Monday, November 9, 2009

Gender as a Social Construction

[Gender] is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. ~ Judith Butler

To say that gender is a socially constructed category and not a purely biological one means that extensive sociological and scientific research has established that the common notion of gender as static and mutually exclusive groups is a misconception, and one that is easily refutable. Biological characteristics of sex do not cause specific gender behaviors, nor is it possessed of a basic identity that can be simply and unambiguously discerned. Biological sex is expressed within the context of social worlds that impose meaning on it, and these meanings differ from culture to culture. Herein lies the difference between sex and gender. While sex is biological, gender is a human invention. Rather than being associated with or constrained by biological characteristics, the cultural construct of gender is imposed on sex by society and cultural expectations. The gendered division of sex is a system derived from external patterns, and from that point the many gender stereotypes that all are familiar with develop.

The understanding of gender as a social construction that is distinct from biological categories is strongly supported by a number of examples. Cross-cultural studies are among the leading evidences of this. Variations and fluidity in the way gender is defined, expressed and negotiated across cultures reveals that gender is not a monolithic uniformity. In addition, studies of the interaction of the sphere of gender with other social constructions such as race, ethnicity, class, nationality and religion illustrates that gender is dynamic; it manifests itself in widely divergent ways depending on which sphere or combination of spheres it encounters. Another example is seen through examination of the behaviors exhibited by individuals in their daily encounters with others, which strongly suggest that gender is a performance or masquerade that individuals participate in to conform to the norms instituted by their particular culture. These three areas of sociological research that indicate the inherent subjectivity of gender are considered here.

Cross-cultural Evidence
As mentioned above, there exists a multiplicity of sex/gender systems around the world. Anthropologist Serena Nanda's analysis of the multiple genders that existed among Native North Americans is a good example of cross-cultural research that emphasizes gender as being a continuum that can be negotiated, rather than a polarizing binary. She writes, "There were many variations in North American gender diversity. American Indian cultures included three or four genders: men, women, male variants, and female variants (biological females who by engaging in male activities were reclassified as to gender). Gender variant roles differed in the criteria by which they were defined" (Nanda, 48). Sexuality was not central among most criteria defining gender status in the American Indian cultures. The Navajo represented an intriguing example of this gender diversity.

The Navajo have four genders; in addition to man and woman there are two gender variants: masculine female-bodied nadleeh and feminine male-bodied nadleeh. A sexual relationship between a female nadleeh and a woman or a sexual relationship between a male-bodied nadleeh and a man were not stigmatized because these persons were of different genders, although of the same biological sex. However, a sexual relationship between two women, two men, two female-bodied nadleeh or two male-bodied nadleeh, was considered homosexual, and even incestual, and was strongly disapproved of (Nanda, 50).

Nanda's research clearly indicates the distinction that exists between sex and gender and demonstrates that there is no causal relationship between the two. Indeed, if it was true that biological characteristics caused specific gender behavior, or that they are inseparable, then the variation and fluidity found among these multiply-gendered Native American societies simply would not exist.

The Interaction of Gender with Other Socially-Constructed Spheres
The interaction of gender with other interlocking categories of identity also creates cultural rules and gendered expectations. Because each sphere of the social structure is different as far as context (race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, etc), the interaction of gender with these prisms of experience often produce conflicting and contradictory messages about what society expects from us. In a study published by the journal Gender & Society, Karen Pyke and Denise Johnson examined cultural influences that instilled racial expectations in Asian American women and exerted pressure on their gender performance among whites in the dominant culture of America. This study serves to illustrate that as the dominant culture is compared and contrasted with other cultures, patterns of social pressure that favor the dominant culture become clearly delineated and noticeable. By interviewing 100 daughters of Korean and Vietnamese American immigrants, Pyke and Johnson found that "Racialized gender categories were deployed as an interpretive template in giving meaning to experiences and organizing a worldview" (Pyke and Johnson, 83). In addition, it was concluded that "The assumption is that Asian American women can be advocates of gender equality or strong and assertive in their interactions only as a result of assimilation, evident by the display of traits associated with hegemonic femininity, and a rejection of their culture and identity" (84).

Pyke and Johnson's research findings demonstrated that White, Euro-American culture norms were often perceived by the subjects as "normal" and valuable. Furthermore, the interviewees tended to ignore or overlook variations in their own cultural experiences of gender, while continuing to perceive white Euro-Americans as a monolithic unitary culture. In discussing one source for this perceived superiority of white culture, Pyke and Johnson point to what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has termed controlling images, the process by which a dominant group claims to identify who is superior and who is inferior based on categories they create to serve their purposes. Hence, the "Lotus Blossom" stereotype emerges as an example of a controlling image, and this lies behind the popular and shallow perception/expectation that Asian women are passive, soft-spoken, submissive, and deferential to a fault.

Gender as a Performance
Many social scientists refer to gender as a performance or masquerade. By this it is meant that gender is created, recreated and perpetuated by the ways in which we present ourselves in daily encounters with the multiple social prisms around us. How we do our gender depends completely on our class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, nationalities, and (dis)abilities. Far from being defined by biological characteristics, gender is a social construction consisting of attribution, enactment and performance. Acute social pressures to remain easily identifiable in our culture's two-and-only-two binary system of gender is the central impetus that serves to create in most people a tendency to conform to the masquerade. Sociologist Betsy Lucal's examination of her own experiences as a reference for inquiry provides strong evidentiary qualifications for this. Lucal argues that, because of cultural rules that are deeply-embedded in the process of socialization, we cannot escape "doing" gender:

Given our cultural rules for identifying gender (i.e., that there are only two and that masculinity is assumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary), a person who does not do gender appropriately is placed not into a third category but rather into the one with which her or his gender display seems most closely to fit [...] Even if a person does not want to do gender or would like to do a gender other than the two recognized by our society, other people will, in effect, do gender for that person by placing her or him in one and only one of the two available categories (Lucal, 23).

Betsy Lucal writes from the perspective of one whose physical appearance does not clearly identify her as a woman. As such, her experiences in navigating and negotiating a gender-structured world in which she is often mistaken as a man serves as a compelling illustration and demonstration of the fact that gender is socially invented. In her observations, she writes of how she has "failed" her gender because of how our society constructs it. At the same time, her experience challenges our gender stratification because she actively expands the category of woman. Her analysis of the boundaries and margins that constitute the genderscape is unique in that she has used herself as a case study to deconstruct gender. Elucidating further on the distinction that exists between sex and gender, she writes, "I am, in effect both woman and not woman. As a woman who often is a social man but who also is a woman living in a patriarchal society, I am in a unique position to see and act" (Lucal 29).

In conclusion, we can not avoid being female, male, or intersexed in a biological sense. But we can subvert gender, blurring the lines that distinguish boundaries by making gender an unnecessary social identifier and divider. Like divisions of race, class, nationality, religion, etc., gender is a socially invented system of inequality. This system of inequality and division, which happens to be predominantly patriarchal, tends to justify and maintain unequal distribution of control and privilege. The invention of gender can be viewed as a result of the evolutionary trait our species inherited to detect patterns and create points of reference that are easily identifiable, even if such systems contradict the real state of things. But, as many social scientists and anthropologists have come to realize, the matter is far more complex than that. In considering the power and influence of the gender binary, authors Joan Spade and Catherine Valentine pose the question: “Even if an individual would like to 'give up gender,' others will define and interact with that individual in gendered terms. If you were a physician, you could 'leave your professional role behind you' when you left the hospital or office and went shopping or vacationing. Gender is a different story. Could you leave gender at the office and go shopping or vacationing? What would that look like, and what would it take to make it happen?” (Spade and Valentine, 7).

The reason it is hard to imagine what it would take to make that happen is because, in a world immersed in gender, it is embedded in every facet of everyone's lives. Yet, as C. Baker eloquently points out, the lesson of the kaleidoscope that gender represents is that “nothing in life is immune to change" (Baker, 29). As cultural definitions of sex and gender are increasingly expanded and made more malleable and flexible, it is not far-fetched to speculate that cultural/intellectual evolution may bring us to a condition described above, in which gender becomes a disposable role in the same way that a profession is stepped into and out of at will.


Baker, C. (1999). Kaleidoscopes: Wonders of Wonder. Lafayette, CA: C&T Publishing.

Lucal, Betsy. 1999. What it means to be gendered me: Life on the boundaries of a dichotomous gender system. Gender & Society 13(6).

Nanda, Serena. (2000). Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Pyke, K.D., & Johnson, D.L. 2003. Asian American women and racialized femininities: 'Doing' gender across cultural worlds. Gender & Society, 17(1).

Spade, Joan Z. and Valentine, Catherine G. (2008). The Kaleidoscope of Gender: Prisms, Patterns, and Possibilities. Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on the Genealogy of Jesus

For about a year now, I have been fascinated by the study of ancient religious texts. Specifically, I have been delving into the lost gospels and other non-canonical writings of early Christian groups whose writings were not included in the New Testament due to the influence of the proto-orthodox influence that eventually won by popular vote.

(The conversion of a certain Roman Emperor to the proto-orthodox version of the Jewish sect called Christianity was a major deciding factor there. Imagine if Constantine had, for whatever reason, preferred the Gnostics, the Ebionites, or the Marcionites in place of what eventually became what we today recognize as "orthodox Christianity." Modern-day adherents to Christianity would likely be revering, say, the Gnostic Scriptures or the Nag Hammadi Library as sacred scripture instead of the fragmented and inherently divisive anthology known today as the New Testament. But I digress).

I have also been interested in immersing myself in the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, ancient Jewish writings that were not included with the thirty-nine books we know today (I use the term "know" loosely; most people are not even aware of what is in their own Bibles). These apocryphal writings often expand and elaborate on well-known accounts, such as entire books detailing the life and death of Adam and Eve, an extensive life of Enoch, birth narratives of Noah, visions of Moses, etc.

What I definitely did not anticipate, however, was that I would become a full-fledged Bible nerd. That is essentially what I have become, and the realization of this did not strike me until today. The other afternoon I found myself in the large university library, poring over thick scholarly historical criticism commentaries on New Testament genealogies. This brings me to the subject I tackle here.

As you may be aware, two of our four canonical Gospels provide genealogies of Jesus. Matthew's Gospel traces Jesus' line through thirteen generations of Jewish descent, back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke's Gospel traces Jesus' family line all the way back to Adam, the alleged father of the human race according to Jewish mythology (quite the fantastic genealogy!). As it turns out, the genealogies in each become important commentaries on what each author wants to emphasize about who Jesus meant to them. If you are familiar with Matthew's Gospel, you will know that Matthew seeks to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. His gospel strives throughout to drive home the point that Jesus fulfilled a number of important Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout his account one finds numerous references to an Old Testament prophecy that Matthew ties to various sayings and actions of Jesus. Matthew has a distinctly Jewish perspective on who Jesus is.

Luke, on the other hand, has a distinctly different emphasis on who Jesus was and what he was all about. Luke's perspective of Jesus diverges from Matthew's in that Luke seeks to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. Throughout his gospel account, Luke is primarily concerned to portray Jesus as a significant figure to all people, Jew and gentile alike. When reading through Luke's Gospel, one is impressed upon by the author to recognize the ways in which Jesus relates to all of humanity. Therefore, Luke's genealogical family tree of Jesus seeks to connect him to Adam in order to emphasize his relation to all people. This is also why the genealogy of Matthew and the genealogy of Luke have different ending points.

As a side note, both of these genealogies present a rather perplexing situation. Both Matthew and Luke want to insist that Jesus was born of a virgin who conceived not by having intercourse with her husband Joseph but through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit (unlike in Mark's Gospel, where a virgin birth is not even hinted at). This creates an obvious problem that is difficult to resolve. If Matthew and Luke are to be taken seriously when they say that Jesus was immaculately conceived, why is it that both Matthew's and Luke's genealogies trace the bloodline of Jesus precisely through Joseph? This question is not addressed at all in either gospel. According to the text, Jesus' only bloodline is found through the family history of Mary and no one else. Thus, both accounts present the wrong genealogy; neither one of them provides Mary's genealogy.

This is a general problem with the genealogical accounts. But there are two other more specific problems and discrepancies that are revealed when studying and comparing the genealogies in any detail. These problems and discrepancies are quite interesting and thought-provoking indeed. One discrepancy has to do with irreconcilable differences between the two accounts. The other problem that I took note of through my own study is a historical/literary oddity that emerges when one looks back to the Old Testament to read of some of the ancestors mentioned in Jesus' bloodline. This oddity does not represent a contradiction within the New Testament, but rather between the Old and New Testaments (Orthodox Jews, of course, would say there is no contradiction, since they do not consider the New Testament to be sacred scripture).

The easiest way to recognize the first discrepancy for what it is involves asking a simple question: Who, in both the Matthean and Lucan genealogies, is said to be Joseph's father, patrilineal grandfather, and great-grandfather? The two genealogies diverge from the outset, giving contradicting information. According to Matthew 1:15-16: And Eliud begat Eleazar, and Eleazar begat Matthan, and Matthan begat Jacob. And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

The family line is completely different in Luke's account. According to Luke 3:23-24: And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph.

What are we to make of these genealogies which are clearly at odds from David to Joseph? The typical argument is that the genealogy in Matthew is of Joseph and that Luke's genealogy is of Mary. It is a persuasive and attractive attempt at reconciliation, until you read more carefully. In Luke 3:23, it is explicitly stated that the family line provided is that of Joseph, not Mary. Furthermore, Matthew 1:16 is clear on the point that it also speaks of Joseph's family history.

There are several other problems in terms of both consistency and historical accuracy, but I will turn my attention to just one more that I observed through my study. When the careful reader of New Testament genealogies turns to the Old Testament to read about some of the Jewish ancestors mentioned in the genealogies, some very interesting findings result. For example, consider yet another point of conflicting difference between the two genealogies. In Matthew 1:11-12 we read: "And Josias begat Jechoniah and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechoniah begat Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel."

Compare this to Luke 3:27: "Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zerubbabel, which was the son of Shealtiel, which was the son of Neri."

Besides the obvious discrepancy of who Shealtiel's father is (Jechoniah according to Matthew, Neri according to Luke) there is another perplexing situation that arises when one reads about some of these figures in the Old Testament. In his extensive volume of commentary on the Matthean and Lucan infancy narratives, the late scholar of New Testament critical studies Raymond E. Brown writes:

"The whole Lucan picture from David to Jesus is complicated by the fact that, having avoided the direct royal line throughout the monarchy by tracing the genealogy through Nathan rather than through Solomon, Luke rejoins the royal line after fall of the monarchy by listing Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, who appear also in Matthew's list. Some have been impressed that, despite all biblical evidence, Luke makes Shealtiel the son of the otherwise unknown Neri rather than of the last king Jechoniah; but his motivation may have been theological, namely, to avoid having in Jesus' ancestry a figure whom Jeremiah cursed . . ." (Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1977, vol. 1, p. 93).

As it turns out, Matthew's attribution of Jechoniah as Shealtiel's father has biblical support (see 1 Chronicles 3:17). Luke's attribution to Neri as his father is unsupported by any biblical evidence, as there is no mention of such a Neri in the Old Testament. As Brown points out, it is likely Luke's inclusion of Neri in his genealogy has a theological motivation behind it. And this is where an interesting observation comes to bear on a comparison of Matthew and Luke's family lines. As it turns out, the "brethren" of Jechoniah as mentioned in Matthew 1:11 included both Jehoiakim and Coniah, who were also sons of Josias. In Jeremiah 22:13-30, we are given a description of a harsh curse that God places on Jehoiakim, Coniah, and their brethren. Taken in the context of the entire chapter, the prophet is writing of these sons of Josias collectively:

"And I will cast thee out, and thy mother that bare thee, into another country where ye were not born, and there shall ye die. But to the land whereunto they desire to return, thither shall they not return. Is this man Coniah a despised broken idol? Is he a vessel wherein is no pleasure? Wherefore are they cast out, he and his seed, and are cast into a land which they know not? O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord: Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah." (Jeremiah 22:26-30, KJV).

In light of this OT passage, it is easy to understand why Luke would feel motivated to omit Jechoniah from his list, replacing him with the fictional Neri, given the theological implications. This theological motivation to subtly alter the family tree of Jesus renders it inaccurate. On the other hand, Matthew does include Jechoniah in his genealogy, even connecting him with his brothers Jehoiakim and Coniah (Matt. 1:11)! In this instance, Matthew is faithful to the record of history. But in so doing, he is creating another contradiction. It would appear that Matthew is by implication suggesting that the God of the Jews did not stay true to his word. Keep in mind that Matthew's Gospel strives throughout to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, to emphasize that Jesus was in fact the Jewish Messiah to the Jews from the Jewish God as prophecied in the Jewish scriptures. But if Matthew is correct, it turns out that God's curse in Jeremiah 22 was not followed through, that the Lord in fact lied about Josias' children not bearing descendants that would prosper and sit upon the throne of David.

Interestingly enough, this difference between Matthew and Luke reflects on what each author was trying to say about Jesus. One might be inclined to expect that Matthew would have serious qualms about including Jechoniah in his genealogical account, considering that Matthew goes out of his way to uphold the Jewish scriptures throughout the rest of the gospel. Yet he does not omit that which he must have recognized was historically verifiable from the Jewish scriptures he must have known well. For Matthew, it would seem history takes precedence over theology. Luke, on the other hand, is concerned about including the name of a man who was banished from the royal Davidic line, because of the serious implications on his theological perspective. He therefore alters the record however slightly, throwing in the unknown name of Neri.