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Doing (and Undoing) Gender

January 30, 2011

One is not born a woman, but becomes one. ~ Simone de Beauvoir

Male. Female. Masculine. Feminine. Man. Woman. These words are so essential to our understanding of ourselves and our relations to others that we rarely—if ever—question their definitions. In fact, notes Judith Lorber, “Gender is so much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions and presuppositions is like thinking about whether the sun will come up” (1994, 13).

But what does it mean to be male or to be female? What attributes do we ascribe to each? Why are some personality traits defined as feminine and some as masculine? And are these traits natural or constructed unconsciously to fit societal expectations?

In the pieces below, both Lorber and Judith Butler explore these topics—and ask their readers to consider if these “codes” of gender can in fact be reinterpreted or broken.

“Night to His Day”: The Social Construction of Gender

In her book Paradoxes of Gender, Lorber argues that gender is not a biological creation. In echoing the sentiments of Simone de Beauvoir, she says that gender is a construct through which individuals identify and society structures itself. According to Lorber, when a child is born a gender role is assigned in accordance with sex and that child grows up thinking, feeling, dressing, sexualizing, working and playing in terms of the accepted behaviors assigned to that gender. For individuals, this means sharing a “sameness” with others who also identify with his or her gender category, and through this repeated “doing” of sameness, society creates and normalizes rules and hierarchies that determine a person’s status in the community, office and home. She quotes West and Zimmerman when she writes:

If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements …. If we fail to do gender appropriately, we as individuals—not the institutional arrangements—may be called to account (for our character, motives, and predispositions)” (1995, 25)

Monty Python’s The Meaning of LifePatient: Is it a boy or a girl?Obstetrician: Now, I think it’s a little early to start imposing roles on it, don’t you?

This means that people who deviate outside of their assigned gender through actions that may not align with the norms associated with the category are called out as suspect. Lorber calls this “gender bending.” Consider the reactions a transgender person* receives when others realize that he or she is not preforming the appropriate gender. Moreover, consider how someone who identifies with neither category (for example, a woman with short hair who wears ‘unisex’ clothing and drives a motorcycle) is discussed and often shunned in many social circles.

Subversive Bodily Acts

In this way, Butler argues in Gender Trouble that gender is, in fact, something that is performative. By this she means that through the imitation and repetition of accepted gendered characteristics, people normalize certain behaviors, giving them a sense of unquestionable naturalness. As such, a person performing these characteristics is assumed to have internalized specific gender qualities (for example, a woman acting mild-mannered and humble versus a man acting competitive), thus eliminating any differences between gender and sex, the performed and innate, or the soul and body. Butler takes a discursive turn from feminists before her by positing that there is in fact no difference between the sexes, and that any perceived difference is, as such, political in nature. Butler writes:

… it is clear that coherence is desired, wished for, idealized, and that this idealization is an effect of corporeal signification. In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal or core substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principles of identity as a cause….That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly political and social discourse ….

Breaking the Codes

As such, both Lorber and Butler contend that gender is a societal creation that is normalized through the repetitive acceptance and use by individuals who adopt and perform the appropriate pre-determined characteristics. Moreover, these characteristics are used to reinforce power structures (such as who can apply for what job and who is responsible for what tasks at home). Yet, if this is the current state of things, how does one subvert or attempt to alter the way society perceives gender? Can an individual be “him” or “her” self outside of traditional gender boundaries? Can humans just be, well, human?

Butler argues that to subvert the accepted gender structure, an individual must take on the attributes of the other gender. In this way, she views transgender people as breaking the gender code, disrupting the normalized organization of people in such a way that points out the illegitimacy of the categories. However, Butler’s argument is short-sighted in that it does not reject the binary attributes of gender and sex (one is either female or male). If a man dresses in drag, is he not, in effect, reinforcing the societally accepted norms of femininity?

In this way, Lorber suggests that merely crossing the gender boundaries does not shake up the power hierarchies at play. In fact, she highlights instances in which men took on female gender characteristics and thus found themselves disadvantaged at work and in the community. Lorber writes:

Paradoxically, then, bending the gender rules and passing between genders does not erode but rather preserves gender boundaries. In societies with only two genders, the gender dichotomy is not disturbed by transvestites, because other feel that a transvestite is only transitorily ambiguous—is ‘really a man or a woman’ underneath.’

Thus, it would be more feasible to argue, based on Lorber’s argument, that to really disrupt societal gender norms, an individual should not identify with (or perform) one gender or another. In using Butler’s argument, this in fact would mean not identifying with one sex or another. By not embracing the codes of gender in any way, society would in fact be forced to see human beings as single entities.

So how do humans break free from the norms presented to them at birth? The question, although now identified through the work of Lorber and Butler, remains open. Moreover, what roles do the media play in constructing these norms? And how does government policy further affect our realities? We will be using this blog to discuss these topics more in depth.

*According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, transgender defines someone who identifies with a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.

For further reading:

Butler, Judith. “Subversive Bodily Acts.” Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 163-180. Print.

Lorber, Judith. “‘Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of gender . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 13-36. Print.

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