The Social Construction of Gender

The articles I have read and video I watched this week have left me wondering:

Who are we without the gender roles that we enact?

It is obvious how strongly society influences our perception of and participation in gender (e.g., the socially constructed ideals of femininity and masculinity). Society seems to dictate and evaluate what is and is not the correct performance of gender. The social structure of gender relations, or our gender regime (see Williams, 2002), interacts with other systems of inequality (such as class, race and ethnicity) to create an inhospitable environment for those who try to depart from this ideology. These regimes can be rather difficult for anyone who is not a part of the hegemonic gender (which varies throughout different social arenas) to navigate. I want consider how gender regimes play out in various social locations and how these social rules influence how we “do” gender.

How much of who we are is unconsciously shaped by gender ideologies?

Starting from adolescence, young girls begin to adopt an adult feminine identity; they conceive of a gendered self. Susan Williams (2002) calls this “trying on gender.” This concept “captures one interval of gendering: the experimentation and tentativeness that occurs at the critical transition from girl to woman” and is a “segment or phase of the more general doing-gender process” (Williams, 2002). This process of trying on gender can be uncomfortable at times, as it seems girls in our society are innately aware of the “othering” that occurs to them due to the hegemonic masculine “superstructure of domination” (see Schippers, 2007), even if unable to articulate it. They are also innately aware of the feminine ideal that this “superstructure” dictates. To quote Laura Hamilton (2007): “Given women’s subordinate position, much of what makes a woman traditionally feminine is her ability to desire and attract a man.”

This ‘trying on’ of gender happens within a “community of practice,” where learning is situated in a social context (see Paechter, 2003). As Carrie Paechter (2003) puts it, “…our experience of our identity is deeply bound up with our experience of our being in the world. Identity is thus understood through the practices with which we engage.” Boys and girls are learning to be men and women, and thus leaning to be full participants in their masculine and feminine communities of practice.They may “try an attitude on for size, much the way a little girl tries on her mother’s high-heeled shoes” (Williams, 2002), and then set it aside. But, little by little, children begin to take on society’s standards of femininity and masculinity, whether simply internalized or actually preformed. This process is further complicated by the fact that we live in a time and place in which it is possible to define yourself through your sexuality and sexual preferences. People in today’s society are afforded the option of trying on multiple sexualities and even genders, a luxury that was not available up until the last century  and is only recently becoming widely recognized, tolerated and even celebrated in some spaces of society.

Regardless of these changes, the feminine/masculine ideals (as dictated by the hegemonic masculine) are still pervasive – to the point that they can be found in scientific literature describing reproductive biology. As defined by Emily Martin (1991), “…culture shapes how biological scientists describe what they discover about the natural world.” And, because there are roles and story lines already written out for the male and female characters of the world to enact (and we have all internalized these characters), even the most objective observers (eg. scientists) are looking at all interactions through the lens of masculine hegemony. In the case of biological science, many texts are full of language noting “how ‘femininely’ the egg behaves and how ‘masculinely’ the sperm” (Martin, 1991), as if our very gametes know there place in society. While it has been continually disproven that the sperm take the active role (ie. valiant knight in shining armor) and the egg takes the passive role (ie. the maiden waiting to be saved by said knight), most people still adhere to this narrative, because those who do not pay a high (social) cost.

Oh I know what y’all really want is some gross, caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well shame on you for letting a man do that – or any man that does that!”

-Michael Dorsey as Dorothy (Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, 1982)

Not only is there a social cost to not fitting your role, there is incentive to do so. Laura Hamilton (2007) notes, “…femininities that conform to heteronormative ideals of feminine charm and beauty can operate as a form of embodied social capital.” In an inegalitarian society, those who are not in the hegemonic class adopt “gender strategies” to help them navigate the social terrain (Hamilton, 2007). However, social capital is not doled out equally upon birth. Rather, it is dependent largely on your position (in social class) and the form you embody. To illustrate this: a young, upper-class, white woman who is tanned, skinny and has large breasts is likely to have a lot of social capital in our heterosexual-white-male dominated society. Unfortunately, this describes only a tiny segment of women. It’s no wonder that for girls “[adolescence] is a time of stress, depression, and a drop in self-esteem” (Williams, 2002). By high school, girls are keenly aware of there place within this social hierarchy, and by college have an understanding of their net worth in the (erotic) market – enough to trade on it. In social arenas, such as the college campus, many women find it useful to adopt gender strategies that alienate those with lower social capital (such as lesbians or women of other ethnicities) who may “contaminate” them via association (Hamilton, 2007). This underscores that there is a hegemonic femininity that interacts with other systems of inequality.

The importance that most women placed on men’s erotic interest translated into a clear hierarchy among them.”

– Laura Hamilton (2007)

So, what do we look like without all of these pressures to fit the norm?

Unfortunately, we do not inhabit an egalitarian society. I know I feel the squeeze daily to perform my femininity. I can recognize many times in my life when I have cashed in on my social capital. Though now, in my thirties and with two children, I definitely feel the decline in my value. It is a sad state of affairs that so many people (male, female, or other) feel so much pressure to fit some prescribed ideal that we are literally killing ourselves. As Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) said in Tootsie (1982), “I don’t know how a woman can keep herself attractive and not starve these days.”



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