We’ve All Heard ‘Gender Is A Social Construct,’ But What Does That Really Mean?

Posted on July 12, 2016 in Society, Taboos

By Avinaba Dutta for Cake:

A few weeks ago, my mom, after having a haircut, had an announcement to make – next time she would like to have a ‘boys’ cut’. My nephew had a series of questions. “Didu, what is boys’ cut?” The 8-year-old asked my mom. And once she had explained to him what ‘boys’ cut’ really is, he asked “But, didu, you are a girl and girls do not cut their hair like boys do.” His view of gender segregation didn’t really surprise me, because he’s seen my family asking me why I had pierced my ears like ‘girls’ do.

How many of us ever wondered where all these stereotypes had come from? The answer lies in ‘gender,’ or more precisely, the social construction of gender.

How Gender Is Socially Constructed:

A social construct is a concept which cannot exist independently in the natural world and everything we know or perceive as reality, is entirely, or at least partially, socially situated. For an instance, ‘money’ is a socially constructed reality. The paper bills we use in India, i.e. Indian Rupee, are only worth as much as value as the Reserve Bank of India assigns to it. Without our practices of assigning values to those paper bills, can money exist independently in nature? The answer is no. And while being part of this socially constructed reality it will be pretty foolish of us if we go to El Tizoncito in Mexico City and pay in Indian Rupee after enjoying a yummy plate of steak or pulled pork tacos. This is because being part of the same social construct (money), Indians built few norms which are different than its Mexican counterpart.

But we must understand that by reminding everyone about how socially constructed a particular concept is, we cannot diminish the power of that concept. Neither does it make the concept an imaginary one. It only demonstrates that the existence of that particular concept depends upon our practices and cultures, and changes from one time-period and culture to another.

Most of these sociological theories of social constructionism apply to gender as well. However, while understanding the implications of a social construction theory of gender, it is also indispensable to keep ‘gender’ separate from ‘gender identity’ and ‘biological sex’ of an individual.

Gender, as we know it, is predominantly defined (imposed) based on what external genitalia one is born with. The practice of looking at a baby’s genitals and assigning a gender to them at their birth is later followed by an extensive training program based on only two available scripts, i.e. ‘boy’ (man or masculinity) and ‘girl’ (woman or femininity). We slowly learn which emotions we are supposed to express, which colours we should like, what kind of hobbies we are supposed to have, what toys to play with, what songs we should listen to, whether to like sports or not, whether to learn cooking or not. We also learn how to talk to each other, what body language to use, what occupations to pursue, what kind of wages we are expected to have, whom to fall in love with, whom to be sexually attracted to, and much more. Someone born with a penis is literally bombarded with toys like G. I. Joe action figures and cricket bats; they are always reminded that, unlike girls, ‘boys do not cry’; they will also be told to get married and ‘take care’ of their wife and kids. And if someone seems to deviate from the script assigned to them, we try our best to ‘correct’ them. We keep them on track with question and statements like, “Are you a boy?” “Do not act like a girl”, “That makes you look like a girl”, or “Are you homo?”

But Do We Need Scripts At All?

Gender is a social construct where behaviours or traits of two norms, i.e. ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ differ drastically from one time-period and culture to another. For an instance, unlike traditional Indian culture, in Chinese culture girls are expected not to wear make-ups or any such ornaments. In Indian culture, drivers of a public transportation system are predominantly male, whereas in Western culture both males and females are hired for the same job. In non-Western cultures, boys, irrespective of their sexual orientation, are allowed to hold hands or hug, while in the West these acts of showing emotions are strictly prohibited until they are between homosexual males – and even that is frowned on! The varied norm based on societal imposition reinforces the idea that gender is nothing but a social construct. Think about it for a moment – had gender been some sort of essence emerging from one’s biological sex, it probably would have remained constant across space and time.

To understand the need for scripts, we need to comprehend the need for ‘gender’ in the first place. ‘Gender’ was created to build up a hierarchy solely based on power. But to give the hierarchy a more ‘natural’ or ‘scientific’ look, a few physical differences, like genitalia or secondary sexual characteristics, were adopted as the basic building block of the same. This made two distinct groups which are presumed to be essentially different. That’s why we are asked to believe that femininity is weaker than masculinity. If someone is confused about how power structure plays its role in gender, please try to answer these few questions. How many men are comfortable in marrying women who are taller or more ‘masculine’ than them? While females wear jeans and shirts, how many males are encouraged to wear skirts and sarees? Or why is society fine with masculine women but ridicules feminine men?

Pizza Rolls, Not Gender Roles!

A friend of mine from Netherlands once told me how tough it is for him to date a girl because of his ‘soft’ nature which meant people perceived him as being gay.

Clearly, these two scripts are not a great fit for many of us, but still we manage to pass. We adapt and adjust in order to make those features of ourselves that do not fit the script look less conspicuous. But many cannot even think of fitting in. For example, a cisgender homosexual woman finds it tough to fit herself in one of the two scripts which expects her to get married to a person of the opposite sex. For a gender queer person, they are not even welcome to be a part of these two scripts.

Since the two scripts do not give importance to individuals’ gender and sexual identities and the choices they want to make, they become a tool for oppression. But what happens if we start going around and deciding our own identity and our own positions in the hierarchy? The power hierarchy and the social construction of gender will fall apart. People will learn more about their gender identity, one of their core identities. We will also understand that sexual attraction is based on one’s sexual orientation which is fluid for many. The idea of having only two scripts for more than 7 billion people living in this planet is hilarious and outdated. If ‘gender’, the social construct, can adopt changes where individuals are allowed to navigate their own gender formation and locate their own spot on gender continuum, that will lead to a lot less dissonance and uncomfortable performances, not to mention the physical danger and stigma for those who don’t adhere to the script to which they assigned.

This article was originally published here on Cake.

Featured image source: Google