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Having Gender, or Doing Gender?

I began my stint here at the Manifesto with a post discussing the current state of gender studies with regards to men and masculinities. That seemed to go pretty well – especially after it was linked to a rather notorious MR forum. Good times were had by all. While the primary purpose of the post was to illustrate how far research into masculinities has come since the early (and embarrassing) attempts of the early 1980s, there was another element that I chose to gloss over. It wasn’t that this topic isn’t important, or that I thought it might bore you all but rather that I felt a discussion about the structure of gendered behaviour would have made an already long post longer. I still think the topic is important for us to take a closer look at though, so buckle up, adjust your sociological monocles*, and let’s drive on ahead into the world of gender performativity.

Traditionally, the concept of gender was pretty much built around the concept of biological essentialism – a woman was a woman because everyone with her genitalia and physiology shared certain intrinsic traits, including mental ones. In the same way, there were some things that were intrinsic to being a man, like being strong, brave, honest, and forthright. Notice that men somehow ended up with all of the ‘noble’ traits. Weird, I know. In any case, being a woman or being a man had everything to do with biology, and the social, political, familial, and even religious roles, duties, and privileges were merely expressions of those innate biological elements. That understanding has moved on somewhat – which is to say that in large part, the essentialist model has been abandoned altogether.** The reason for this move away has been a steady march towards increasing our understanding of the social aspect to the formation and maintenance of gender. Social scientists began to ask themselves, “if gender is biologically determined – if it is hardwired into the human brain and body, then shouldn’t its expression be rather narrow in scope? If there is an essential ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’, then shouldn’t it manifest plainly and consistently across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries? If it does not, then how can it be universal?”

And so, like good little social scientists, the researchers began to examine the question and test it against the evidence available in the world, and after the merest scratching of the surface of gender, it became apparent that while a person’s identity and personality are housed in an ugly bag of mostly-water, the casing didn’t seem to matter as much as once thought. Gender wasn’t some easily quantifiable grab-bag of ‘traits’ that could be identified as masculine or feminine; it was a confusing and chaotic welter of fluid – and often contradictory – beliefs, practices, notions, and behaviours whose value as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ seemed to be not only culturally informed, but historically contingent as well. The notion of essential gender ‘types’ was an illusion. But if gender wasn’t something essential to our natures – if I wasn’t born with a set list of ‘masculine traits’, then how could I understand what it was to be gendered? And then, in 1987, two researchers published a paper that argued that contrary to prevailing attitudes, gender wasn’t something we had, it was something we did.

According to these researchers – Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman – gender could be more accurately described as a type of performance resulting from the interactions of a whole constellation of attitudes, beliefs, ideologies, notions, biological urges, social conventions, and even political and religious affiliations; performances enacted by individuals and aimed at establishing an individual’s place (and in some cases, worth) in society. Picture dozens of big, red arrows all converging at a single point; each of these arrows contains a name or a concept like, ‘religious beliefs’, ‘sexual orientation’, ‘moral values’, ‘biology’, ‘beliefs about human nature’, etc. At the point where they all converge, imagine one of those roiling clouds like the kind you would see on cartoons when characters were fighting. Now draw a circle around that cloud. Those interactions help us to determine what sorts of gender performances we enact. Yep, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that, and there are some serious questions that remain, such as ‘how important is brain physiology in the development and performance of gender?’, or ‘does this framework imply that our gender is determined at least in part by other people?’, but hey, no theory is perfect.

As other theorists like Messner have pointed out, gender performance is historically fluid; the ideal man of 19th century America – the ‘rugged pioneer’ was replaced in the 1950s by the tough, gruff, middle-class everyman, and by the tech-savvy and cosmopolitan Adonis of the 21st century. These archetypes, while alleged to be true representations of the ‘ideal man’, appeared upon examination to be compilations of socially privileged actions and attitudes – performances, if you will. It’s true, some traits have been more deeply embedded in patterns of masculinity than others; men throughout much of the modern history of the West have been expected to be stoic, honest, and brave and this continues to this day, but how those attributes are supposed to be expressed has bent and shifted according to social pressures. The stoicism of the 1950s man – as unemotional and distant from partners and children – has been altered to reflect a more emotional and engaged ‘ideal man’ whose stoicism may now be interpreted as ‘emotional but not too emotional, and loving, but to a point’. A man may show emotion for example, but should not cry at the movies or when a family pet dies; he may be a loving father and partner, but public displays ought to be muted or quick.

As social groups that have been historically marginalized become more mainstream, our discourse surrounding gender becomes more nuanced, and claims of essentialism become more problematic. It becomes more difficult for example to cling to notions that ‘masculinity’ is somehow intrinsic to males the more closely we examine men’s lives.  How can a singular notion of ‘essential maleness’ deal with gay and bisexual men, or transmen, or men who engage in traditionally feminised hobbies or professions, are pacifist, or are stay-at-home dads? Masculine gender performativity can take many forms, and despite protestations to the contrary not one of them is more (or less) ‘manly’ than any other, or at least there seems to be no real way to determine if one is.

Is there a biological component to gender? I tend to think so, I’m just unsure how important it is. We walk around in bodies that interact with other bodies in the world, and those interactions affect us on all sorts of levels; damage to the brain or differences in the brain’s physical structure can alter our personalities and even our concept of self. I don’t dispute that – mostly because it’s not my field and I defer to the experts. But what our society valorizes or vilifies, and how our culture pressures us to behave aren’t biological; nothing in our biology dictates that women shouldn’t vote or that men shouldn’t be caregivers or nurses. If a society says that men wearing robes or dresses, or wanting to stay at home and raise children is wrong or ‘unmanly’, there’s nothing biological there, but the pressures to conform are powerful nonetheless.

Could I be wrong? Probably. Okay, I’m almost definitely wrong about at least parts of what I’ve just said, but that’s the beauty of research; if I’m wrong, it’ll mean that we’ve learned something new. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

* Sure I could have talked about wearing our sociology glasses or hats, but monocles are fancier – at least I think so.

** I’m speaking only of the current state of discourse within the Gender Studies field, not of more general social trends – or of other trends in other disciplines of the social sciences or ‘hard’ sciences.

PS: I’m not in charge of moderating comments – that’s the job of the boss. He’s not here, so your comments may end up stuck in moderation. Be patient please.

PPS: Commenter ‘Will’ made an excellent point at the bottom of the comments section, and I don’t want it to get buried in any subsequent comments, so I’m posting it here so that more people might get a chance to check it out. Thanks again, Will!

What? No Judith Butler? Here, allow me! ;)

I think looking at a Butlerian understanding of gender can be quite useful in thinking about gender as doing instead of being. Some background: Butler builds upon J.L. Austin’sdiscussion of performative speech acts. For Austin, a performative speech act is a discursive utterance that performs a particular act, and it is not a true/false or descriptive utterance. For example, “I apologize” or “I pronounce you spouse and spouse” are performative speech acts because they actually do the things being spoken. (We can contrast this with constative speech acts, which are declarative, are demonstrably true/false, and/or seek to share information: “My hair is blond” is an example of a constative speech act.)

Extending Austin’s performativity, Butler uses performativity to mean any repetitive and un/subconscious discursive practice that (re)constitutes status and (re)iterates norms. In this way, performativity both produces and naturalizes social categories like gender by enacting norms onto material bodies. The idea that I am a man only has meaning within a socially intelligible framework, and it comes through the performative speech acts like the one I just engaged in (i.e., my announcement that I am a man).

Butler later distinguished between the involuntary (performative) and the voluntary (performance). So, we all “perform” gender in a performative sense without knowing or recognizing it, but we also “perform” gender in a performance sense and recognize that that’s what we’re doing. So whether a trans* person is thinking about presenting their gender in a certain way, they are still doing gender in performative ways that are constituting and reconstituting social norms.

Good discussion and a fascinating topic. =)

Comments

  1. jehk says

    One of the most mind bending experiences I had as a child was my father, the epitome of the 1950′s man, crying like a baby when the family dog died.

    Also, I really like your parting sentiment. I wish more people felt that way about being wrong.

  2. invivoMark says

    So is transsexualism a partly social/cultural phenomenon? I’m not sure, but I suspect that most transsexuals would answer strongly in the negative.

    And that would mean that the biological component of gender is very strong, at least to the point of causing people to undergo drastic surgical procedures and hormonal treatments, and forcing some of them to endure immense psychological torment and violent verbal and physical bullying from people who are too dumb to take this issue seriously.

    There’s a lab at my campus that studies events and behaviors at very early ages that alter expression of sexuality later in life, using a mouse experimental model system. Unfortunately, I’m not too confident in their methods, but at least they’re addressing some really interesting questions.

  3. says

    One thing I appreciate about the activism for acceptance of trans* people is that it has raised my awareness, and that of other cis people, about how much of gender is a performance. An expression. As a woman who has worked in male-dominated fields like carpentry as well as female-dominated fields like childcare, I have benefited from this feeling of liberation from caring about other people’s expectations about how I present myself. I’m still trying to articulate how this has affected me, but basically I’m trying to point out how it benefits me, and lots of others as well, to see gender as an expression rather than intrinsic.

  4. says

    So is transsexualism a partly social/cultural phenomenon? I’m not sure, but I suspect that most transsexuals would answer strongly in the negative.

    I certainly won’t presume to speak for anyone from the trans community, and so I have no idea how most or any would answer. For my part, I understand transsexuality to include more than a person’s gender. Since I am only discussing gender performativity and not sexual identity (the two, while related, are not synonymous), I’m not sure that I can comment further. Does biology inform sexual identity? Sure. But is sexual identity the same as gender? Not even close. Sexual identity or sexual expression is a part of gender, not the whole thing. A transman or a transwoman performs gender just as much as anybody else, and they are no more immune to social pressures than any other segment of society.

    Also, ‘ignorant’ is probably a better descriptor than ‘dumb’.

  5. says

    I tend to see it the same way; if gender is a performance, then experimentations in performativity don’t carry the same negative connotations as they might if gender were fixed to biology. If I want to experiment with alternative expressions of sexuality, or if I want to work on deconstructing sexist or patriarchal patterns of behaviour, I might find it easier to do so without fearing that I am ‘losing’ my manhood in the process.

  6. says

    Something just came to mind for me about social pressures driving the image of gender roles is my time in the Marine Corps. Your success in the Marines is determined by how physically strong you are, how mentally tough you can be, how well you can shoot and swim and study… and also how good you are at ironing, folding clothes, scrubbing toilets, and mopping floors. Lots of cooking too, mostly grilling but general pride in making good eats in contrast to the crap they fed us.

    There’s a whole lot of “women’s work” in being in the Marines, starting with being issued a sewing kit right off the bat. Lots of men who are former Marines, myself included, can’t tolerate the lack of cleaning ability in their partners. I joke with my wife that a woman’s place is “the hell out of MY kitchen!” There are a lot of ways that the military culture is sick, but it is awesome where it provides a sense of a man taking care of all of the things they need to be a complete person, with or without a woman to cover the other things, and for the most part vice-versa.

  7. Pen says

    My experience is that gender is an accommodation that’s negotiated with the rest of the world, certainly not something innate to myself. The person inside the ‘ugly bag of mostly water’ does not feel that the concept of gender is innately meaningful to her (see that pronoun, that’s an accommodation!).

    On the other hand the message coming loud and clear from the trans community is quite different. Is it possible that we are not all the same in this respect either, and that there’s more than one answer?

  8. says

    I’m not sure how to answer this question, Pen. How gender is constructed isn’t really up to how a person ‘feels’ it ought to be; in crude, reductionist terms, gender construction is either essential or it isn’t. It is either a hard-wired, intrinsic trait that is somehow written into our DNA, or it isn’t.

    Put another way: having a penis may influence how I express my sexuality, but it doesn’t seem to have anything important to say about how I choose to be a father, or whether or not I view homosexuality and homosexual men as threats to my manhood, or even how others judge the way I throw a baseball. Sexuality and Gender are not the same thing. To borrow from Connell, gender is “… a way in which social practice is ordered… it is a social practice that constantly refers to bodies and what bodies do, [but] it is not social practice reduced to the body.” (Connell, “Masculinities: Second Edition”, Pg. 71) Gender relates to the body and what the body does, but it is not determined by the body.

    Did this help at all, or am I rambling?

  9. Sassafras says

    It’s possible that there is more than one answer, but another option to consider is that if your gender identity and your body’s sex match up, you just feel it’s not meaningful or innate because it doesn’t hurt. The conflict between my sense of my mental self and my outer body is what makes me aware of my gender; after I started hormones and transitioned, my awareness of my gender just faded into the background because it was no longer causing me pain.

  10. says

    Yes, exactly. And if I want to explore my interest in carpentry, football, or science, that doesn’t mean that I am obligated to reject traditionally feminine things that I do enjoy, such as wearing pretty dresses and being kind and nurturing. Thanks for helping me articulate it.

  11. Pen says

    I can see I was quite vague.

    You say gender has to be either innate or constructed… it’s either in our dna or it isn’t. Fair enough*, but what if our dna (or society) can produce a range of possibilities from strongly gendered to not strongly gendered, as well as a gender type which is male or female. That is what I meant when I incoherently said there could be more than one answer.

    * Except that language is both a social construct for particular languages AND hard-wired into us as an innate capacity. You can have both in other cases, possibly.

  12. Pen says

    Well, I have been here a few times now. I have thought quite hard about what I’m asserting about myself and the counter-suggestion you made (which I’ve heard before). Obviously, I can’t prove my assertion, or that your suggestion is incorrect in my case. But please at least know that I’ve spent time thinking about it.

  13. Pen says

    You say gender has to be either innate or constructed… it’s either in our dna or it isn’t. Fair enough*, but what if our dna (or society) can produce a range of possibilities from strongly gendered to not strongly gendered, as well as a gender type which is male or female.

    I was probably still too vague. The way this relates to your post is that it could account for the fact that some of us are certain we ‘have’ gender and others are certain we ‘do’ gender.

  14. says

    One of the more interesting things that I have read is that, for trans men, many of them have the experience of a phantom penis before they even know what, precisely, it is to be trans. In other words, there is evidence for biological sex being miswired in the brain, which can lead people to transition; their brain is not wired to the type of body that they have. Of course, I’m speaking from having read a few studies, and I cannot speak to the full spectrum of trans* experience; I’m not here to justify anything (since they shouldn’t have to justify themselves to anyone) so much as to toss in an interesting tidbit.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen femme trans*men and butch trans*women and trans*folk who cross the entire spectrum of sexual expression, so it has little to do with sexuality. Gender expression, biological sex (apparently both a body map that is wired into the brain and the body itself, which can have crossed wires), and sexuality are three separate things that may interact, but do not cause one another.

    Someone please correct me if I have screwed something up.

  15. says

    Taking the “the hell out of MY kitchen!” line and running with it, I find it quite interesting that my life has been lived on those fluid boundaries between gender ‘norms’. I’m quite in control of the kitchen when it comes to my (female) partner and I, along with her being the primary money earner. She also dominates me at sport (I injured my knee to the point of not being able to play but before that, while I was in no way bad, she was always a lot more rounded and just generally skilled than me at soccer).

    However, I’ve felt absolutely no shame about these things at all. It seems both funny and strange to me that some people would feel ‘emasculated’ with any of this stuff happening. I mean, my partner and I are both people. Some people are better at some things than other people and worse at others. Why would it matter if she is better than me at particular activities? Perhaps I’m just lucky because my white, young male privilege allows me to rebuff any taunts that I garner from more ‘traditional’ males without any real loss of my power as a person.

    Really any sort of discrimination pisses me off and I think I’m incredibly lucky to have the social power (or should I say privilege) to combat it and still come out somewhat ahead (and by that, I mean that I don’t suffer any losses, whether it be in the workplace or in my social circle).

  16. says

    Ah okay, I think I see where the vagueness is coming from. It seems that you and I are operating with two different definitions of gender. How do you understand gender? What is the working definition of gender for you? I think once we figure that out – and see how it relates to my working definition of gender – we’ll have a better understanding of each other.

  17. says

    Except that language is both a social construct for particular languages AND hard-wired into us as an innate capacity. You can have both in other cases, possibly.

    Would it be fairer to say that we are all hard-wired with the capacity to use language, but that actual form and content of the language, and the way that our use of language interacts with the world (and each other) is cultural? In other words, while biology gives me the ability to recognize and utilize language, it’s the social and cultural contexts constructed by and around language that give language its meaning?

    Having a body gives us a slate on which to inscribe gendered processes (and onto which gendered processes will be inscribed by others), and the shape and form of the body/slate will have some influence on some of the gendered inscriptions (black bodies, white bodies, trans-bodies, able-bodies, male bodies, female bodies), but the inscriptions themselves – our own and those forced on to us – and what those inscriptions mean (culturally, historically, politically) are not hard-wired into the body; they are interactions with and reactions to a body, but they don’t emerge from it.

    How does this sound to you?

  18. says

    I am a trans woman. For me the gender identity is about my sense of self and something that tells me that my body and life was not the way it was supposed to be. I believe its due to brain chemistry but some trans people would differ. Either way I dont find it particularily linked to gender expression in any way. For me conforming to gender expression norms just allows me to feel safe in society presenting in the bodily configuration I feel is normal for me.

    I will say that I hate the term gender performance however. For whatever reason that I do it and in whatever way I do it I am a woman and there is no real performance involved. Nitpicking but that term has unfortunately been used in a lot of ugly ways for my community.

  19. says

    Eh; your mileage may vary. My ex, who is a former Marine as well and who came out as trans* after we separated and she was kicked out on DADT, was the “sewing bitch” of her (male) platoon because she was the only one who knew how to sew, and I know from many, many stories that the males spend most of their time in boot camp hearing about how useless women are for anything other than fucking and cleaning. I think that all of the “use women as if they were things” messages that dudes get in boot completely overrides any positive self-sufficiency that they may acquire, judging by ninety percent of the male Marines I knew.

  20. Catherine says

    It is often down to the terms here, in the trans community gender means gender identity, whereas here gender has been used to mean gender expression. Which as a transwoman is very different. Gender expression is generally socially constructed and people generally have a wide range of supposedly gendered behaviours, whereas gender identity seems to be innate and it is cis privilege to be able to believe it is not as cis people haven’t felt the pain of their gender identity not matching their assigned sex.

  21. Pen says

    Ah yes, I realised last night this is probably the case. I’ve been studying at the school of Nathalie Reed and have my vocabulary from there, though it wouldn’t be her fault if I’m misusing it. But that, probably, is why Sassafras and I understood each other perfectly even though we disagree.

    This is a fun guide to the vocabulary I seem to be operating with at the moment.

    So to translate, we have:

    Gender identity, defined as “how you, in your head, think about yourself”. I’m not sure what you’re calling this but I probably defaulted to this concept when you used ‘gender’ as a shorthand, and it’s what I was talking about.

    Gender expression which you’re calling gender performance? Which would seem to be something you ‘do’ practically by definition. This is what you were talking about, exclusively? And whether it’s an aspect of biological sex or not? If so, how do you think it relates to gender identity and do you think gender identity also relates to biological sex?

    Biological sex – morphology, hormones, dna… – unproblematic for this discussion.

    Sexual orientation – who you’re attracted to – also unproblematic here.

    PS. When you used the phrase ‘gender construction’ I am in fact still confused about which of these things you mean.

  22. says

    That ‘Genderbread’ diagram is helpful – as far as it goes.

    Now take that diagram, and copy it hundreds – thousands – of times and scatter those many images around on a field.

    Now make some of the bodies black, brown, tall, short, heavy, or slim. Now add clothes on them – rich clothes, poor clothes, bright clothes, dark clothes, dresses, pants, etc.

    Now draw arrows criss-crossing the spaces between the bodies to represent those bodies interacting with one another in society. The arrows can be all different colours and shapes, representing all the different ways in which we interact with each other – good and bad.

    Now take the original ‘genderbread’ person, and phase them out – not until they’re invisible, but until they sort of fade into the background a bit, and at the same time, emphasize the arrows – the interactions – until they become the most important elements of our picture.

    Those arrows are gendered. They are performative. Interactions require the performance of actions, and in society, those actions, depending both on the bodies that perform them, and on how the bodies that receive the actions interpret them, grant privilege or power (or take it away). Gender requires these interactions in order to exist as a social phenomenon; just because you hold in your head a certain ‘gender identity’, doesn’t mean that everyone else automatically sees it and understands what it means. Our concepts of self are reflected back to us through our interactions with other people and those reflections can alter that concept of self. Who we are – how we conceive of our selves – is constantly being influenced by the world around us – by the arrows.

    The genderbread person does not exist in isolation; there are around 7 billion of them, and they interact in an infinite number of ways.

    This I think is why you and I (and others in this thread) are misunderstanding each other; while the genderbread person’s individual make-up is important, it’s not the whole story; it’s only a part of it. The rest of the story – the part I have been trying to discuss – takes place when that genderbread person steps off of the page and into the world. For me, and for a large chunk of the academics who study gender, it’s all about the arrows.

    The trans community may see this issue differently; I’m not trans, and I’m not a part of the community, so I have little experience with how they conceptualize gender. As I said in my original post, I’m talking about how gender is understood by the scholars in the field of gender studies.

  23. says

    What? No Judith Butler? Here, allow me! ;)

    I think looking at a Butlerian understanding of gender can be quite useful in thinking about gender as doing instead of being. Some background: Butler builds upon J.L. Austin’s discussion of performative speech acts. For Austin, a performative speech act is a discursive utterance that performs a particular act, and it is not a true/false or descriptive utterance. For example, “I apologize” or “I pronounce you spouse and spouse” are performative speech acts because they actually do the things being spoken. (We can contrast this with constative speech acts, which are declarative, are demonstrably true/false, and/or seek to share information: “My hair is blond” is an example of a constative speech act.)

    Extending Austin’s performativity, Butler uses performativity to mean any repetitive and un/subconscious discursive practice that (re)constitutes status and (re)iterates norms. In this way, performativity both produces and naturalizes social categories like gender by enacting norms onto material bodies. The idea that I am a man only has meaning within a socially intelligible framework, and it comes through the performative speech acts like the one I just engaged in (i.e., my announcement that I am a man).

    Butler later distinguished between the involuntary (performative) and the voluntary (performance). So, we all “perform” gender in a performative sense without knowing or recognizing it, but we also “perform” gender in a performance sense and recognize that that’s what we’re doing. So whether a trans* person is thinking about presenting their gender in a certain way, they are still doing gender in performative ways that are constituting and reconstituting social norms.

    Good discussion and a fascinating topic. =)

  24. says

    You’re right, Catherine, we are using the word ‘gender’ in very different ways. Biological sex and sexual expression (or even sexual orientation) aren’t the focus of what I was talking about – they’re important insofar as they help shape the bodies we all interact with, but they aren’t the focus of my post. In gender studies, we don’t really use the word ‘gender’ to discuss anything other than the interactions between bodies in a social space. Gender theorists used to talk about ‘sex roles’ or even sexual orientation as being synonymous with gender, but that’s changed in recent years. It was in fact the work of Connell – a transwoman and the most cited author in this field – that radically altered how gender theorists understood the concept. She took the work of West and Zimmerman and ran with it and thanks to her pioneering work, gender theorists began to see new ways of understanding gender.

    I am not talking about biological sex, or sexual expression, or the physiological differences between male bodies, female bodies, or intersexed bodies in my post. When I use the term ‘gender’, I am referring to something very specific – the patterns of interactions between bodies in a social space. As I said in my OP, when I talk about gender, I’m talking about how the term is understood and used in the field of gender studies, not how it is used in other social settings or communities.

  25. says

    Thank you! Thank you so much for bringing Butler into the discussion – her work is pretty damned foundational. Can I be honest though? Butler’s writing makes my brain very, very sad and that’s the only reason why I didn’t include her (well that and I’m happily ensconced in Connell’s theoretical traditions).

    EDIT: In fact, I like this comment so much, that I’m going to tack it on to the end of my OP. Thanks again for this excellent comment!

  26. says

    I agree, her writing style can be quite dense at times. Which is disappointing considering how amazing her points are when you can actually get to the meat of them. ;)

  27. Catherine says

    Apologies if this isn’t 100% coherent as I have been displaying what many would consider a male gender expression today and helping setup a bar at the biggest beer festival in the UK, and sampling the wares. But further to my previous post i’d say that it is important to distinguish between gender expression and gender identity and a lot of academic gender theorists seem to conflate the two. Again as I stated it is a function of cis privilege not to consider there is such a thing as gender identity distinct from sex. The issue is a lot of academic literature has been dominated by TERFs (trans exclusionary rad fems) and it is one of the reasons I believe that 4th wave feminism will ultimately come from the blogosphere and not academia…

  28. says

    Well, Natalie Reed represents only some of many views of “the trans community” but she take the “performative gender” idea a step further, I think, to write on how gender is negotiated between people as a semiotic system. I hope there will be a follow-up to that post, it needs more development.

    One request: if you’re working from an academic viewpoint on gender, please please take transgender people’s views into account–not just study transgender people as subjects, but listen to and read what many of them have to say. The stakes are high for them. That’s because the questions about “what gender is”, and how it relates to sex, determine social attitudes when they spread; and while these attitudes affect everyone, the people who have their lives most strongly impacted by them are transgender people. Gender theory academia does not have a good track record of including transgender people’s perspectives; Natalie’s blog is a great place to see some of those perspectives (from her and from commenters).

  29. Pen says

    Ah, I think I am with you now. Gender expression is negotiated, necessarily, with social norms and with other people.

    just because you hold in your head a certain ‘gender identity’, doesn’t mean that everyone else automatically sees it and understands what it means.

    Too true, and very often stepping outside the range of permitted expressions carries consequences. We try to negotiate something that suits us with greater or lesser degrees of comfort, and we inevitably force other people to negotiate as well.

    Our concepts of self are reflected back to us through our interactions with other people and those reflections can alter that concept of self. Who we are – how we conceive of our selves – is constantly being influenced by the world around us – by the arrows.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. It’s possible to feel you know who you are in the absence of any language for expressing that or in the face of strong pressure telling you you’re someone else. And it’s possible to negotiate that situation with the world by slipping through as comfortably as possible, by capitulating, by rebelling, by creating new language, by being very confused, by sinking into depression… it’s the story of lots of people’s lives.

    Is it possible to have your sense of who you are altered by interactions? Probably, but I wish you could give me an example, because I can’t think of one by myself. I think these interactions perhaps affect our sense of our own status, our acceptability to others, or our sense of belonging, more than anything else. As you say, we grant and receive privilege and power through them. Just being able to use them in a way that ‘matches’ you is one hell of a privilege and source of power.

  30. Patrik says

    “In the same way, there were some things that were intrinsic to being a man, like being strong, brave, honest, and forthright. Notice that men somehow ended up with all of the ‘noble’ traits.”

    Notice also how you as a male devalued typical female traits…

  31. John Horstman says

    Edwin, I wish I had been reading you BEFORE taking Queer Theory courses. Despite an inclination toward postmodern epistemologies, performativity was still a hard idea for me to get initially (and Butler’s dense-as-hell prose didn’t help matters). Anyway, I think this is well-written and spot-on.

  32. says

    Except *I* didn’t. I was referring to classical constructions of gender and pointing out that in many ways these ‘traits’ have been historically linked to men and masculinities. It is absolutely true that the traditional articulations of gender privilege those attributes most commonly associated with men while undervaluing those ascribed to women. If you had read the rest of my post, which I’m sure you did, you would have seen that I had made the point that these sorts of articulations of gender are pretty much bullshit. The ways in which we privilege gendered attributes and arrange them into complex systems of dominance and subordination is a construction of culture, and by realizing that and by striving to deconstruct those hierarchies, we can move closer to a more fair and equitable society.

  33. says

    I think we’re moving along towards a common understanding quite well Pen, thanks for the discussion!

    Hmm… examples of how we negotiate our gender with other people? All right, I’ll dig back into my studies of masculinity for this.
    While cultural attitudes about men and family are changing, the traditional view of men in the family has been that of the bread-winner and provider; the man is *supposed* to be the partner who makes the money, cultivates a love of sports into their (male) children, while the mother is *supposed* to stay home and manage the house. Men who stayed home – especially men who identified as ‘stay-at-home fathers’ were looked at with something akin to suspicion; they weren’t *really* men. They were *failing* in their role as manly provider; they were *letting down the team*, so to speak. Men who made the conscious decision to stay home while their wife went to work were enacting their gender differently – they were adopting a non-standard pattern of gendered behaviour that included feeding infants, doing laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc. They had transgressed against the traditional masculine pattern of *doing* their gender.

    Some openly gay men in relationships are *doing* gender in a way that is counter to traditional – and some would argue still hegemonic – ideas of masculinity; how could they still be men if they were living with – and sleeping with – other men? The simple answer is that they are men who perform their masculinity in a way that is different from the ‘norm’. They are doing their gender differently. The most important thing to remember is that, according to Connell (and some common frigging sense), they have not ‘sacrificed’ their masculinity; they are men, being men; they are doing masculinity. People who identify as genderqueer or genderfuck add a whole new dimension to the discussion; but that’s not really my field at the moment, so I will avoid discussing it for now.

    In the television show “Modern Family”, the fathers of the show’s gay couple are sitting down after an evening of rolling up their sleeves, assembling furniture, and drinking beer. They had been arguing all evening about which of their sons was the ‘woman’ in the relationship – an argument which was causing anger and frustration from all parties. Finally, one of them sits down and apologizes to the other and says something along the lines of “Look. Neither one of them is the ‘woman’. They’re two men; they’re both men and they live together. Every time I think that I’ve got it all figured out, they go and do something that I just can’t wrap my head around. But we have to. They’re our sons. They’re our sons, and they’re gay.” The characters were commenting on the friction that had arisen from two different patterns of gendered behaviour, and the act of navigating that friction forced the older and more traditional character to reassess how he does gender. It almost goes without saying that a core element of traditional patterns of masculinity included some pretty naked homophobia; facing that and struggling to understand it and change that aspect of one’s psyche is a great example of how interactions with others can force us to change our own behaviour – to do gender differently.

    Does that help, or have I made things worse? :)

  34. says

    Minor note on terminology:

    General preference is for “trans men” / “trans women” as opposed to “transmen”, “trans-men”, “transwomen”, etc.

    The latter is rather othering, renders us an entirely unique category of gender, whereas the former maintains that we’re simply men and women who happen to be trans.

  35. says

    I think what’s being referred to here is you making the misstep of only pointing out one side of that process. You said that the “good traits” get ascribed to men, but did not directly acknowledge that what traits are seen as good are the ones that have already been ascribed to men. For understanding how that process works, you can’t just point out one aspect and then say “the rest is complicated!”. You need to pay close attention to what you’re doing or you reify the system anyway, such as in this instance, by only pointing out one side of that process, you DID end up treating the “goodness” of the male traits (in the relation to the “worthlessness” or “frivolity” of the female traits) as inarguably true. Even if you were claiming that those “good, masculine” traits don’t exclusively belong to men, you failed to acknowledge the equal value and worth of “feminine” traits, and in fact did devalue them.

  36. says

    I’m sorry if it came off that way, Natalie. I made some effort in that paragraph and the subsequent one to show that the way that these ‘traits’ were ascribed were in no way intrinsically true but were rather the product of social and historical processes, but I guess I came up short.

  37. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Again as I stated it is a function of cis privilege not to consider there is such a thing as gender identity distinct from sex.

    What kind of privilege is it to not even consider the existence of people who don’t feel they have a strong sense of gender identity?

  38. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I suppose that’s possible, but why do you think it’s likely? Why is it important to erase others’ experiences to validate your own?

  39. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I’m curious: why are we assuming that the only reason traits which are assigned male and which he identified as “valuable” are traditionally considered valuable is that they are assigned male, rather than because of external utility? And how is this different from uncritically accepting gender stereotypes and trying to fiddle with the value assignment?

  40. Catherine says

    Because cis people generally haven’t even had to consider that there is a difference between gender identity and physical sex as they have no idea what it’s like when the two don’t match.

  41. smhll says

    I may be misunderstanding your usage of noble if it has a specialized usage. I think the virtues of being “nurturing” and being more prone to “purity” or less prone to “debasement” to be virtues that are noble that have been traditionally assigned to women when making polarized lists of virtues.

  42. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    If that was intended as a response to me, it wasn’t a response to the question I asked.

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