And “gender” is?…

June 25, 2008

Jess has posted on the subject of Gender studies in Israeli high schools… over at TFW. And I’m having real problems with one or two of the comments, which, predictably – inevitably – are wheeling out the same old ‘gender is a social construct’ line, and I just want to scream. But I’m really tired today and I can feel that it’s making me impatient, bad-tempered, snarky, (over-)emotional. So I’m resisting the urge to barge in and start asking how people actually define the word ‘gender’. Also because it would be a very unmannerly thread-jacking. And also because I really don’t want to get into a fight, or wake the trolls. They are light sleepers and anyway I don’t have the energy.

It seems to me that everybody just assumes that everybody else understands what is meant by it, and maybe everyone’s working to a different definition. Or maybe everybody else really does understand what is meant by it, and it’s just me that’s stupid. That’s probably quite likely, actually…

But some people seem take the words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ as being synonymous, interchangeable. And others seem to think gender’s just this big amorphous woolly cloud of a word that covers whatever they happen to be talking about: feminism, sociology, you name it.

And I think that’s where the confusion arises. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: things like ‘gender roles’, and ‘gender expression’, yes, I can see how they are, for the greater part, social constructs.

But gender itself? I believe it’s a word that lacks a clear definition in too many discussions, and I wish people would be clearer on what they understand the word to mean, how they define it. For a starting point, even though it’s possibly a little on the simplistic side (is a ‘self-conception’ the same thing as a ‘social construct’?), there’s Wikipedia:

Gender refers to the differences between men and women. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that gender identity is “an individual’s self-conception as being male or female, as distinguished from actual biological sex.” Although gender is commonly used interchangeably with sex, within the social sciences it often refers to specifically social differences, known as gender roles in the biological sciences. Historically, feminism has posited that many gender roles are socially constructed, and lack a clear biological explanation. People whose gender identity feels incongruent with their physical bodies may call themselves transgender or genderqueer.

Now, that makes sense to me, mostly. But I just cannot understand how we get from there, to statements like: “Because it is the media which reinforces the widespread belief that gender is ‘natural’ not socially constructed”, and “the blind assumptions that women are the way they are biologically and not socially, as if we’re born with make-up and pink stilettos on“.

Because that really doesn’t make sense to me.

But, as I said, I’m tired, not to mention the last person to be able to define the word succinctly, so if I don’t know what I’m talking about then I should probably just STFU, really, shouldn’t I?


Later edit: How about some of that there ‘transgender rage’ that’s, umm, all the rage these days?

©2008 Helen G


2 Responses to “And “gender” is?…”

  1. Jess Says:

    Interesting blog you have here, Helen. Gender is a tough word to define. My biology (sex) is female, but my gender is neither man nor woman, I am comfortable with both and neither at the same time. In a perfect world, nothing would be so black and white and we’d all just be… people.

    I’ll be subsribing to your blog in my google reader, feel free to stop by my blog !

  2. Schala Says:

    I totally agree with Julia Serano’s performance piece, and your take on it, Helen. Try explaining that concept to people on MWMF forums. I’ve tried for a year, unsuccessfully. I’ve been accused of appropriating the concept of PMS when I got hormone-related mood swings. And more.

    Glad I don’t meet too many of those people in person. I get that condescension and second-guessing, pronoun or name-slipping with my psychiatrist, my old psychologist, my family doctor…real fun, at least it’s mostly confined to those.

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