Gender is a Social Construct

It is no secret that the Western world has always been long-obsessed with the male/female dichotomized binary system of biological sex (Fausto-Sterling, 1993 and Lorber, 1993). Biology is often utilised as a cause of individual attributes to justify its ‘naturalness’, with resulting (unequal) gendered social status are its effects (Lorber, 1993). As seen in the remarks in the previous post, Peterson utilises several tacit assumptions such as gender polarization* and essentialism in his rhetoric.

*Gender Polarization – Definition: the assumption that human experiences are linked to ‘innate’ sex differences (McCann & Kim, 2013); A sociological term to describe the tendency of societies and cultures to define femininity and masculinity as polarized opposites of each other (Bem, 1995). This also leads to the idea that these traits are fixed and do not vary throughout the life course.

However, the paradigm shift that this perspective has undergone over the past century, i.e. accounting for processes of socialization in the construction of gender, does not seem to have caught on for Peterson. Gender as a performative aspect of identity has been theorized by feminist scholars for a long time. In her novel The Second Sex, French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir paved the way for a more complex and anti-essentialist theorization of gender. In a radical rejection of its biologically-determined conception, she declares:

“One is not born, but becomes, a woman” (Beauvoir, 1949).

Several feminist scholars have since made the point that gender is an ongoing product of everyday social practice, where meanings are mapped on bodies and performatively enacted (Bunch, 2013). Judith Butler (1990) heavily critiques the “heterosexual matrix in which gender and sexuality flow from biological sex” (Bunch, 2013).

Sex and gender are not static, instead they are produced through social and sexual scripts and internalised gender roles (McCann & Kim, 2013). Gendered practices present the illusion of existing difference, when it is in fact the doing that creates these pronounced differences (McCann & Kim, 2013). One’s gender is not a universal fact of nature as we have been conditioned into believing, it is specific and infused with meaning.

The general consensus in the literature is that relying on the equation of the conventional categories of sex and gender simply results in “biology [becoming] ideology… we end up finding what we looked for … that ‘females’ and ‘males’ are essentially different” (Lorber, 1993, p. 578). We see bodies through cultural lenses.

The natural gradations from female to male are a “vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies constraints” (Fausto-Sterling, 1993, p. 21). But because the maintenance of the gender binary is intimately tied in with power hierarchies, a vast array of institutionalized networks are arranged around it (Lorber, 1993 and Puar, 2015).

One such example is the medical field, that manages and suppresses supposed deviance from the sex/gender binary. According to psychological estimates, intersexual people may constitute as many as 4 per cent of births, however, these cases are often ‘corrected’ after the delivery in order for them to ‘fit in’ quietly to society as a ‘normal’ heterosexual (Fausto-Sterling, 1993, p. 21).

This assumed concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ is what Foucault calls a biopolitical tactic, that institutionally engages the physiological aspect of biological sex in order to uphold the historically and socially constructed gender project of “gender congruence” (Fausto-Sterling, 1993; Puar, 2015; Stryker & Currah, 2014).

Thus, while bodies may differ physically, these differences are meaningless until they are transformed into social ‘facts’ in order to fit into existing categories (Lorber, 1993), a dogma that we can excuse even Jordan Peterson into internalising. The mechanisms that maintain the false dichotomy of gender (re)produce an authentic, inescapable reality.

However, it is undeniable that the continued organization of politics and social life around the conceptual Man/Woman has attached (and indeed, limiting) expectations tied to them. This endlessly looping process of the sex and gender construct, makes it such that “not biology, but culture, becomes destiny” (Butler 1990, qtd in Lorber, 1993). As leading transgender scholar Susan Stryker says:

“Gender attribution is compulsory; it codes and deploys our bodies in ways that materially affect us, yet we choose neither our marks nor the meanings they carry” (Stryker, 1994).

It is no wonder that activists and academics are demanding much more than this binary approach to gender.

——
Image credit: https://www.tumblr.com/blog_auth/bahamutzero

Sources

Beauvoir, S. d. (1989). The second Sex. New York: Vintage Books.

Bem, S. L. (1995). Dismantling gender polarization and compulsory heterosexuality: Should we turn the volume down or up? The Journal of Sex Research, 32(4), 329-334.

Bunch, M. (2013). The unbecoming subject of sex: performativity, interpellation and the politics of queer theory. Feminist Theory, 14(1): 39-55.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (1993). The Five Sexes. The Sciences, 33(2), 20-24.

Lorber, J. (1993). Believing is seeing: Biology as ideology. Gender & Society, 7(4), 568-581.

McCann, C. R. & Kim, S. K. (Eds.) (2013). Feminist theory reader: Local and global perspectives (3rd edition). London & New York: Routledge.

Puar, J. K. (2015). Bodies with new organs: Becoming trans, becoming disabled. Social Text, 33(3 124), 45-73.

Stryker, S. (1994). My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: performing transgender rage. GLQ, 1(2): 237-254.

Stryker, S., & Currah, P. (2014). Introduction. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1-2), 1-18.

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