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?” [Read more…]