Synopsis: There has been a long-standing debate about whether a person’s gender is biologically-defined or ascribed to them based on social constructions. Feminist theory divides sex and gender into two distinct aspects of individuals’ identity, thereby separating the biological and the social. This article explains the difference between sex, or the biological, and gender, or the social, explains the changing nature of gender, and tries to examine whether gender is a social construct.
There can be no contention over the fact that human society is intrinsically and universally gendered, and hardly do we find instances where society is not divided and differentiated on the basis of gender. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one” – this famous quote by Simone de Beauvoir in her most famous work, The Second Sex, hints at the idea that gender is not innate or congenital; rather it is a set of acquired attributes based on certain societal factors. Gender manifests itself all around us; for example, products (such as clothing and personal hygiene items) are frequently sold separately for men and women. Rarely are these on an equal plane—inequality is one of the core features of gender in human society, which also makes gender an important and interesting topic of discussion. Much debate has taken place, particularly in academia, as to whether gender is a biological fact or an abstract idea constructed by human society. There is, however, an overwhelming amount of strong evidence that suggests favoring gender as a social construct—a learned set of behaviors rather than inherent properties or features. To understand this, it is first important to understand and arrive at a definition of gender.
Sex Vs. Gender – Is Gender Biological or Social?
Two terms often used synonymously, sex and gender, have actually been defined by feminist theory as having two very different connotations. Based on the nature vs. nurture debate, sex and gender are separated on the grounds that one is natural or inherent, while the other is a product of nurture. Both, however, form part of a person’s identity. Sex is basically part of the biology of a person; it comprises all those biological features and inherent aspects that, in binary terms, are assigned at birth and differentiate between males and females. Most living organisms on this planet are divided on the basis of sexes in binary terms, and so are humans when they are born. Generally, the sex of a person (or any other organism) can be determined by the type of reproductive organs, or genitalia, they possess. Usually, sex is defined in terms of a binary, while the intersex, or those people born with sex characteristics different from common binary notions of sex but biologically natural, are largely excluded from this consideration or projected as ‘anomalies’. Intersex people seldom fit into the boxes of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as defined “properly” by society, and are therefore subjected to large-scale discrimination. It is a common practice, for instance, for parents of a child born with intersex features to ‘correct’ them in order to fit socially acceptable categories of binary sexes. Even in something as biological as sex, societal norms play a huge role, which brings us to the next category–gender. For the purpose of this article, sex will be referred to in binary terms.
Like sex, gender is an essential part of a person’s identity. Unlike sex, however, gender is not inherent or biological—it is part of one’s social identity, usually defined by society. An easy way to understand the difference between sex and gender is this: say there is a male and a female child. When they grow up (or even before that), both of these children will be expected to behave or conduct themselves in a certain manner or perform certain activities that are deemed “fit” for each of their sexes, male or female. Those born as males are ‘men’ whereas those born as females are ‘women’. These behaviors and activities are part of what creates someone’s gender as perceived by others, and this too is defined as a binary as we discussed. Society has some unwritten rules as to what is expected from each (binary) sex–what roles they will perform, how they will behave, how they will express themselves, what characteristics they will embody, and so on. While sex is biologically determined, even if there is no biological way to ascribe gender to a person at birth, as soon as a child is born, they are put into binary gender categories of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ based on their sex, and this decides how they will be treated throughout their lives. The treatment is also based on the social norms and rules. Gender essentially defines what is ‘appropriate’ for a male or a female to do and it based on ideas of what a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’ are supposed to be or do. Gender, unlike sex, is more complex as it involves socio-cultural determinants. Sex is largely static – except external or medically-induced changes, the biological makeup of a person that defines them as male or female mostly remains constant over time and does not depend on cultural variables. Gender, however, is a dynamic identity attribute as expectations and degrees of appropriateness are culturally defined, socially upheld, and are subjected to change across time and space. For example, in contemporary world, skirts and heels are supposed to be ‘women’s clothing’. However, at a certain point in history, heels were considered a symbol of power and were worn typically by men occupying high status positions in society, such as King Louis XIV (Kelly, 2021). Skirts too were worn both by men and women, and were essentially gender-neutral garments (Thorpe, 2017). Further, cooking is a work that women are ‘supposed’ to do according to socio-cultural norms. Yet, most of the chefs we see at hotels and restaurants are male and men largely dominate the food industry. Therefore, the values, beliefs and practices of a culture or society decide what it means to be a man or a woman, making gender an extremely complex concept.
Social Construction of Gender – Femininity and Masculinity
For gender to be produced, the biological aspect of sex plays a very important role, because, as we have discussed before, based on a binary understanding of sexes, each sex is assigned a (again binary) gender. However, since gender itself is not biology, it can be considered a socially constructed concept based purely on social standards. In the inter-relationship of things that construct a person’s gender, their biology does play a role, but the roles and expectations about each gender predefined in a society, the way individuals behave or appear and how others perceive them based on gender expectations (which are often stereotypical and binary), and even the way an individual perceives themselves, or their own sense of self, all play a greater role in determining one’s gender.
Social perceptions of gender, or the way in which gender is constructed for and assigned to each of the sexes, are based on understandings of femininity and masculinity. The attributes associated with femininity are subservience, physical and emotional fragility, greater capacity and inclination to adjustment and accommodation, as well as caring for others. On the other hand, masculinity is the complete opposite, marked by physical and emotional strength, aggression, and valor. Femininity is associated with women, and hence females, whereas masculinity is a male attribute or associated with men. Because the human society is largely patriarchal in nature, femininity is often considered inferior to masculinity, which in turn means that women are considered inferior to men. In everyday life, femininity and masculinity define the gender of individuals in the following stereotypical ways: pink as a ‘feminine’ and a ‘girl’s color’ whereas blue is ‘masculine’; caretaking as a ‘woman’s job’ whereas construction is a masculine job – in connection to this the private domain is associated with women while the public is men’s realm; women embody femininity because they are generally ‘smaller’, ‘timid’, and ‘delicate’ whereas men are ‘muscular’, ‘taller’, and ‘more rugged’; women are supposed to take care of the household whereas men are supposed to go out and work to provide for their families. However, these associations have not always been the same. For instance, the colors pink and blue actually had opposite gender connotations – pink was considered masculine because it was bolder while blue being a ‘softer’ color was associated with femininity in the early 1900s (Grannan, 2019). Before the emergence of industrialization, there used to be no demarcation between the private and the public spheres, and no work was defined as productive or unproductive depending on whether they add to the growth of the economy in monetary terms. It was in the 19th century when domesticity or taking care of the private realm became a ‘woman’s job’ and a defining feature of her ‘womanhood’ or that what made her a ‘true woman’ (Patti Wigington, 2019). Through these examples, the changing nature of gender and the fact that it is defined by what a culture or society defines as ‘appropriate’ at a given space and time. On top of that, people’s gender identities, or the gender they identify themselves with, might not match the ideas of femininity and masculinity associated with each gender. A man might have a higher pitched voice. A woman might prefer dressing up in clothes traditionally considered ‘masculine’. And people might go beyond this binaries making gender a spectrum rather than a dichotomous social category – when people are declared a ‘man’ at birth and are expected to uphold masculinity, they might express themselves as more ‘feminine’, or vice versa, or remain androgynous – combining features defined as masculine or feminine. Yet others might be uncomfortable in defining themselves as either or even both, choosing to identify as what is now termed “agender”.
Gender is, therefore, not a strict concept as society would like us to think. While biology is involved, gender is largely constructed by social norms and ideals of masculinity and femininity. The meanings and symbols associated with the dichotomous understanding of gender are ever-shifting and are largely defined by the popular understanding within a culture or society at a given period of time and space, thereby depicting the dynamic nature of gender. While debates exist as to whether gender is nature or learned through nurture, taking into consideration that sex and gender are two very different parts of an individual’s identity helps establish one’s biology while simultaneously understanding the social construction of gender.
Grannan, C. (2019). Has pink always been a “girly” color?. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/has-pink-always-been-a-girly-color
Kelly, A. (2021, December 5). Men in heels: A fashion History L’Officiel USA. https://www.lofficielusa.com/fashion/men-wearing-high-heels-fashion-history-david-bowie-cowboys
Patti Wigington. (2019). Cult of domesticity: Definition and history. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/cult-of-domesticity-4694493
Thorpe, J. (2017, May 22). The history of men & skirts, from ancient times to today. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/style/were-dresses-made-for-men-skirts