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Gender is something that a majority of people do not even take the time to actually consider. To some, it has become just another box to check off in a survey or questionnaire without even second guessing everything that little check in the box means or represents. The essay will discuss what gender really means and how it has been associated with biological determinism. Social constructivism will be discussed in relation to how the normative dyad of “female” and “male” has been scripted through socialization while also discussing the dynamic that gender and other social forces play in instances of power and privilege through my own added personal story about when I was first faced with the concept of inequality as it relates to gender and power.
Understanding how gender is socially constructed requires a basic understanding of certain terminology which tend to get lumped together or misunderstood altogether. For instance, sex is generally understood of as being assigned to someone at birth.
Individuals born with female genitalia are classified as female, and individuals born with male genitalia are classified as male. Intersex individuals are born with both male and female sex characteristics which can vary (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). Furthermore, topics such as genetics and hormones are a crucial aspect of biological sex (source). In our society, gender is typically understood to include characteristics that and associated as either feminine, masculine, and/or non-binary (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). Non-binary is a term used to describe an individual who does not see themselves as fitting into the prototypical male/female gender norms that are socially constructed.
What is important to note in regards to gender is that they are, in fact, social norms and as such are highly fluid and can change over time and place (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). Cisgender can be understood as individuals “falling in line” with the social norms of gender and acting out the social parallel between sex and gender. For instance, a cis-woman acts like as women or portrays feminine cues, and a cis-man acts like a man or demonstrates masculinity (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). Transgender refers to an individual who does not associate or identify with their birth sex. For example, a transwoman would have been born with male sex characteristics but identifies as gender female. Or conversely, a transman is born with female sex characteristics but identifies as gender male. Transgender typically tends to be an umbrella term for any number of gender identities. For instance, someone who identifies as transgender could also identity with being gender fluid, gender queer, agender, or transsexual (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). What is emphasized here is that these gender identities are incongruent with conventional ideologies of gender such as the dyad of female or male, no doubt a product of imposed social structures. What truly matters is that someone can associate with all, some, or even none of the above gender identities (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). The overarching message this portrays is that society tries to categorize people into neat little boxes, but human identities are much more complex than either this or that scenario.
The notion of biological determinism plays a large part into the social construction of gender as it attempts to incorporate the biological aspect of sex into the equation. Biological determinism is the idea that there are innate biological differences or traits which directly affect the ways in which an organism functions. Relating it to sex and gender, it is the idea that women and men are “hardwired” to be attracted to the opposite sex, or have inherent innate features such as aggression in men, or passion and empathy in women. This idea negates any influence that society or social interactions have on an individual. Robert M. Sapolsky challenges this notion in his article “The Trouble with Testosterone”. While he does state that men do tend to have more testosterone in their bodies than women, a concept many point to as a biological determinism for aggression, their lack of understanding in regards to the role of environment leads to misconceptions. As he notes48 in his closing passage, “…Our behavioral biology is usually meaningless outside the context of the social factors and environment in which it occurs” (Sapolsky 2017: 48).
It is the social factors that Sapolsky references which play an important role in understanding gender as being socially constructed. Social constructivism is an idea that meaning within society is not innate or universal, but formulated or created by society itself through negotiations. It is a process by which we learn and internalize social meaning (notes). As such, things such as gender “norms” have the ability to change over time and space (notes). As such, when someone is born either sex male, or sex female, there are a plethora of cultural scripts by which the gender man or women has with it. These gender scripts are more or less agreed upon not consciously, but through social expectations and “norms”. However, it is not simply a one way street. As Giddens notes in regards to the relationship between social structures and individuals, social structures shape individuals, but simultaneously, individuals shape the social structure (Gidden 1984, cited in Risman 2017: 12). This theory differs from biological determinism in that the environment, or society in this case, plays a much more pronounced role in gender identity.
Socialization can be thought of as the ways in which people in society go about learning and manifesting the social scripts that are a product of social constructivism. Individuals in society are the blatant target for which agents such as other individuals, groups, and institutions aim to impress cultural or social norms (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 17 September 2018). It is a process of internalization, most of which occurs without us actually realizing it. It differs from social constructivism in that we are the targets which are acted upon or upon which social scripts are applied to. Also of note, social constructivism has much to do with the society on a historical continuum. Both are not stagnant or occur in a vacuum, as such social scripts such as norms change over time (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 17 September 2018).
Gender identity can be defined as an individual’s inner experience or sense of their own gender (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). For instance, someone can identity as a woman, but might not express femininity on a social level. Or, conversely an individual might have a gender identity of a man, but chose to express a more feminine gender (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). What is important to note is that gender expression might or might not match an individual’s own gender identity (Forman, Sociology of Gender, 25 September 2018). A more simplistic way of explaining it is that gender identity is what someone feels, while gender expression is what someone might choose to show.
I identify as a male, while also expressing masculine gender qualities which are congruent with society’s norms of masculine. While I cannot recall a specific time in my youth where a prominent gender message shaped my understanding of femininity and/or masculinity, there was an instance recently which crudely opened my eyes to power dynamic that gender norms play in our nation. The 72 hours post Donald Trump winning the presidential election made me realize a couple things. The first is that is a social privilege for me to be a straight white male. This is and was a reality that I do not tout around with a badge of honor, it is not something I am proud of because I have no earned any of it. This was not a message which was expressed directly to me, but more of a mini cultural or sociological paradigm if you will. I interested actions as a message that said it was okay for someone who objectified and harassed women, who made fun of people with disabilities, and had a dubious at best track record with racial minorities and the LGBTQIA community to become the leader of our nation. It felt as though, on a social level, we took a large step back in terms of equal rights for all. While it has not changed my gender identity or expression per say, it has made me more cognizant of my privilege and have become much more proactive in becoming a better ally for social change for the betterment of all.
Clearly there is a strong intersect between my gender and race. Because I am cis, male, and white, I have privileges that society has bestowed upon me. While I know wholeheartedly that there is no difference between myself and someone who is transgender, identifies as female, and is non-white, society on a constructivist level has socialized us in believing that there is some difference that gives me more power with these “innate” privileges. There are other social categories which I occupy that also play an important role in relation to power and privilege. Spade and Valentine use the term prismatic interactions as a way to explain that the power is obtained from any number of socially constructed categories is an explanation of itself and that the power that any one category needs to be understood in relation to all others that exist (84).
A great example of understanding the dynamic that exists when someone understands the different roles they occupy and uses them to their advantage is evident in “I Was Aggressive for the Streets, Pretty for the Pictures” by Nikki Jones. In this article, Jones follows a young woman named Kiara who is collecting signatures to stop a potential redevelopment in her neighborhood. As she interacts with different people she navigates between different axes of power to obtain her end goal of a signature. Jones notes that watching her, “…Reveals moments where the accomplishment of gender, race, or class emerges as most significant. Such an analysis is also likely to reveal moments when Kiara violates or manipulates the normative expectations associated with categorical identity” (96). While my experience is much different than Kiara, it nonetheless shows that having knowledge about different statuses is helpful in navigating or using them in different social contexts.
Clearly we see that gender is not something that is as easily defined as survey questions or job applications make it seem. There are complicated theories and pragmatic dogma which often stigmatize the ways in which people want to view or talk about gender out in the open. Gender cannot be deduced down to two or three labels, and even the umbrella term transgender has subsections that can be all inclusive or exclusive in their application. What it boils down to is the identity of the person and how they feel, not so much how society needs to label them. The link between gender and sex is bridged by misunderstandings of biological determinism, which suppresses the idea that society has a much stronger influence on individuals than biology. This is all coupled together by heteronormative ideologies perpetuated by social constructivism and the way it has socialized individuals to adhere to “normative” gender scripts. What is important to understand is that gender is not so clean cut, someone can identify with one gender, and express another. Furthermore, gender is just one of many social forces which need to be understood as a whole as they are dynamic and socially contextual. Thus far I have learned that gender is much more complicated. Not so much because of the idea of gender, or how people gender identify, but because there are a multitude of dynamics that intertwine which can complicate things if someone does not understand how they function as a whole.
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