when followers give out to influencers for ‘gatekeeping’ their skincare routine because they need to know how to get that glazed doughnut look ASAP!
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According to Oxford Dictionary gatekeeping is “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.” The term has been thrown around and used in quite a light-hearted way online, and people labelling themselves ‘gatekeepers’ is quite common place when they are technically wanting to restrict access to something. But there is a more sinister side to the term that many aren’t talking about. Or perhaps not realising at all.
When I originally googled it, I found a lot of information that I didn’t expect to see and thought I couldn’t be the only one who didn’t know the full story. Gatekeeping, in a relationship can be a serious and destructive behaviour. This can be happening in both romantic and platonic relationships and is a form of control. This is a very different definition than what had appeared on fyp, and while of course we must not use TikTok as our only source of information the serious contrast between the content on this topic struck me.
“It’s very much about control, and that then can demean the other person and take their independence away,” says Dr Gillian Moore Groarke, Consultant Psychologist at Irishpsychology.com.
“Gatekeeping essentially is micromanaging somebody and making them accountable and not giving them that sense of choice in a relationship,” she continued.
And no, this doesn’t mean the time when you really want something particular for dinner and you’re trying to convince your partner to change their choice. Dr Gillian explains, “We all probably try to veer our partners behaviour in one direction or another at different times. It might be to buy a particular piece of furniture for a house or it might be ‘I prefer this colour to that’, It doesn’t have a consequence.
“When it has a personal consequence, that person knows exactly what they’re doing and in some ways it’s like a grooming process to get their own way and that’s where it’s destructive and damaging.”
The flippant use of the term can be confusing as if we relate to the other explanation of gatekeeping, we could start to question whether we are doing something terrible by asking our partner not to go ahead with a series without you or joking around with your friends about a singer.
An example of gatekeeping given by expert blogger Sylvia Smith on marriage.com, is when one partner asks the other partner to do a household chore, but then “supervise[s] them intensely and thoroughly, revealing they can’t execute it to your standard.”
Imagine how annoying that would be? Let alone uncomfortable. Gatekeeping leaves the victim feeling demeaned and unsure of themselves which is not what you want to feel from a partner, or anyone for that matter.
Dr Gillian explains that like many forms of control this can be disguised as a helping hand by the ‘gatekeeper’ who often preys on vulnerable people. But these covers are usually quite quick to fade when there’s ill intent at play.
“All aspects of control start off as ‘I’m only doing this for your own good’, there’s a lot of reassurance. And often even spoiling type of behaviour and then eventually that spoiling and the niceties can fall very foul very quickly when you don’t think they’re true and then that leads you to a potentially emotionally and sometimes physically abusive relationship,” Dr Gillian says.
Ironically, the term comes from the idea of looking out for someone and actually protecting them from something. Dr Gillian says, “Historically the ‘gatekeeper’ was the person who looked out for everybody else but there’s a difference between looking out for somebody and having their best interests at heart rather than controlling them…They might be pointing out a behaviour pattern that’s not good for you or not good for those that are around you or that’s going to have consequences for you.” This is not gatekeeping.
With all the chat of gatekeeping being fine and the use of the term online these days, it can be easy to forget or even totally miss this side of the conversation. Let’s not normalise it in this case, let’s help those who are experiencing it.
The act of toxic gatekeeping can actually be a symptom of a personality disorder within the person carrying out the destructive behaviour.
“Gatekeeping is one aspect of an awful lot of those disorders. And there’s huge issues around trust, so sometimes it’s linked with a personality disorder other times it’s a symptom of perhaps unresolved trauma or poor attachment styles in their own up bringing. You can look at this from different angles. But either way, it’s very destructive and demeaning for the person that is falling victim,” Dr Gillian says.
With this in mind, she also offers some advice for anyone who might find themselves in this situation, “If you’re a victim of gatekeeping [I’d recommend] individual therapy rather than couples therapy, because you need to make yourself strong. If you choose to stay in that relationship, you have to live with the consequences. Certainly, if there’s kids involved or financial commitments it can also be difficult to walk away. But I think if you have real healthy maturity, you will spot [gatekeeping] very quickly.”
Not quite the humorous slant on the term you might have expected, is it? With the broadness of the internet especially TikTok when content goes viral, it’s so easy to join in and go along with a trend or a new phrase, I’ve been guilty of it too. And this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the videos on your feed or that you can’t joke around about ‘discovering’ Dermot Kennedy because you liked him before now.
But sometimes looking a bit further into what you are labelling yourself or someone else, can unveil a whole other meaning that you didn’t intend to use. In the case, as Dr Gillian says “clinically, [gatekeeping is] nothing but a different term for controlling manipulative behaviour.”
If you have dealt with any of these issues and need to talk to someone, check out Irishpsychology.com or call Women’s Aid 24hr helpline 1800 341 900 or Men’s Aid helpline 01 554 3811 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm).
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