Gender – What’s it to you?

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Gender – what’s it to you?

Sarah Jackson

Gender is a system of cultural signs or meanings assigned (by various
social mechanisms) to sexually-dimorphic bodies, and these cultural signs
which constitute gender, as we well know, have a direct effect on how we
live our individual lives and how our social institutions operate. These
gender differences are totally determined by social and cultural
environment, and this ‘conditioning’ is in evidence even before we are
born. What colour clothes do you buy for an impending baby girl? Pink,
naturally. How someone can be genuinely concerned about a baby girl
wrapped in a blue blanket confounds me, although my grandmother still
cites this as an explanation for the way I’ve “turned out.” Presumably an
assertive, intelligent, political, bisexual granddaughter was not what she
had hoped for (if only I hadn’t given up ballet!) Although this is an
extreme example, psychological studies such as that of Will et al. (1976)
indicate that this early gender code massively influences the way children
are treated: a group of adults were asked to play with a baby in ‘girls’
clothes’ while the researches watched their behaviour. This was repeated
with a different group of adults with the same baby wearing ‘boys’
clothes’. The results found that the adults’ behaviour patterns were as
would be expected; the two groups treated the baby according to the
appropriate gender stereotype: the ‘girl’ baby was complimented on how
‘dainty’ she was and the ‘boy’ on his size and strength.

This conditioning continues incessantly and subtly throughout childhood-
all toy stores have a ‘pink aisle’ full of realistic hair, fun fashion
outfits and plastic limbs, girls are encouraged to play at families, to
nurse a doll, to practice makeup on freaky blonde severed heads. A study
by Zammuner (1987) asked groups of both parents and children to classify a
range of children’s toys according to whether they were for girls, boys or
either. The parents and children agreed very strongly. This research shows
very clearly that cultural stereotyping from an early age moulds
children’s attitudes toward gender, seeming harmless until male interest
in these toys and female disinterest is figured as some sort of abnormal
gender transgression, and even as a ‘symptom’ of homosexuality. Cultural
and social conditioning along traditional gender lines continues all our
lives, and it results in a difficult to disperse cloud of ideas about what
being female or male ‘means’.

“…girls are encouraged to play at happy families…”

When I say “I am a woman” I mean that I am biologically female, and in my
ideal world nothing more could be inferred from that statement. Nothing
about what clothes I wear, how my hair is styled, how old I am, what (and
who) I like to do in bed, nothing at all. Especially not that I am less
intelligent, less rational, less reliable, than my anonymous counterpart
that says “I am a man.” However this is exactly what my grandmother (as a
prime example of cultural conditioning) would assume: she constantly
refers to our female family doctor as ‘nurse’, and invariably seeks a
second opinion from one of the less experienced male doctors at the local
practice. This mistrust of female authority is symptomatic of how deeply
ingrained gender stereotypes are in my grandparents’ generation: to be
female is to be feminine, with all that entails, or else to be a failure.
Feminism rocks!
However, female and feminine are not interchangeable words- true, in our
culture they are tied together securely with social myth and
pseudo-science, suggesting that it is somehow ‘natural’ for women to do
the washing-up. Female ‘nurturing’ instincts are cited when a successful,
confident women is left to clean up after a layabout lover; the feminine
desire for marriage is explained as prehistoric woman’s search for
security. As a woman, you are meant to be ‘feminine’- you are expected to
be good with children, to make yourself attractive, to be eager to find
love and make a nest- of course, women in abundance have these very
attributes. But so do plenty of men. Maternity is a solely female
characteristic, but this does not mean that all women are innately
maternal or in fact interested in having children at all. Biological
determinism dictates that for women not to want children is somehow
unnatural, we have a ‘biological clock’ to tell us when the time is right,
and yet when the time is right for wrinkles we are meant to battle onwards
with creams and facelifts or be considered to have no self-respect. Modern
ideals of femininity, with the emphasis on appearance, marriage and
children are a patriarchal construct under threat from women’s desire to
earn their own living and to have a traditionally masculine degree of
sexual freedom.

Patriarchy can be defined as ‘a set of hierarchical relations between men,
which enable them to control women’. Patriarchal delineations of gender
enhance the benefits accruing directly to all men from the domestic,
financial, reproductive and sexual subordination of women. For example,
emotional indicators in the form of involuntary physical responses common
to both sexes (such as blushing or crying) are deemed ‘feminine’ and are
thus implicitly encouraged in women and socially unacceptable in men. When
this situation is transposed to the workplace, it means that women are
more likely to express their emotions in aggressive confrontations (e.g.
to cry) and that in the eyes of their male colleagues this will undermine
their professionalism. The correct feminine response in fact leads to
female silence.

By exposing the workings of the patriarchal system, it becomes clear that
masculine and feminine gender identities are not naturally occurring
states and are entirely separate from the biological sexes male and
female. In her influential essay “Women’s Time” Julia Kristeva offers us a
refusal of biological essentialism. Feminism, she argues, must be seen in
a historical and political context as a three-tiered struggle, which can
be broadly outlined as follows:

  1. Women demand equal access to the symbolic order, i.e. equal
    influence in the political, social and cultural arena. This is Liberal
  2. Women reject the male symbolic order in the name of difference.
    This Kristeva terms Radical feminism, where femininity is extolled.
  3. (Kristeva’s own position.) Women reject the dichotomy between
    masculine and feminine as metaphysical. Gender is a subject position one
    occupies and is not determined by biological sex.

These three ‘stages’ of feminism are not mutually exclusive- it is still
politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to
counteract the patriarchy that precisely despises women as women. However,
an undeconstructed form of stage two feminism, by uncritically taking over
the very metaphysical categories set up in order to oppress women achieves
nothing but sexism, despite attempts to attach new feminist values to
these old categories.

The third position is one that has ‘deconstructed’ the opposition between
masculinity and femininity, and therefore necessarily challenges the very
notion of identity. It has dangerous implications- we are sculpted by our
social environment, but this deconstruction of sex-determined identity
opens up the possibility of choosing who we are, independent of binary
gender oppositions. This freedom is manifest to some extent in the
butch/femme sexual identities of lesbianism- the individual’s subscription
to given gender subject positions is arbitrary. An individual may choose
to fill the patriarchal template of what it is to be ‘masculine’ or
‘feminine’ but it is the element of choice, not what is chosen which
offers a glimpse of freedom. Dress is one of the most heavily constricted
areas of gender identity, and one of the easiest and most entertaining to
disrupt: I for one like a well-cut suit as much as a sparkly dress. I
sometimes like to have long hair and sometimes like to have less than an
inch. By manipulating cultural codes of gender you can make people face up
to their pre-conceptions, although the abuse received by gender
transgressors is testament to the strength of convention and the lure of
conformity. Being what you are expected to be is so easy- in classes I
find myself silent even though I had something to say, while the
discussion is dominated by men. In a shop I visited recently there was one
male member of staff among several women, and it was to him I took my
query (having walked straight past the manager). I hate that I have been
conditioned in this way, and it is a conscious effort to overcome it in
myself, and to point out to others how gender stereotypes effect
behaviour. The most effective way to do this would be by altering
representations of men and women in the mass media, which at the moment
reinforces gender stereotypes considerably more than it explores or
undermines them. While the media claims to reflect cultural change it is
in fact the instrument needed to create this change, by providing more
positive images of gender transgression.

It is absolutely imperative to deconstruct this binary gender system
before sexual equality can be achieved- a cultural revolution is needed,
that will finally break the idea that because we are biologically female,
not being ‘feminine’ is some kind of failure. Career success isn’t
‘feminine’, sexual promiscuity isn’t ‘feminine’, a hearty appetite isn’t
‘feminine’. A culture that rebukes men for crying and women for enjoying a
meal is absurd, and yet that’s what we have. By all means smash the glass
ceiling in kitten heels, good for you, myself I’m happier in boots and I’m
no less a woman for it.



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