Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Social Construction of Gender

I've been involved in a number of conversations lately about the social construction of gender, and it occurs to me that what it means for gender to be a social construct, along with the implications of a social construction theory of gender, is not clear to a lot of people. So here's an explanation that may clarify things a bit.

A social construction is something that doesn't exist independently in the "natural" world, but is instead an invention of society. Cultural practices and norms give rise to the existence of social constructs and govern the practices, customs, and rules concerning the way we use/view/understand them. In other words, we all act as if they exist, and because of our intersubjective agreement, they do.

The classic example of a social construct is money. Various cultures utilize paper, gold, silver, or other items as a medium for trade. To do this, we invest the object with value that we all acknowledge (we act as if it has value), and this informs our practices when it comes to money. But money is not a thing that occurs independently of human activity in the natural world. Thus it is a social construction. It's very real - calling it a social construct does not amount to calling it imaginary or non-existent. But its existence is dependent on our culture and our practices. This means that its definition, use, meaning, value, etc. is entirely contingent on culture.

As our culture changes, so do our constructs. Some constructs come into being and then fall into disuse and thus go out of existence. Others remain but change from one culture and historical period to another. Gender is one such construct. The traits and behaviors that are thought to be "masculine" and "feminine" differ dramatically from one culture and time period to another. Appropriate ways of behaving, the labor that's assigned to gender groups, beliefs about natural abilities and propensities, etc. change significantly. And this variation and adaptation to conditions and social pressures reinforces the idea that gender is a social construction rather than some sort of essence that arises from biology. Because if gender was determined by physical sex, then it wouldn't vary in this way, but would remain constant, just as other biologically determined attributes remain constant. Instead, gender varies with cultural change.

Generally speaking, gender is assigned at birth according to physical sex. Medical professionals look at the baby's genitals and announce that the baby is a boy or a girl (unless the child is intersex, in which case much work is done to force the child into one camp or the other). And then the work begins to socialize the child and teach them the script that goes with the gender they've been assigned. And most of us get to be pretty darn good at acting out the appropriate script. We learn which emotions we're supposed to display, which activities we're supposed to enjoy and excel at, and which ones we're supposed to avoid or suck at, how to talk to each other, how to manage our body language, which kind of work and hobbies we're supposed to pursue, etc. And for many of us it's not a great fit, but we manage, or we learn how to make those features of ourselves that don't fit the script less conspicuous (i.e., we pass). But for some of us, it feels wrong enough that we can't just fit in or pass. For transgender and genderqueer individuals, performing the other script, or a different script altogether, is the only way to make life livable. (For transsexuals, the issue encompasses more than gender, so they will have other issues, except insofar as they often also learn to perform "the other" gender script.)

So this description raises a number of questions. Why are there only two scripts, when bodies seem to come in more than two shapes? Why do we need these scripts at all? Why are we so committed to the idea that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between the two scripts we have and the two kinds of bodies we insist on believing people are born into? These are all good questions, and all things that feminists should be pushing on and tugging at the loose strings. A few brief answers:

We need the scripts and the clearly delineated categorical distinctions, because you can't build hierarchy without difference. Hierarchy depends on difference, so you choose some physical differences, like genitalia and skin color, and invest them with significance. Once you have groups which are thought to be essentially different, you can build up and justify your hierarchy on the basis of them. Making them essential, or biologically grounded, gives them immutability and God-ordainedness.

So then we need to maintain the one-to-one correspondence in order to maintain the stability and essential nature of the distinctions. We can't allow people to go around determining their own identity and position in the hierarchy will-nilly, or everything will fall apart. And we especially must maintain the gender-sex link because of heteronormativity. After all, one function of gender is to indicate to the world what kind of bidness you've got going on under your clothes. As an outward marker of physical sex, gender allows us to identify which individuals are potential mates for us, and avoid the oh-so-horrifying experience of being attracted to someone with (gasp!) the wrong set of genitalia.

So what follows from the view of gender as a social construction? First, it reveals that gender is not immutable or set in stone. Harmful aspects of our construction of gender can and should be discarded. But beyond that, if gender exists to support hierarchy, then gender, as it is viewed and practiced in our culture, is not only uncomfortable for many people, but a tool of oppression. So at the very least, driving a wedge between sex and gender, and putting pressure on the notion that everyone has to fit into some kind of neat binary or follow some kind of carefully delineated script, benefits everyone and serves to weaken patriarchal structures. And allowing every individual to navigate their own identity formation and locate their own spot on the gender continuum would lead to a lot less disonnance and uncomfortable performances, not to mention physical danger and stigma for those who don't adhere to the script to which they were assigned.

However, one thing that the social construction view of gender does not get you is a condemnation of trans people for "reifying gender." First, this view (espoused by some very vocal radical feminists, to the horror and dismay of other radical feminists) is based on a profound misunderstanding of social constructionism and reification. Second, the view is inconsistent in that it condemns one group (trans folk) for performing gender, but ignores the fact that all of us are performing gender all the time. If trans people reify gender by adhering to a script, then so do cis people. And even if this view was coherent, it shows a profound lack of compassion and understanding of the individuals. We are all of us born into a system that is already gendered, and our social survival depends on our learning how to perform the script. This is not an individual decision that's ours to make. So this is an instance where we ought to hate the game, but not the player.

And one thing's for sure: we all benefit by discourses and practices which drive a wedge between sex and gender. The loosening of these strict categories and binaries can result in a view of sex and gender which is far more fluid and flexible, allowing more breathing room for everyone.


  1. Wow, I can't believe you didn't go all the way and advocate ditching gender altogether. That's very restrained, and kind of uncharacteristic for you. ;-) Perhaps you were looking to avoid the hysteria and chaos?

    Still, great post.

    1. Anonymous3/10/2015

      That is what Queer Feminism is mostly about. Look it up. It is interesting how each definition is covering the same points but each is more focused on something different. Queer Feminism focuses more on no gender subject than social construction.

  2. This makes me wish I was a fly on the wall for the conversations that prompted this post. What on earth did they say, and who are these radical feminists to whom you refer? They sound equally misguided and unkind.

  3. That was so lucidly articulated! I'm bookmarking it for future reference in case I need to point someone to a definition of social construction (or remind myself what I'm talking about!)

  4. Meg'n,

    It's starting to seem to me that advocating for driving this wedge between sex and gender and allowing people to develop as the will, no matter where they fall on the continuum amounts to ditching gender. But saying it this way doesn't require saying it out loud and causing all the hysteria and hubub. Tricky! =)

  5. Meg'n

    I was sort of trying to avoid a hatemail/troll invasion, but I also agree with Sara on this. Nothin' like killing them softly...


    A number of these conversations have been occuring on various blogs. The radfems have been releasing their toxins in the blogosphere for quite some time, and the issues of gender identity and the trans experience came out fo several threads on Feministing and Feministe.



  6. I admit that I am one of those that see sex changes as "reifying gender." The fact that somebody would undergo surgery to fit gender stereotypes bothers me, whether it be a high school girl who gets breast implants or a ftm who removes the breasts because 'e sees them as "a sign of weakness" (which a ftm has told me).

    This does not mean that I don't try to use gender-neutral pronouns or call someone He or She depending on the persons' wishes. However, since I believe that "masculine" and "feminine" are social constructs, I have had to bite my tongue when a ftm tells me that he knew he was a man because he was logical or a transitioning mtf told me she was becoming a woman because she always liked to play with dolls at a young age and never was a stereotypical boy. If it had been a conservative who spouted such sexist remarks, I would have said something.

    It is not my body or my business and I believe that all people should be treated with respect. If people want to alter their body, its their right. However, I would rather society change and accept people as they are rather than people change their bodies to fit society's expectations.

    1. Anonymous9/04/2013

      It seems like you've run into some poor explanations by transsexuals themselves. For me, it's not about fitting a stereotype (I'm a FTM and I'm not close to being what society expects from a man, and I'm pretty effeminate...that's just the way I've always been, just in between). It's about having what I think are the right parts. I look at the parts that make me female and I can't really explain it, but it's almost like looking at a stranger's body. That's just my experience though. I know I was this way not because of stereotypes, but because the parts just aren't right. I know I can't change my chromosomes, but getting that appearance as much as I can makes me feel a little better. It's really one of those things you have to experience for yourself to understand, but you seem like an open-minded person. Maybe you can try to think about it.

  7. Jessi,

    I agree that the best thing to do is break down cultural attitudes and constructs concerning gender rather than piggybacking on them. However, we have a long way to go before people can freely negotiate their gender and refuse the binary altogether.

    Also, I think it's perfectly acceptable to challenge a trans person who mindlessly embraces the gender script and harmful cultural attitudes about gender in the same way as it's appropriate to challenge a cis person who expresses these attitudes. If a trans person's motive for changing their body or behavior rests on sexist assumptions and attitudes, then those can be challenged. But I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that we're priviliged as cis individuals in not having to be the sacrificial lamb on the alter of cultural change, which will help us recognize that for most trans folk, embracing the gender script is a survival mechanism, and that they've internalized the same messages about gender that we have.

  8. Anonymous5/14/2011


    I am struggling with this topic a lot lately with the increased media attention surrounding Chaz Bono. I basically have the same concerns and beliefs as Jessi... the person who commented above. From what I understand about your response is that you agree with what Jessi's saying, but essentially you're arguing that gender reassignment is a temporary fix to give gender nonconformists livable lives until society becomes more accepting of all expression regardless of biological sex. That answer still just doesn't sit right with me.

    Tonight I heard Chaz give an interview in which she said that we try to make kids fit into the binary very early. We begin to dress them either in blue or pink to match their biological sex. For Chaz, he always felt more inclined towards the "blue"... he played with GI Joes and played sports while loathing dresses and makeup. To me, this simply means that Chaz wasn't born in the wrong body; instead he was born into the wrong society... a society that told him that he had to act and look a certain way based on his genitals. What needed to change wasn't his genitals, it was society.

    So from what I understand is that you're saying since we can't change society we might as well just change our bodies to match what society is demanding of us. I'm extremely conflicted over this topic and curious so please comment again and let me know what you think.

  9. Anonymous,

    I think the answer is different for each individual. For some trans people, there is a strong sense that their body isn't right and needs to be changed. Obviously they need to have access to the means of this change, and cultural acceptance and support. For others, the gender identity is the issue, and they don't necesarily want to change their bodies. But where we stand right now, they're often stuck in a no man's land where they're perceived as freaks because their gender doesn't match their body in the narrow way we require it to. Then there's the further problem that both are expected to perform an extreme version of the gender script they transitioned to. So for instance, a cis woman is free to be more androgynous or tomboyish, but a trans woman has to be very girly, as if to prove that she really did want/need to transition. Then there are gender queer individuals who would prefer to occupy some space in the middle of the spectrum, but are pressured to choose a position at one or the other of the extremes.

    All of these people would benefit from a loosening of the binary roles and scripts that we try to force each individual into. And of course, cis people would benefit from it in multiple ways too.

  10. What an absolute load of claptrap. Gender is hardwired into the brain from before birth. Sometimes there is a miscongurence of gender and sexual organs, that gives rise to transsexualism.
    Anything more than two genders is a whole load of hocum devised by the transgender cabal to try to gain some of the right s honestvtranssexuals have fought long and hard for. It has now reached the point that a transsexual can barely swing her handbag for these transgender fakers.

  11. A very good post, I do have just one question however...

    "A social construction is something that doesn't exist independently in the "natural" world, but is instead an invention of society." Yet it has been shown that gender does exist in other species (not all but some). Joan Roughgarden has very painstakiingly (and daringly because she criticises Darwin) shown how gendered behaviour, as well as transgendered behaviour exists in many different species, including mammals, fish and birds. She even describes how one species of salmon has five genders. Even Darwin back in 1858 (rather superficially) looked at social relations between animals of other species and commented on gendered behaviour.

    I am not suggesting that there is any kind of essential element to gender, far from it, I am a social constructivist, but I also believe that Roughgarden's research demonstrates that things are not as simple as many gender theorists seem to think.

  12. Anonymous7/11/2013

    Gender roles are social constructs. Gender, and this seems to me to become apparent on a basic, observational level, is not.

    That is not to say that sex determines gender. Some people do not identify as the gender that matches their sex, but that is all the more convincing that one's gender is not the result of socialization. I am not aware of any trans folks who report being socialized, or remotely encouraged, by parents or society, to adopt a gender that is different from their sex. On the contrary, trans people encounter enormous obstacles from all the forces that are supposedly responsible for socializing them, precisely against adopting a gender identity that is different from their sex.

    There are also no examples that I am aware of in which a little girl raised to adopt a male gender role (which I'm sure has happened somewhere at some time) grows up to identify as a man, or vice versa.

    If anyone were to suggest that sexual preference is a social construct, and not something that someone is born with, there would, rightly, be uproar. People do not choose to be queer, nor are they socialized to become queer. They just are queer. Likewise, people do not choose their gender, nor are they socialized to adopt a given gender. If they were, then no one would be transgender in our extremely transphobic society.

    1. I think it would be helpful to make a couple of distinctions here. Obviously "gender" and "gender roles" are distinct, but "gender" and "gender identity" are distinct as well. It's also helpful to point out that none of this happens in a vacuum. So where does that get us?
      For one thing, gender looks feels and acts differently from one cultural and historical context to another. There is no one thing that corresponds to being-a-man or being-a-woman throughout all of time and history etc. Whatever it is that we conceptualize as being-a-man or being-a-woman is inevitably informed, shaped, created by our cultural context. As such, we can't talk about gender as if it's this acultural thing.
      Do individual people experience a sense of themselves that does not mesh with the gender expectations imposed on them? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean that gender itself is not socially constructed. For one thing, it's not only trans* or genderqueer people who experience this disjunction between their sense of self and the gender roles and expectations that are externally imposed. Many cis people have this experience (to a lesser degree) as well, which is more a function of our rigid binary gender system, in which the majority of actual individuals just don't fit very well, in one way or another. So I think when we talk about gender roles and gender identity, we have to bear in mind that all of this is occurring within a socially constructed system. We can't not experience and conceptualize these things through that lens, because we're humans, and that's a part of being human.
      Second, I would never suggest that what you refer to as sexual preference is socially constructed. For one thing, it's not a preference (like preferring coffee to tea); it's an orientation. However, there is such a thing as "being gay," or "being lesbian," or "being bi," and these are social constructions. The identities that we build up around sexual orientation are without a doubt social constructions. Why should we think that being attracted to individuals of a particular gender should have anything to do with other, completely non-sexual aspects of your life and personality? When you think about it, that's a bizarre thing to think. Is there a subculture surrounding these orientations that encourages and fosters certain behaviors, preferences, activities, etc? Absolutely. But that's a different issue entirely.

    2. Anonymous7/13/2013

      I don't agree at all that "gender looks feels and acts differently from one cultural and historical context to another," though that claim is often made. I would argue that the way that gender is understood and experienced is extremely consistent throughout history and across cultures. That claim is usually made (and I have looked) without offering much in the way of evidence, except to point to societies (which are very few, but okay, if it were a convincing argument I wouldn't quibble with that aspect) in which other genders are acknowldged by long-standing tradition. But even in societies that acknowledge the existence of more than two genders, or that are matriarchal, or that have any number of other social structures, there is very little evidence of a radically different expectation, understanding, or experience of gender. Of course, cultural context plays a part, like it does in everything that humans are and do, but what is much more remarkable is how fixed human understanding of gender is, not how diverse it is.
      I absolutely disagree that the majority of people don't fit well within the binary gender system (though I certainly do believe that there are people who don't fit well in it), unless one is referring to extremely superficial signifiers of gender, as in "not all girls like pink" or "not all boys like football." Even if we were to take the most unscientific of polls and just randomly ask people if they have difficulty with the binary gender system, in terms of their own lives and experiences, we would be very hard-pressed to find many people who even knew what we were talking about.
      I agree that the concept of "gender identity" is more socially constructed than the collective understanding of what is meant by "gender," but it seems unfairly nitpicky to make that distinction, because if that notion is taken to its logical conslusion, then gender identity becomes malleable according to cultural context rather than being part of a person's innate sense of self, and where does that leave trans* folks?
      I apologize for using the term "sexual preference" instead of "sexual orientation" (slight eyeroll), but I also don't believe that someone whose sexual partners are (at least in part) of their same gender necessarily has to identify as as "being gay," or "being lesbian," or "being bi." Those identifications are social constructs, which one can adopt or not, but the actual orientation is not. I would argue, likewise, that "being trans*" or "being a woman" or "being a man" can be understood as adopted identities and therefore social constructs, but the actual state of being a woman, a man, or another gender is a deeper function of one's self, and is not, I would argue, subject to change by societal influence.

  13. I accept very one,no matter their gender. Dogs bark, cats meow. What if the dog thought oh no I hate barking I want to meow and vice versa? Sounds to me like cats and dogs are very intelligent; they know their script and play it to the best of their ability.

    1. Hi Kareena. I understand the point you're making here. However, I do think there's a problem with your analogy. Dogs and cats are different species, and therefore they will exhibit different behaviors. I don't think anyone would argue with that. However, being of a different sex, and of a different socially constructed category (gender) is quite different from being of a different species.

      I also find it odd that you frame "knowing your script" as a matter of intelligence. I'm not willing to accept the implied claim that conforming to your script even when it harms you is a sign of intelligence. Of course, it takes a lot of courage to break away from the script when it doesn't work for you, but I wouldn't frame that in terms of intelligence.

  14. Mm i get it, more often than not comments like that is a boys watch, those are guys shoes etc etc is what i get yet these producta are actually produced for females. It goes to show how cultural and soccial construct shapes minds. The worst is my car which every now and then am reminded it should be driven by a male. But despite all these i am a woman and love being one but according to you though i deviate at times am slao propagating these social constructs and i agree i do it it the only way i know how to live. mm

  15. You can claim that being ok for women to cry, washing dishes, not sitting with legs wide open, etc etc are social constructs. This still doesn't prove the extreme notion that gender is COMPLETELY a social construct. Implying this implies that physical evolution and behavioral evolution are completely uncoupled. I don't understand how this makes sense.
    And you fail to point out something that even feminists have admitted. The fact that boys with botched circumcisions who have been raised as the opposite gender, still end up acting like typical boys, easily provides evidence for the determinist qualities of gender. And I fail to understand how the existence of gender queer people proves the nurture side of this argument. In fact, if society was so influential in how we behave then gender queer people wouldn't even exist. No one is truly raised transgender. If they happen to feel they are the opposite gender, this wasn't caused by society. I just hope someone can prove me wrong because these logical inconsistencies are just mind boggling to me.

    1. So, there's a lot to unpack here. I think that saying "physical evolution and behavioral evolution are completely uncoupled" is not a helpful or accurate way of phrasing it. I think the point is that behavior is a complex interaction between biology and environment, and that there are feedback loops and formative experiences and this thing called gender that we were taught to think of as set and binary and tied to biology is actually largely determined by the social practices and habits and value and beliefs of the particular time and place you happen to be born into.

      On the intersex issue - there are many, many individuals who were "successfully" reassigned. Many more who successfully transitioned than ended up rejecting that gender assignment. Why do you not know about them? For the same reason that most people who are currently freaked out about the trans bathroom issue don't realize that they're already sharing the restroom with trans people right now. It's a matter of visibility.

      I think also the fact that there is the experience of a gender identity doesn't mean that how we construct gender as a culture isn't contingent - the experience of a gender identity is always happening through a cultured lens. The person experiencing it is always already embedded in a culture. So this presents a problem for some trans women who are tomboys, or trans men who are sorta butch, for example. There's still this idea that transitioning comes with an obligation to enact that gender in the most conventional way or you're not doing it right.

      The biggest issue with the way we do gender is the normative quality it has. It seems that we do a lot of work to enforce these behaviors and traits and roles that wouldn't be necessary if in fact they sprung directly out of nature. You don't have to force a plant to grow in the growth pattern that's natural to it. Of course at different times in history it's incredibly convenient for society that people take on certain roles and behaviors, and maybe it would be ok to just openly admit that we're trying to create certain behavior patterns in groups of people because it serves us well as a whole. But we should at least be honest about it and give some thought to how that serves the individuals within those groups.

      Hope that helps.

    2. I never denied that we as a society have reinforced certain behaviors and then built on top of the existing differences by adding certain stuff like washing dishes as a very bad example off the top of my head or not sitting with your legs open apart or always acting like a "lady" (whatever that means). And pretty much everything that is not an obvious genetic knock out like hemophilia or a chromosomal problem like Kleinfelter syndrome is pretty much a complex interaction of biology and the environment. You are admitting this yourself. But how does the fact that we reinforce gender roles and differences prove that we made all of it up as a society? That's what I fail to understand.
      Just because it can be harmful to reinforce binary gender behaviors and apply new ones on top of them does not mean that the behaviors themselves are invented by society.
      You might look very hard and find societies with variations in gender roles, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find one where the men act intrinsically feminine and the women act intrinsically masculine. The only society I can think of where that happens isn’t even a human one. It’s the hyenas, and those females have evolved to be the masculine dominant sex. Because of this evolution, they acquired more and more androgens to the point that their external genitalia looks male with a pseudopenis and a scrotum.
      Now I'm not trying to justify any sort of inequality between men and women in our societies. I'm not advocating for male dominance. All I'm saying is that gender behavior differences in their basic form have been evolutionarily embedded in our core more or less through thousands of years of cycling between the environment and the biology as you stated. At its most basic, you can’t deny hormonal behavioral differences. I brought up the hyena example to illustrate that society is not enough to make such big differences. The biology needs to go hand in hand. The females evolved to be that way and their hormones followed.
      I mean feminists themselves do admit that gender is still partly essentialist. This is why extreme statements bother me. The very existence of gender reassignment at birth because of botched circumcisions and the subsequent nonconformity of these people to their assigned gender illustrates the fact that there is still a hardwiring at work here. Again, just because reinforcing these behaviors can be harmful to some does not necessarily mean the behaviors themselves (in their very basic form) aren't in some way part of our biological system.

  16. I'm not sure we're still discussing the same thing. I'm making a distinction between the sex and gender, but it seems that your understanding is that I'm denying physical differences. There are physical differences. What we make of them, what meaning we invest them with, the characteristics, roles, expectations we enforce based on physical differences, etc. is what I'm addressing.

    And again on the issue of sexual reassignment: there are many "silent" individuals out there going through life who have been "successfully" reassigned. You don't know about them, because the reassignment was successful - meaning they didn't object and decide to transition later in life. There are also many individuals who were not reassigned at birth who transition because they too feel that they are misaligned. These are the increasingly visible members of the trans community, and somehow their hormones did not force their gender identity to match their physical sex. It's a complex world out there, and neat categories and hormones just can't account for everything.