“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 “
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.