On Doing Gender and Being Gendered: Or, How You’re Socially Constructed Too

Gender is socially constructed.

This is a concept that social scientists across a spectrum of fields agree upon, so I’m not opening the floor here for people to start arguing that gender is innate.  We define gender as the socially derived expectations, norms, and roles mapped onto a category of individuals based on sex category; we define sex category as one’s biological assignment based on sexual reproductive role.  It’s worth noting that some societies have a third gender that is not necessarily mapped onto the biological male/female binary, and also worth noting that there are intersexed people who fall outside that biological binary as well.  For the purposes of this post, I am mostly discussing gender in its most commonly-used context, as a socially constructed ideal mapped onto biological males and females.

I hope everyone’s with me so far.

Now, a reader who has been commenting on a different post brought up the question of how one can recognize gender as a social construct and still identify as male or female.  This post is kind of a response to that question (though said reader has been highly antagonistic towards us so I hope ze sees this because I’m not posting the link).  (Yes, I used ze, I’m not assuming gender here.  I’ll get to that in a second.)

Here’s the thing we need to realize: ALL elements of identity are socially constructed.  Identity markers are categories created for the purposes of social organization–everything from what we define as family, to gender, to race or ethnicity…these are social constructs, but they still play a role in defining how we see ourselves.  So if you define yourself in any way, you necessarily buy into some form of social construct.  Psychology tells us that humans defer to categorization in order to understand relationships and qualities-~-the brain works off hierarchies so that recognizing one or two things about a given subject can trigger other thoughts so that conclusions can be drawn without details being needed.  All of these social categories are a general result of this need for social organization.

Rejecting a gender category is actually a very difficult process, given the way our society works.  This brings us to a concept in gender I have probably under-covered on this blog: gender identity vs gender expression.  Gender identity refers to how we see ourselves, but gender expression refers to what we show others.  Society “reads” gender on us, and does so in such a way that if we CAN be put into a category, it will put us into that category.  Cis gendered people’s sex category, gender identity, and gender expression all match, but trans gendered people have a gender identity opposite that assigned to their sex category, and the process of transforming is a change in gender expression such that society will read the correct gender.  Gender non-conforming folk have a gender identity outside the gender binary, which means that gender expression becomes interesting to negotiate, and neither of these necessarily match sex category.

My point here is that gender, while not “innate”, is still fairly ubiquitous in our society.  It is in fact one of the earliest labels we assign to a person, from the moment the doctor announces “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”, and is one of the most basic dividing categories in human history.

The important thing here is that we can buy into a label or a category without it necessarily having to be innate.  Just for example, think about the idea of participating in a religion: religious identity isn’t innate, but it is an important part of many people’s lives.  It comes to influence their values, their lifestyles, etc., but it’s not something inherent to them.  You’re Catholic because you practice Catholicism, nothing more, but that doesn’t make a Catholic identity insignificant.

Similarly, we can buy into a gender identity and accept a gendered label while still recognizing that it is a socially derived category.  In

Disney’s “Mulan” is an easy example of a struggle with gender identity and gendered expectations

fact, because society is organized into labeled categories, it makes sense that people attempt to find the labels which most adequately fit their understandings of themselves.  The problem comes when individuals are forced to remain in categories they feel do not adequately fit them, and in response, society has created alternative labels-~-for example, “genderqueer” or “gender non-conforming”. These are more amorphous categories, created out of a more recent understanding that if gender is truly socially constructed and not innate, then this artificial binary may not capture everyone.

The problem doesn’t come from people accepting labels or buying into identities: it comes from these categories being ranked and ordered, and from groups imposing particular expectations and rules on other groups on the basis of these identities.  Feminism doesn’t necessarily reject the idea of gender, but it does reject the idea that one gender category should be and is prioritized over the other(s).  It rejects the idea that society can impose limits and double-standards on women simply because they are women.  The problem also comes when people make particular presumptions that everyone within a category is the same; while this is in line with my previous argument about categories and hierarchical information storage, the reality is that there are different ways in which people access their gender identity or sexuality, different ways in which a person can be feminine or identify as female, and all of those should be acceptable.  It is when society tells us that our identities are wrong, or that our identities are punishable, that these categories become a harm.

All of that said, at the end of the day, all of us buy into categories that have expectations and assumptions attached to them.  If you haven’t read my post “On Being Cisgendered” (which is about gender non-conformance and accepting gender identity), take a look.  All of us carry with us ways in which we define ourselves, which are socially constructed.  We understand ourselves in relation to the rest of society.  And there’s actually nothing innately wrong with that, either.


~ by Randi Saunders on April 30, 2013.

4 Responses to “On Doing Gender and Being Gendered: Or, How You’re Socially Constructed Too”

  1. “IN THE LAST CHAPTER, I stated that recognizing subconscious sex as separate from physical sex is crucial to furthering a better understanding of transsexuality and anti-trans discrimination. There is at least one other aspect of gender that we must come to terms with before we can discuss the entire spectrum of gender and sexual diversity: gender expression, which refers to whether our presentation, behaviors, interests, and/or affinities are considered feminine, masculine, or some combination thereof.1 Gender expression is regularly confused with subconscious sex and/or sexual orientation. For example, people often assume that transsexuals transition not to align our physical and subconscious sexes, but because we want to express either femininity or masculinity. Similarly, it is common for some people to be mistaken for being lesbian or gay simply because they are somewhat masculine as women go or feminine as men go, respectively. Unlike our sexual orientation and subconscious sex, which are usually invisible to the rest of the world, other people can readily view our gender expression, making it perhaps the most widely commented on, critiqued, and regulated aspect of Indeed, the fact that gender expression is so highly regulated in our society has led many to argue that femininity and masculinity are merely social constructs (i.e., they do not occur naturally, but rather are inventions or artifacts of human culture). According to this social constructionist model, boys are socialized to become masculine and girls feminine; we learn to produce these gender expressions via a combination of positive and negative reinforcement, and through imitation, practice, and performance. Social constructionists point to the fact that the words “femininity” and “masculinity” do not merely describe human behavior, but represent ideals that all people are encouraged to meet. To demonstrate this, they focus much of their attention on socially influenced manifestations of gender expression (often called gender roles), which include feminine and masculine differences in speech patterns and word choice, mannerisms, roles in relationships, styles of dress, aesthetic preferences, interests, occupations, and so on. Social constructionists also argue that the fact that these gender roles can vary over time, and from culture to culture, is indicative of their constructed nature. On the other side of this debate are gender essentialists, who believe that those born male are simply preprogrammed to act masculine, and those born female are preprogrammed to act feminine. Evidence to support their case includes the predominance of femininity in women and masculinity in men, in our culture and other cultures; the fact that girls tend to behave in girlish manner and boys in a boyish manner from a very early age; that even in prehistoric humans, women and men seemed to perform different sets of tasks; and that species other than humans also show signs of gender dimorphic behavior. Among gender essentialists, it’s generally assumed that genetic (and subsequent anatomical and hormonal) differences between females and males are the ultimate source for these behavioral differences. Despite their insistence, such direct links between specific genes and specific gendered behaviors in humans continue to remain elusive. As someone who both is a geneticist and has experienced firsthand the very different ways in which women and men are treated and valued in our society, I believe that both social constructionists and gender essentialists are wrong (or at least they are both only partially right). The fatal flaw of the gender essentialist argument is the obvious fact that not all men are masculine and not all women are feminine. There are exceptional gender expressions: There are masculine women, feminine men, and people of both sexes who express combinations of femininity and masculinity. People who have exceptional gender expressions (like those with exceptional subconscious sexes and sexual orientations) exist in virtually all cultures and throughout history, which suggests that they represent a natural phenomenon. Gender essentialists often try to dismiss such exceptions as anomalies, the result of biological errors or developmental defects. However, exceptional gender expressions,sexes, and sexual orientations all occur at frequencies that are several orders of magnitude higher than one would expect if they represented genetic “mistakes.”2 Further, the fact that we actively encourage boys to be masculine, and ostracize and ridicule them if they act feminine (and vice versa for girls), strongly suggests that were it not for socialization, there would be even more exceptional gender expression than there is now. Unfortunately, a strict social constructionist model does not easily account for exceptional gender expression either. Many girls who are masculine and boys who are feminine show signs of such behavior at a very early age (often before such children have been fully socialized with regard to gender norms), and generally continue to express such behavior into adulthood (despite the extreme amount of societal pressure that we place on individuals to reproduce gender expression appropriate for their assigned sex). This strongly suggests that certain expressions of femininity and masculinity represent deep, subconscious inclinations in a manner similar to those of sexual orientation and subconscious sex. (I use the word “inclination” here as a catchall phrase to describe any persistent desire, affinity, or urge that predisposes us toward particular gender and sexual expressions and experiences.) While I believe that such inclinations are likely to be hardwired into our brains (as they exist on a subconscious level and often remain constant throughout our lives), I hesitate to define them as purely phenomena, as social factors clearly play a strong role in how each individual interprets these inclinations. In fact, in most cases it is impossible to distinguish our inclinations from our socialization, since they both typically point us in the same direction. Generally, we only ever notice our inclinations when they are exceptional—when they deviate from both biological and social norms. Further evidence that gender inclinations represent naturally occurring phenomena can be found in other species. If one looks across a wide spectrum of mammals and birds (whose gender and sexual expressions are presumably not shaped by social constructs to the extent that ours are), one generally finds certain behaviors and affinities that seem to predominate in one sex, but which also occur at lower but substantial frequencies in the other sex as well.3 Thus, any model that attempts to explain human gender expression, sexual orientation, and subconscious sex must take into account the fact that both typical and exceptional forms of these inclinations occur naturally (i.e., without social influence) to varying degrees. In order to reconcile this issue, I would like to put forward what I call an intrinsic inclination model to explain human gender and sexual variation. Here are the basic tenets of this model: 1. Subconscious sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation represent separate gender inclinations that are determined largely independently of one another. (This model does preclude the possibility that these three inclinations may themselves be composed of multiple, separable inclinations, or that additional gender inclinations may exist as well.) 2. These gender inclinations are, to some extent, intrinsic to our persons, as they occur on a deep, subconscious level and generally remain intact despite social influences and conscious attempts by individuals to purge, repress, or ignore them. 3. Because no single genetic, anatomical, hormonal, environmental, or psychological factor has ever been found to directly cause any of these gender inclinations, we can assume that they are quantitative traits (i.e., multiple factors determine them through complex interactions). As a result, rather than producing discrete classes (such as feminine and masculine; attraction to women or men), each inclination shows a continuous range of possible outcomes. 4. Each of these inclinations roughly correlates with physical sex, resulting in a bimodal distribution pattern (i.e., two overlapping bell curves) similar to that seen for other gender differences, such as height.4 While it may be true that, on average, men are taller than women, such a statement becomes virtually meaningless when one examines individual people, any given woman may be taller than any given man. Most people have heights that are relatively close to the average, but others fall in outlying areas of the range (for instance, some women are 6 feet 2 inches and some men are 5 feet 4 inches). Similarly, while women on average are more feminine than men, some women are more masculine than certain men, and some men more feminine than certain women. Because these inclinations appear to have multiple inputs and show a continuous range of outcomes, it is incorrect to assume that those with exceptional sexual orientations, subconscious sexes, or gender expressions represent developmental, biological, or environmental “errors”; rather, they are naturally occurring examples of human variation”
    – Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
    by Julia Serano

  2. Identifying as female doesn’t make someone female. The substitution of subjective identification for objective material reality has adverse implications for females.

  3. Just wanted to stop by and say that I love your blog. I always read it…but rarely feel compelled to comment, since you’ve said it all so well! But it’s sad not to get comments. So I just wanted to stop by and say you rock, and I appreciate your thoughtful and well-supported writings and social observations.

  4. […] 1. On Doing Gender and Being Gendered: Or, How You’re Socially Constructed Too […]

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