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Monday, August 14, 2017

"Gender As Social Construct" Revisited

I apologize for not getting to that RAND report in a timely manner. It's coming, I promise. 

In the meantime, here's a fine discussion I had with reader Paul Koning in the comments section of Words Have Meaning, So Use the Right Ones about "Gender as a Social Construct." Since you may not have read the comments, I'm posting this here. 

If you haven't read the aforementioned post, please do so; it's essential for the following conversation that you understand we are discussing the concept of gender and not sex

Paul: 
This is great stuff. But I have to pick on a few details.
"Since gender is not biological, it must be sociological" -- not necessarily. I agree it's not biological in the sense of genetic. It might be biological in the sense of brain operation. A more conventional way of saying that is "it's psychological". Part of the reason I'm reacting that way is: I would think that gender is a personal attribute, not dependent on what society you're in. Am I wrong there?

I take "gender expression" to be "the way a person chooses to use the gender symbols of the culture". A particular item of clothing is a female gender symbol in some societies but a male one, or an either one, in others. Take the skirt you mentioned: a female symbol in most of the west, but either a male or an either symbol in Scotland and Indonesia. My thinking is that gender expression means looking for items that have gender symbolism in the culture you live in, and choosing those that mark your gender identity. Or the identity you want people to see (Klinger effect, that's a nice term). A sarong wouldn't do much for Klinger, certainly not in Indonesia; he'd have to find a different marker there.

Me:
Here's my take on things, you are of course free to disagree.

A more conventional way of saying that is "it's psychological".
It is and it isn't. It isn't, because there are very few "inherently female" behaviors seen in nature. Those that are typically involve reproduction: nesting, caring for children, accepting or rejecting mates, that kind of thing. Sure, you can argue that women are more verbal and men are more visual/tactile, but I have yet to see anyone say "You like working with your hands? How unfeminine" or "You're such a good speaker, how unusual for a man."

Instead, I argue that a lot of these behaviors are deeply ingrained from childhood. Put simply, it's a case of "Society says that women act this way. I've been taught this all my life. Now that I'm entering puberty and becoming a woman, I need to start acting this way." A lot of it isn't even conscious, but it's there. Example: Think of a bad habit or dysfunctional behavior you learned from your parents. You may not even be aware that you learned it, but while growing up a part of your brain went "These are my role models. I should learn to act like them. How they react is how I should react." This is why children from abusive homes often end becoming abusers themselves.

That's what I mean when I say it's cultural or sociological. It's learned behavior, not biologically determined.

Paul:
I see what you mean now, and I agree with that.

I think what happened is that I thought you were talking about "wears a skirt" as a gender expression, which would have a different meaning in different societies. I got that backwards. Instead, a person, given the gender, adopts gender expressions that go with that (as you said "I need to start acting that way) -- and what those gender symbols might be is a social construct.


So I guess my conclusion is: the gender a person wants to express is a personal (psychological) question; the symbols used to make that expression are taken from the social environment that person lives in.

Me:
The social environment also shapes the psychology. It's a self-reinforcing system (this is neither a good or bad thing, it just is.)

Example: even if a typical Western man knows that gender expression is not associated with sexuality, he still does not want to dress as a woman because it makes him feel less manly and he does not want to be mocked.

Put another way, if high school is a microcosm of our society, then our society is high school writ large. Put that way, a LOT of social and cultural BS starts to make sense. 

Paul:
...does not want to dress as a women because ...
... or because he doesn't want to send a misleading signal.

Yes, I see what you're getting at. It all makes sense.

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