There has been a marked rise in the publicity of Gender Neutrality, Transgender, identification as Cis-Male/Cis-Female, to name only a few variations of the discomfort some experience with gender labels in modern society. Unfortunately, I have been privy to throwaway comments and ridicule overheard from others about how ridiculous it is, and how ‘they’ are only ‘attention seeking.’ On the contrary, if “they” are doing anything at all it is with respect to the fact that these individuals are drawing attention to the complications of the labels ‘Female’ and ‘Male.’
These different ways of self-expression in the world are beginning to start a conversation we must have as we embark onwards in our process of civilisation. Furthermore, it is desperately sought antidote to the sexist, bi-gender divide we still endure in 2017. “[T]here is no reason to assume that genders ought to…remain as two.” (Butler, 1990: 9) The fact that we so unflinchingly accept this bi-gender divide as the norm is concerning in a world which is founded upon questioning the status quo. The individuals who forgo traditional gender roles, or even those who identify as cis-gender, highlight the need of an overhaul in the traditionally accepted means of gender expression and a thorough analysis of what it actually means to be male and female in modern society.
A basic dictionary definition states “either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.”
At present, we have two gender established based on social and cultural construction and relating to sex and/or biological difference.
“Can we refer to a ‘given’ sex or a ‘given’ gender without first enquiring into how sex and/or gender is given, through what means? And what is sex, anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such ‘facts’ for us? Does sex have a history? Does each sex have a different history, or histories?”
(Butler, 1990: 9)
The concept of gender is not so straight forward as first suspected. If anything, however, gender is very much a performative expectation embedded in social values and cultural expectations. From birth we are socialised into the ‘correct’ gender roles. Pink blankets for girls, blue for boys. It’s present throughout their childhood as they learn their place in the world and how they fit in. We encourage our boys to be adventurous, courageous, bold, and fast. We enrol them into Rugby, Boxing, and Football. We encourage them to be competitive and to win. We teach them to fight and wield toy weapons. We tell them to be strong and “big boys don’t cry.” There is little emphasis placed on encouraging them to declare love for their Fathers; the ability to be emotionally vulnerable is not stereotypically male.
On the other hand, girls are encouraged to be safe and responsible. We enrol them into Ballet and, if we’re reckless, Horse Riding, at most. We worry when they climb trees, when they wrestle, and when they fight. We buy them small make-up sets and Princess dresses. We allow them to cry, to show a deep emotional vulnerability. We encourage their compassion and concern, but dissuade their frustration and anger. We tell them to be caring, considerate, and think of other’s needs. We let them look after Tiny Tears baby dolls, be the housekeeper of Barbie’s bright pink apartment. Girls are sugar, spice, and all things nice.
This is not just happening in Primary Socialisation but onward into Secondary Socialisation where these values are established as the norm. Wider society readily accepts these boxes called ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ and subtly manage the two categories. For example, look at the Argos catalogue or any modern Toy Store; a strictly divided space where boys and girls toys are separated by Navy Blues and Baby Pinks. They are informing and reinforcing gender expectations through obvious segregation of activities that girls and boys are ‘allowed’ to play with. This, of course, serves a double purpose in ascribing the roles we are to eventually adopt as Male and Female adults.
Little girls are given plastic babies to look after, complete with ‘real’ urinating mechanisms and are programmed to sound distressed in their false hunger. Imitation kitchens with their plastic foods to prepare. Vulnerable animals to look after and take responsibility for.
On the other hand, little boys are offered Lego to construct things with and allow their imaginations to run riot with possibility. Superhero Marvel characters with their fighting actions. Dress up Iron Man with his metal abs. “Boys are encouraged to individuality. They are trained to be independent in thought and action, while girls are taught obedience, dependence, and deference.” (Rosenberg, 1982: 79)
This means of subtle guidance into acceptable gender boundaries that adheres to cultural expectations is not without victims. At some point, we have all been one. We may have been the girl who was discouraged from shouting, play fighting, and being wild because it’s not ‘ladylike.’ Perhaps we were the little boy who was met with anger when he cried from falling over in the playground. Maybe we have been the married women of ‘child-bearing age’ who was turned down for a job or promotion because her fertility meant the threat of maternity leave and less profit. Or, more close to the heart, we know of the men who commit suicide because displaying emotion is a masculine sin.
On some level I believe that these gender roles are contributing to the uphold of patriarchal standards that are harmful to all of us. It is wifely known that men have a longstanding apathy toward freely expressing emotion and the ostracization from others in such situations is a very real threat. Being unable to weep from the heart or discuss their problems openly with other men is damaging. The Office of National Statistics reveal that three out of four suicides are male and is the biggest cause of death in men under 35. Moreover, men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women and this is followed by the fact that men are 50% more likely to be compulsorily treated as psychiatric patients. And, contrary to popular belief, 73% of adults who go missing are male.
Women are encouraged to be emotionally vulnerable and, as a result, it produces a protective factor in that it is likely many women would experience a stronger social bond with friends and relatives. However, one of the best ways to insult a group of men having an open and honest conversation is to liken them to a “Mother’s meeting.”
But what of our little boys living in this emotionless world and an environment that expects outgoing behaviours, loudness, physical aggression through play fighting, and a general uninhibitedness? When they are afraid or hurting, we tell them they must be brave and ignore the pain. After all, big boys don’t cry. However, we then have the audacity worry when our boys turn violent, displaying levels of emotional dysregulation, fail to express their emotions in a means that we can understand, act impulsively, have little awareness of danger, and are seemingly out of control.
Instead of reflecting upon the wider influences, we believe that there is something wrong with them and, thus, the term ‘ADHD’ becomes part of our conversations. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is mostly diagnosed in boys and, though symptoms can vary, it generally presents as hyperactive and aggressive. In look at statistics, what causes curiosity is that in Austria for every sixteen males diagnosed with ADHD only one female is which is a high comparison compared to other Western European countries. Whilst I am uncertain of the reasons why, it is interesting to note that further research into Austrian culture reveals that the concept of traditional gender roles, influenced by Roman Catholicism, still pervades to a certain extent. This naturally inclined my mind to consider the role of religion in upholding gender roles. (What I am trying to emphasise is that I do not believe there is a link between Roman Catholicism and ADHD…)
It is of no secret that Christianity upholds a sense of traditional gender roles; females are ascribed roles justified as part of “God’s” natural order. “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5 v. 24) That is to say, women are “made” to be naturally submissive, mild, empathetic, compassionate, non-violent, quiet, and have a general bias toward children.
“The Rites are archaic and primitive so that part of the core of female consciousness can be kept archaic and primitive. […] By instilling in women an internal police force, the new religion often does better than the older ones at keeping women in order.”
(Wolf, 1990: 87 & 90)
Men, on the other hand, are forced to take control, to lead, to be submitted to, and are the “head” of the family. “Now I want you to realize the head of every man is Christ and the head of every woman is man.” (1 Corinthians 11 v. 3) Such ingrained is this as the expectation within churches and excused as part of “God’s” intended way, it becomes the key to holiness.
Gender Dysphoria: A Mental Health Problem?
If we consider what we have thought about so far, it should come as no surprise that when the gender boundaries are disrupted, society has cause for concern. Should we be concerned when our boys desire to wear dresses? Should we be outraged when our girls want to get into wrestling instead of Barbie dolls? Or, more importantly, should they be concerned? Whatever our opinions may be, what becomes of gender boundary invasion is summarized as a mental health condition. The DSM-5 states that Gender Dysphoria is:
‘a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, of at least 6 months’ duration, as manifested by at least 6 of the following:
- A strong desire to be of the other gender or an insistence that one is the other gender (or some alternative gender different from one’s assigned gender
- In boys (assigned gender), a strong preference for cross-dressing or simulating female attire; or in girls (assigned gender), a strong preference for wearing only typical masculine clothing and a strong resistance to the wearing of typical feminine clothing…’ […]
‘in boys (assigned gender), a strong rejection of typically masculine toys, games, and activities and a strong avoidance of rough-and-tumble play; or in girls (assigned gender), a strong rejection of typically feminine toys, games, and activities.’
As opposed to a disruption in the individuals healthy mental state, it would not be unwise to consider it may be, and speaking frankly, everyone else’s problem. Would it be so reckless to allow our children to consider how they want to present long before we begin to carve a path for them? Perhaps in doing so we would reduce the amount of children, teenagers, and adults who feel misaligned within themselves with their assigned gender. Thousands upon thousands of individual’s lives have been ruined by their perceived internal flaw in not feeling comfortable with their gender when, really, we ought consider the problem being external.
Erving Goffman spoke a lot about the social individual in The Performance of the Everyday Self. He argues that everyone is performing as they would like their audience to perceive them. Likewise, gender can be summed as a set of performative values embedded in a cultural script. We offer our children this script long before they are born; a script passed down from generation to generation.
“The view that gender is performative [seeks] to show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylisation of the body. In this way, it [reveals] that what we take to be an ‘internal’ feature of ourselves is one that we anticipate and produce through certain bodily acts […] [and] an hallucinatory effect of naturalised gestures.”
(Butler, 1990: xv)
Unfortunately, when we forego our expected performance and dare venture into the incorrect gender role, we are punished, ridiculed, and socially excluded to some extent. We find that there are certain jobs reserved for Males (Electrician, Doctor, Tradesman, CEOs, etc.) and others for Females (Teacher, Nurse, Babysitter, Care Worker, etc.) We reject the man who dares to wear dresses as ‘a bit weird.’ The woman who cuts her hair short and wears strong suits are ‘butch.’ Female CEOs are untrustworthy bitches. Male Beauty Technitions must be homosexual. In rejecting the gender status quo the individual highlights the external, macro opinion of a society clearly disturbed by those who invade gender boundaries, usurp expectations, and carve an unknown path. “In such a case, not biology, but culture, becomes destiny.” (ibid.: 11)
Surely, in modern Western society, there is no doubt that gender roles are limited, create unnecessary boundaries and, additionally, a whole host of unnecessary problems. Gender can be empowering or soul destroying, it can be helpful or debilitating, it can save or ensnare. Those who choose their own expression of gender, in whatever form it may take, are bringing to the forefront the reality that gender is a spectrum and that it is not binary. The gender choices made by individuals today will fuel the conversations tomorrow. Perhaps there is hope yet.
References and Further Reading
1 Oxford Dictionaries (2017) Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gender [Accessed 26 April 2017]
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
Butler, J (1990) Gender Trouble, NY & London: Routledge.
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin Group.
Rosenberg, R. (1982) Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism, United States of America: Halliday Lithograph.
Weeks, J. (1989) Sex, Politics & Society, Essex, England: Longman Group LTD.
Wolf, N. (1990) The Beauty Myth, Reading, Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.