For many people, the distinction between masculinity and femininity is so taken for granted that it remains generally unquestioned, and sometimes unquestionable. Scholars in Women’s and Gender Studies are interested to question the categorization of some human characteristics as feminine and others as masculine.
In this way, WGS views gender as an system of classification. In other words, gender is a set of ideas that we use to organize information and ideas. It is vital to note, though, that gender is not only an abstract system of classification; it has an enormous real world impact on human experience. Gender shapes our social norms, it influences social roles, and it has a deep and profound impact on identity. As we will see, men and women learn to be men and women.
As we will see, gender is an enormously complex and contested term. As a starting point, however, WGS scholars understand gender to be a social accomplishment rather than a biological fact. Gender is not something that we are born with, it is something that we learn. The french philosopher Simone de Beauvoir gets at this idea when she writes about women in her influential book, The Second Sex, which was published in French in 1949. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir famously writes, “One is not born, but rather becomes woman.” By this, she means not simply that we learn to be women, but that what we learn about masculinity and femininity shapes how we experience our gendered selves and sexed bodies.
There is no doubt that in order to think about gender, it is necessary to explore its relationship to sex. We will return to the matter of sex in a future lesson that is titled Biology, but for the moment, let’s note that the determination of sex is one of the first things that we want to know about new human beings. Indeed, infants are categorized as male or female even before they make their appearances in the world. The rise of gender reveal parties, themselves enabled by sophisticated ultrasound visualization technologies, is a sign of the value that prospective parents and families place on knowing the sex of their children, even before birth.
From a WGS perspective, though, gender can’t be “revealed” because gender is a social accomplishment. A medical professional may be able to tell us if we are expecting a male or female or intersex child, but these are biological categories that are distinct from the social categories of gender. Gender, in other words, is not a natural expression of some biological fact (i.e., chromosomal or genital facts). Gender is influenced by several factors that may include biological features, cultural and behavioural norms, and individual experiences.
Social constructionist theories raise big questions:
- If gender is socially constructed, does that mean that we can choose our genders freely?
- If gender is socially constructed, does that mean that we all experience gender in the same way?
The answer to both of these questions is “no.” Given that gender is so deeply entrenched in the organization of ideas and societies, it is extremely difficult for individuals to experience their gender as a choice. Even if we promote what queer theorist and novelist Leslie Feinberg describes as “gender freedom,” it is important to reflect on the kind of choice that gender might be. Butler’s approach is to say that gender is not chosen freely; it ought to be viewed as performed and performative:
The misapprehension [is]. . .that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.Judith Butler, “Critically Queer” in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,” 1993, pp. 230
One of the most influential scholars in gender studies today, Butler argues that gender is something that we do rather than something that we are. For Butler, to say that gender is socially constructed means that “nobody really is a gender from the start.”
Even when gender is deeply entrenched in our ideas and social order as well as in our identities, it is not the case that we all experience gender in the same way. Gender is certainly historically and culturally varied; it is also cross-cut by a variety of other deeply entrenched ideas about human variety. Age, race, and class, for instance, each intersect in ways to shape our experience of masculinity and femininity.
BIG IDEA: Gender dualism
One key observation we’ll make about gender is that in many, but certainly not all, societies, gender is organized in a binary form. A binary is a system that involves only two categories without room for further variety. The binaries that most concern folks in WGS, and that we’ll explore in WGS 101 include: men and women, boys and girls, or masculinity and femininity.
Gender Dualism: Femininity and Masculinity
Gender & Sexual Diversity Glossary
Some of the following definitions are derived from the Gender and Sexual Diversity Glossary prepared by the Government of Canada. Last access January 13, 2020.
It is important that you take time to understand these key terms; you can test yourself on the summary section of this module.