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.

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