What is Gender?

The people in this cartoon are “doing gender.”  What does this mean? What is gender?

Gender is an embodied social program, an ideological construction of the body that we do not simply perform in language and gesture,

but also inhabit and experience somatically (from the Greek, soma), in the body .

Gender is durable, although not inevitable, because it is produced and reproduced through symbolic and physical violence that privileges a purely relational, yet rigid, conception of masculinity that is sustained over against rigid conceptions of femininity.

The privileging of masculinity over femininity is wholly arbitrary–it makes no sense and might just as easily have been reversed, had certain factors in our history been different.

The patterns according to which we have interpreted our anatomies and behaviors come from culture, not nature.  Gender is a historically constructed way of responding to biology, sure.  But it is also a historically determined way of responding to  established practices of culture.

Historians and evolutionary psychologist believe that the invention of agriculture made an enormous impact on the way that human beings think about masculinity and femininity.  See, for example, the work of Christopher Ryan.

Gender is enforced and reinforced through symbolic and physical violence.  We all undergo a certain degree of symbolic violence, and we experience it directly whenever we “apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear to be natural,” as Pierre Bourdieu explains in his stellar book, Masculine Domination (p. 35).

So, for example, when women view themselves through the constructed categories of ideal femininity in, say, women’s magazines, and perceive themselves to be hideously fat and unattractive because they do not have the elongated and emaciated bodies of the models featured there, then they are experiencing symbolic violence.

Or, when we learn, from our parents, our media, our teachers, civic leaders, and preachers, that women are less able to do math or philosophy or auto mechanics or law than men, and unconsciously choose believe these fictions, and make choices in our lives because we have accepted them, then are experiencing symbolic violence.

We see ourselves through the categories that are present in our culture. And because our culture is patriarchal, organized according to a scheme of perceptions in which things masculine are considered to be higher or better than things feminine, the categories (for example, categories of the perfect female body) through which we see ourselves are also the expression of that patriarchal order.

When we see ourselves according to these paradigmatic ways of understanding “woman,” we are victims of symbolic violence.  The culture doesn’t need to beat us up–we do it do ourselves every time we compare ourselves to these idealized images of starvation or hyperbolic nymphomania and find ourselves wanting.   We learn to think about ourselves as second, less important than men. We also learn to fear that if we do not look as though we are continually hungering for men, that they will not want us.

This, of course, is complete rubbish, since no one but an absolute ass wants someone around who slavishly caters to their idiotic desires.  And yet there are so many men who can’t seem to stand women who assert themselves, and so many women who slavishly cater, or who spend inordinate amounts of time preparing themselves to be the objects of men’s desires, and little or no time thinking about what their own desires really are.   There are also plenty of men who can’t seem to imagine that women have any legitimate desires whatsoever.

Gender works through a series of oppositions.  Men know themselves as “men” only insofar as they can declare or prove that they are not “unmen” or women.  Over against a denigrated Other, men set themselves up as men, as subject, as powerful, right.  Just as light knows itself to be light only in contrast to darkness, so masculinity is defined over against femininity.  There is no such thing as absolute masculinity or essential masculinity, just as there is no such thing as absolute or essential darkness, or absolute “down” that exists in and of itself without the concept of “up.”  Similarly, men habitually define themselves as men only in opposition to women.

But instead of understanding a reciprocal or equal relationship between men and women, we tend to set ourselves into hierarchical relationships.  That is, we understand gender as an order in which masculine always takes precedence over feminine.   But this doesn’t make any sense.   There is a reciprocal relationship between up and down, or hot and cold, or dry and wet.  You cannot think one term without the other.  That understanding makes it possible for you to see both ideas as concepts, mutually determining ideas, but not as a hierarchy.

(every wonder why the light half is usually on top?)

Yet we generally do not understand these sexual oppositions as mutually dependent and equivalent, but rather as a superior-inferior relationship, in which masculinity is always superior to femininity, always “above” that which is “below” it.  This is false thinking, an illusion of reality that has been enforced by symbolic and real violence.  Women who have defied it have been punished, branded as whores or sluts or witches or monsters or hags.  They have also been subjected to physical punishment, to beatings and rapes and mutilations and murders.  Think of Anne Hutchinson,

or wise women, or people you may know of extraordinary autonomy and intransigence who, because they have refused to play the part of the “good” woman within the patriarchal order, have been slapped down or destroyed.

2 thoughts on “What is Gender?

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