(Cocktail Talk) So where do we go from here? Do we need to theorise about gender?
Refreshing Mai Tai with an Asian twist (from Bellini, Hilton Auckland): Chilli infused Absolut Vodka, kaffir lime leaf infused Havana Club, lemongrass syrup and soda
Gender is key to how we identify people, organise relationships with others, and develop meaning through socialisation. When we recognise someone as male or female, we define them based on socially constructed assumptions. A particular kind of anatomy is often associated with a particular kind of identity. Such persisting anatomical categories can be problematic and questionable, especially when the ‘natural order’ is breached. More often than not, gender is taken for granted.
Undoubtedly, nature does not draw the line between male and female; humans draw that line on nature. Socially constructed concepts of gender shape our understanding of what it is to be feminine or masculine. However, femininity is not an essence all women are naturally endowed with. Instead, it is a product of discourses, practices, and social relations that construct the circumstances of women in patriarchal societies in ways that typically disempower women in relation to men. This logic can similarly be applied to masculinity, as it is not an essence all men naturally possess.
While there are diverse forms of masculinity and femininity, dominant forms can still subordinate or marginalise other forms (Petrie, 2004). For instance, hegemonic masculinity — the culturally idealised form of masculine character in a given historical setting — is forged on strength, aggression, courage, skill, assertiveness, and confidence, through prevailing over opponents in competitive situations (Petrie, 2004). It is not considered masculine to reveal weakness, show pain, cry, or seek comfort from others when facing anxiety or distress (Petrie, 2004). There is also an idealised form of femininity, suggesting that hegemonic femininity also exists, which tend to depict women as non-aggressive, graceful, passive, nurturing, dependent, supportive, and weaker or less powerful physically than male counterparts (Petrie, 2004). Cultural rules and expectations surrounding gender and sexual identity often become visible only when they are transgressed, when rules are broken (Marsh, 1996). Consequently, men and women who defy gender norms or exhibit behaviours associated with the other gender — i.e. going against the grain — are often subject to ridicule and suspicion (Griffin, 1989). That is why some people “struggle to fit in”.
Messages about male and female stereotypes are consistent, regular, and come from cultural stories that saturate mass media and social institutions (Petrie, 2004). While biological explanations are insignificant within sociology, they continue to shape popular conceptions of the body and still abound in cultures. It is apparent that in any situation, at any stage in life, where individuals interact, there are opportunities for stereotypical ideas, based on biological explanations, to be received, internalised, and therefore constructed and reproduced (Petrie, 2004). The reproduction of gendered priorities and practices impact both males and females. These include continued expectation of both groups to meet stereotypical forms of femininity or masculinity and the exclusion of individuals from particular roles, social spheres, and activities based on gender.
Moving forward, as Milan and Milan (2016) suggest, societies should seek to drop preconceived notions about how someone is supposed to be, and take intentional steps to unlearn deep-seated biases. Gender theory can facilitate this process by expanding the spectrum of gender and sexuality, and imagining all individuals into existence in a world where gender is self-determined, and not imposed. Gender theory can seek to challenge narrow-minded limitations disguised as scientific and political. Given the pervasive constructs of gender that is almost impossible to deconstruct, gender theory can play an important role in drawing attention to social injustice, and facilitating positive change.