In order to explore the ways in which the concept “gender” structures contemporary society, I will first discuss how gender is constructed. I will also address how a binary system of gender is maintained in society and the problems that consequently arise from this organization. To do so, I will use an intersectional lens to illustrate how gender interacts with other socially constructed categories.
In her essay, “The Social Construction of Gender”, Judith Lorber opens up with a metaphor about gender, stating that “talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water” (13). The main point she is trying to make by using such a metaphor is that gender is everywhere. It is so pervasive in our society it seems natural and most individuals make the assumption “it is bred into our genes” (13). Lorber does not accept this idea of naturalness, but instead posits that gender is a socially constructed category. The construction of gender starts as early as the womb. Once parents are informed of a child’s sex, they buy gender-typed toys and paint their child’s bedroom in a gender appropriate color. Gender is not natural or inherent and thus should not be thought of in terms of biology. Instead, gender can be regarded as a historical and ideological process. Ideas about gender change over time and what may be considered masculine or feminine in this century will likely be different in the next.
Baby Franklin D. Roosevelt
The image of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a child on the cover of Life Magazine can be used as a prime example of how the definition of masculinity has changed over time. When the image was shown to our class, most people assumed that it was of a girl because the child was wearing a lacy dress and mary janes. By today’s standards, this type of dress would be considered feminine, but during the time in which the photograph was taken, this was normal apparel for little boys.
In the chapter, “Learning Gender in a Diverse Society”, Susan Shaw and Janet Lee discuss how making gender seem natural is key to upholding a stratification system within our society which gives men higher status in relation to women. Shaw and Lee state that “the differences between femininity (passive, dependent, intuitive, emotional) and masculinity (strong, independent, in control, out of touch emotionally) are made to seem natural” (126). In society, masculine traits are given greater value and since masculinity is often equated with maleness, males are given higher status than women. Shaw and Lee define gender as a “process by which certain behaviors and performances are ascribed to women and men” or in other words, gender “can be understood as the social organization of sexual difference” (124). This idea that gender has been socially constructed has been a pervasive argument within feminist discourse because if gender is not intrinsic or biological, then gender as a social institution can be restructured.
With this said, an important question to consider is, if we have constructed gender then why does it look the way it does? The answer to this question is power. The idea of power addresses both how gender is maintained in contemporary society and also why this structure is problematic. The way that gender is constructed in contemporary society highlights hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. In her article “Hegemonic Masculinity and Emphasized Femininity”, R.W. Connell states that “hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to subordinated masculinities and femininities” (183). Women as a whole are subordinate to men, but within the male population, there is a division or hierarchy of masculinities. The basis for division is based on various categories including sexuality, sexual orientation, race etc. The main problem with this system of categorization is that every individual assumes the role of both victim and oppressor. As Patricia Hill Collins states in her essay “Toward a New Vision”, “each one of us derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression that frame our lives” (69).
Another major problem lies in the way that society assigns gender. Males are taught that they should prescribe to masculine traits while females are taught to act in a feminine manner. In a society that gives higher value to masculine traits, males are given higher status than women. Also, when individuals transgress gender boundaries, there can be severe consequences for their behavior. Take for example the case of South African runner Caster Semenya. Caster outran her competition in the 800 meter world championships by more than two seconds. This coupled with her masculine physique caused people to call Caster’s sex into question. Caster was subjected to several “gender tests”, media scrutiny, and ridicule. This really took a toll on Caster’s psychological health and at one point she was even on suicide watch.
As we can see, our society's binary categorization system of gender is problematic for several reasons. By structuring gender the way we do, individuals are forced to abide by prescribed sets of behaviors or face consequences if they transgress these boundaries. Gender also creates a stratification system within our society which gives men a higher status than women. In order to eradicate these issues, we need to rethink our rigid ideas about gender and recognize that more than two types of gender are possible.
~ Lady Lazarus
The Class Blog Project, or CBP, is a blog featuring undergraduate students forming a critical dialogue with each other around ideas related to the sociology of gender.