To me, gender is a fascinating topic. It’s one I believe will always be worth talking about and exploring, and it’s one that is always evolving. Gender isn’t static and it isn’t a binary. In my opinion, gender isn’t even real. This post will aim to explain why I believe gender is a social construct and not a universal system, and why Western gender systems reinforce negative gender roles. I’m also going to briefly dip into non-binary genders, as these are another factor that’s often not considered in the debate on gender.
- Gender is different all over the world
There’s this belief that gender should be enforced because it is universal, but how can it be when all across the world gender is interpreted differently? I won’t speak on this in specific detail as it is not my personal culture, but for instance, some Native Americans consider there to be a third gender – people who are Two-Spirit; some cultures elsewhere in the world believe you need to embrace different genders for different activities; there’s all kinds of gender variants and interpretations that are different from our Western binary. Now, if gender was ‘real’ it would be something inherent that we are born with, something universal. These different gender systems in other countries and cultures prove that our gender system and gender roles are not universal things.
- It’s a concept made from socially constructed gender roles
Gender – like many things – has been built up by society and its expectations over hundreds of years. For example, typically in Western culture women are expected to be the care-givers, and men the providers. Gender roles dictate what genders look, act and sound like, and these things communicate to others what your gender is. Not only are gender roles problematic because they only tend to be for male and female genders, but they’re problematic because they’re inherently made up of assumptions and stereotypes. Whether or not I have children doesn’t determine my gender, how I dress doesn’t determine my gender, what my hair is like or how I stand or anything doesn’t determine my gender. Yes, undeniably some things e.g. ways of thinking or acting are different for men and women – but this isn’t always the case, and therefore it’s problematic to suggest it is always the case and that you can tell someone’s gender from these things. Apart from anything, most of the time the fact men and women think/act certain ways are just products of years of being told how to think and act because of gender roles.
- It’s enforced by false stereotypes and expectations which surround us
Following on from my last point, gender roles are made up of stereotypes – and the reason these often seem accurate is because of gender roles themselves. We’re brought up on gender roles, so obviously some of them become so ingrained in us we subconsciously follow them – there’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting children or wanting to be a stay-at-home-mum. What’s wrong is that women are often expected to want that. One thing I personally struggle with is that I want children, but sometimes I wonder whether I want children because it’s expected that I’ll want children, and I’ve always been told by society that I should and will want children, or whether I just genuinely do. This ties in with other harmful stereotypes like boys can’t cry, girls can’t have short hair etc. The colour blue is associated with masculinity, and pink with femininity. These are things which are ingrained in us and back up the gender binary, but are – if you seriously consider it – completely false. These are ignorant stereotypes which we know aren’t true – obviously boys cry and girls can have short hair. Yet these stereotypes are still ingrained in us, and people still look at you slightly oddly if you say your baby dressed in blue is a girl – but if you ask them why the colour blue is just for boys, they’ll be unable to give you an answer. Because it’s a false stereotype. These are the reasons there’s a wage gap and the reason there’s a huge amount of gender bias in various different jobs. I’ve seen pens, moisturisers, socks, crisps, toothbrushes all gendered. Why? There is no reason that women and men can’t use the same ballpoint pen! But separating and categorising things by gender is just what we expect now so it’s considered normal.
- There’s a difference between gender and sex – the ‘but we’re born with gender’ counterargument
One of the main arguments for gender being real is that we’re born with genders. What we are – in fact – born with, is assigned genders based on our genitals. Our reproductive organs and our genitals are not related whatsoever with our gender. Yes, it’s typical for the majority of people to identify with a gender that’s associated with their genitals, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal. The majority doesn’t outweigh the minority, and isn’t any more significant than them. The majority of people are heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean gay people are abnormal, it means they’re less common. Much is the same with people whose gender does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. People who are open to the concept of other genders besides male and female tend to refer to that as your ‘sex’ and not your ‘gender’, which makes things a lot easier terminology-wise when explaining all this! Suggesting your gender relies solely on your genitals is also very harmful for people who are intersex or people who are transgender or non-binary. Ultimately, your gender is in your head and it is mutually exclusive from your genitals.
- Not everyone is one of the binary genders
The simple fact that some people don’t identify as one of the binary genders proves that there are other genders. There’s a spectrum and a grey area in gender – there’s fluidity and everything in between male and female and off the other sides. If someone identifies are non-binary, then non-binary people exist, and they don’t have a gender. It’s that simple. Even if that’s just one person, it exists in society, ergo it is.
- We shouldn’t be confined to binarism decided by society millennia ago
My final point is that even if the whole ‘gender is a social construct’ concept wasn’t plausible, even if gender was something that has always existed and we’re all born with – why shouldn’t we evolve out of it? Just like we evolved out of living in caves or how we’ve stopped thinking only men can work or vote, we can and should evolve out of thinking gender is a real binary system. There is nothing wrong with us as a society consciously making the decision to ignore the gender binary or evolve from our current gender systems. I know that sounds a bit ambitious, and probably quite scary to someone who perhaps isn’t familiar with non-binary gender identities and gender as a social construct, but to me it’s just a future that we should aim for.
One of my main issues with gender is how limiting it is – it dictates everything to people, and there’s simply no need for it now. I feel compelled to choose a gender, and even though I identify with various parts of different genders, I have to choose one and I have to do it now. It’s never considered okay to just be. There’s no leeway to explore and get to know yourself. The gender binary reinforces stereotypes and inequalities – by removing the gender binary we remove an unnecessarily inequality that has existed for centuries. I’m not saying it’s as simple as that, but it is as simple and just trying not to assume someone’s gender from their name or appearance, as simple as asking someone’s pronouns, as simple as not always thinking in the male/female binary. These things take time and practice, but they become habits. Now, after years of reminding and correcting myself, when I hear ‘my friend Sam’ I don’t assume they’re a boy, when I see someone who looks stereotypically feminine and has breasts I don’t assume they’re a girl. Whatever your age or background, you’ve been brought up to believe in the gender binary and our gender system, so it’s really important you don’t beat yourself up if you make snap assumptions based on gender stereotypes. It just takes practice and the worst thing that’s going to come of it is that people are more comfortable and secure in their identities.