On the Western shift in understanding of gender.
Some may argue that, ‘Gender is a dead topic. There are boys and girls, and nothing more’. I would like to challenge such opinion to further analysis.
A good counter-example to the statement above is a viral picture of a three-year-old boy, Caiden in his Halloween costume. Caiden, unlike other boys, decided to dress up as his favourite hero, Princess Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” (2013). How cool is that! From the picture we can understand that this was one of the happiest moments in Caiden’s life. Unfortunately, this contradicts a common assumption that of princesses’ costumes are for girls, and not for boys. Hence, my query is: where does this assumption comes from?
To clarify this ambiguity, I will define two terms, or rather two positions on the matter of gender. The terms are: sex and gender.
Richardson (2008) defines sex as a concept, “referred to the biological differences between females and males defined in terms of the anatomy and physiology of the body”. The formal term used by sociologists is biological determinism. This position holds that we are either born as a boy or a girl, and this has its consequences in the manner we behave. From this position it would seem that we need a boy-girl dichotomy, because it is natural (via biology). Therefore, for instance, for a boy it is natural to dress up as Batman or Superman, because analysing closely the anatomy and physiology of these heroes reflect being biologically a man. Similarly, for a girl it is natural to dress up as Tinker Bell or Princess Elsa, because these heroines reflect being biologically a woman.
Thus, what some biological determinists may conclude that of Caiden’s behaviour (dressing up as a princess) is that it is deviant, or unnatural. This analysis may derive from our biological definition of woman, which are delicate, passive to action, or take great care of their own appearance (this links to Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze, and objectification of women in mainstream media). For instance, in “Shrek” (2001) this definition of woman was illustrated via Princess Fiona – a princess waiting for her prince to rescue her from troubles. Some biological determinists could argue that Caiden should associated himself with the definition of woman. He is a boy for Christ Sake! Instead, Caiden should strive to be: brave, strong, assertive, a leader of a group – as this is the definition of man. Such definition of man is well summarised by a character of Kristoff in “Frozen” (2013).
On the other hand, gender, unlike sex, “refers to the socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine that are differently defined in various cultures and the socially imposed attributes and behaviours that are assigned to them” (Bilton et al, 2002:131). An interesting understanding of this position, is proposed by Judith Butler, in her book ‘Gender Trouble’ (1980), that gender as performativity. Our performance of actions can be identified as being masculine or feminine and thus the accumulation of our actions leads us to think that we are more masculine i.e. we are men, or more feminine, i.e. we are women. This view can be simplified into that we are doing gender (as summarised in Richardson and Robinson, 2008). This position is formally called social constructivism. In Caiden’s case, we can see that social constructivists could not label this three-year-old as performing deviant behaviour, rather they would call the action (of dressing up as a princess) as being feminine (as identified in the Western world). In this case, social constructivists could suggest that, as Caiden being identified as a boy, he should avoid to perform feminine actions, in this case, dressing up as a princess.
Nevertheless, should we just finish here? There is a constant movement towards gender equality, and this post is very much with this movement. The worry I would like to acknowledge is that of the position of biological determinism. I argue that from this position, we are stopping the movement to advance forward. In other words, I believe that as long as we think that the difference between human beings is our biology, we are stuck with gender inequality. I suggest that social constructivism liberates us from the shackles of the gendered world and we begin to respect one another, not because of gentlemen code or lady code, but simply because we respect each other existence.