Is Gender a Social Construct? Kinda

“Social construct” is one of those weird terms that gets tossed around a lot online without knowing what exactly it means. A lot of people think “social construct” means “made up” or “fictional,” but it’s more complicated than that. Now I’m not a sociologist, so don’t take my word as gospel, but based on what I’ve read, hopefully I can clear up some things.

For starters, according to Dictionary.com, a social construct is “a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society; a perception of an individual, group, or idea that is ‘constructed’through cultural or social practice.” Wikipedia goes a bit deeper and explains, “A social construct or construction concerns the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on an object or event by a society, and adopted by the inhabitants of that society with respect to how they view or deal with the object or event.” So when it comes to gender being a social construct, it means our society’s ideas about what it means to have either a penis or a vagina are determined by society, not necessarily biology.

Simone deBeauvoir sums it best with the classic line from The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” To be a woman in society is to meet certain preconceived expectations and roles, and if you don’t meet those roles, society says you’re not doing it right. Judith Butler echoes deBeuvoir’s observation by explaining “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time–an identity through a stylized repetition of acts.” Hence, according to Butler, gender is performative.

Unfortunately, the social construction argument overlooks one key factor that goes into gender: the scientific basis for gender identity.

As I’ve mentioned before, several studies show a connection between neurological patters and gender identity, so the catchphrase “gender is a social construct” doesn’t always show the full picture. I think trans activist and biologist Julia Serano explains it better than I can:

While [queer theory and post-structuralist] feminism differs from [identity-politics-focused/cultural] feminism in many ways, it shares its predecessor’s tendency to artificialize gender expression. This is often accomplished via gender performativity, a concept developed by Judith Butler to describe the way in which built-in expectations about maleness and femaleness, straightness and queerness, are constantly imposed on all of us. Butler uses the term “performativity” to highlight how feminine and masculine norms must constantly be cited. She uses the example of the child who becomes “girled” by others at birth: She is given a female name, referred to with female pronouns, given girl toys, and will, throughout her life, have her “girlness” cited by others in society. Butler argues that this sort of reiteration “produces” gender, making it appear “natural.” However, many other [queer theorists and post-structuralist] feminists have interpreted Butler’s writings to mean that one’s gender is merely a “performance.” According to this latter view, if gender itself is merely a “performance,” then one can challenge sexism by simply “performing” one’s gender in ways that call the binary gender system into question; the most often cited example of this is a drag queen whose “performance” supposedly reveals the way in which femaleness and femininity are merely a “performance.”

In other words, the idea that gender is just performance doesn’t tell the full story.

I think a better way of explaining it is this: gender identity has a scientific basis, but gender roles are social constructs. Rosey Grier isn’t less of a cis man because he crochets. Dori Mooneyham isn’t less of a trans woman because of her butch presentation. AFAB non-binaries are no less non-binary if they present as feminine. Society may say they’re not performing their genders right, but that’s because our society has some fucked up views about what it means to be either a man or a woman. We’re better than this, right?

So yeah, hopefully this clears things up some.

The Biskeptical Podcast #21: Have You Tried Not Being Poor?

We start today’s episode talking about the new GOP healthcare bill, and how it’s going to screw us all over. Then after we get a history lesson from Ben Carson, we discuss Christina Hoff Sommers’ latest video debunking the gender wage gap, and how it overlooks a lot of social hurtles.

Listen to “The Biskeptical Podcast #21: Have You Tried Not Being Poor?” on Spreaker.

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The Biskeptical Podcast #20: Vagina Woo

Today we discuss all the weird and wacky pseudoscientific woo surrounding vaginal hygiene. We talk about vagina lipstick, jade eggs, steaming, and everything else designed to awake your inner goddess. Plus I read a Dr. Seuss parody written by friend of the show Revan Reborn. Enjoy!

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Bi Any Means Podcast #89: Women Beyond Belief with Karen Garst

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My guest for today is Karen Garst, author and editor of the book “Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion.” She also blogs about feminism and atheism at FaithlessFeminist.com. Today we’re going to talk about her backstory, her book, and how religion hurts women.

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In Solidarity

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[Image description: Me holding a piece of paper that reads, “Feminism is Humanism. Deal With It!”]

I’m unable to attend any of the Women’s Marches today, but I am in solidarity. Stay safe and stay angry!

The Biskeptical Podcast #17: WTF Are Identity Politics?

Just in time for Inauguration Day, today Morgan and I discuss identity politics. What the hell are they, and did they put Trump in the White House. Tune in to find out!

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Bi Any Means Podcast #83: Women, Ecology, and Slender Loris with Kaberi Kar Gupta

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My guest for today is Kaberi Kar Gupta. She’s an ecologist who is the principal scientist for the Urban Slender Loris Project, which is a citizen-science based collaborative project among various academic institutions, environmental educators, non profit-organizations, city governments, and the forest department of Karnataka to develop a conservation program for the slender loris (a nocturnal primate distributed in southern India and Sri Lanka) in urban Bangalore. So today we’re going to talk about her life and her work.

Listen to “Bi Any Means Podcast #83: Women, Ecology, and Slender Loris with Kaberi Kar Gupta” on Spreaker.

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Bi Any Means Podcast #76: Indigenous People’s Rights with Taté Walker

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My guest for today indigenous rights activist Taté Walker. According to her bio on Everyday Feminism, Taté is a Lakota storyteller, feminist activist, blogger, photographer, and social services professional who promotes cultural competency and inclusion for professionals in the workplace. Her experience includes more than 12 years as a professional multimedia journalist. She is the editor of Native Peoples magazine, which provides an international audience with fair and accurate representations of Indigenous perspectives and experiences in ways that educate, entertain and empower through journalistic storytelling. She also spent eight years within the social services sector in the fields of juvenile justice, civil rights, and youth and family advocacy. So today we’re going to talk about her background, issues facing indigenous people today, and why native peoples’ rights are humanist issues

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Bi Any Means Podcast #72: Abortion Rights with Xandi Andersen

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My guest for today is Xandi Andersen. She is an abortion rights activist based in Alabama who, with her husband Nick Morgan-Moore (that’s his name), volunteers as a clinic escort. Today we’re going to hear about Xandi’s story and her work as an activist.

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