Something every new feminist, I think, has to contend with at some point is the question of gender, and what it really is. My own understanding of this question has gone through quite a few evolutions over the years I’ve been interested in feminism and its theory and practice. This post is a bit of a reflection on my own changing understanding of sex and gender and the relationship of the two – nothing cohesive, just some of my own musings over the years.
The first revelation came quite easily, at some point in high school, the idea that sex and gender are not actually the same thing. It’s the most basic realisation of gender studies, social science, anthropology and most humanities fields, and since I picked up on it, it’s felt so commonplace and obvious I have to roll my eyes when my intro to anthropology lecturer spends a whole lecture on it, only to continue to get it wrong throughout.
A little later came the social construction of gender, the performance theories of gender, the idea that gender doesn’t exist in itself but only in relation to external stuff, for lack of a better word. There can be such freedom attached to that idea, not only the personal bits and pieces, the you-mean-I-don’t-have-to-wear heels-to-be-a-woman? stuff, but also the broader freedom of people to identify outside of binary gender constructs and re-write them in ways that make sense to them.
But there are issues with this way of thinking too, as I see every time an argument breaks out in a queer or feminist space on essential vs constructed gender. If gender is purely a construct, then it’s easy to argue (as someone in the aforementioned argument always does) that gendered oppression or discrimination doesn’t exist, that women don’t feel pressure to be skinny and attractive, that people who do identify as binary men or women are just fooling themselves. (And yes, I’ve seen all of these in real life). Take it too far in one direction, and people end up arguing that gender doesn’t actually exist, as if it’s just an illusion pulled over our eyes that we can shake off at any moment.
The conclusion that I’ve personally drawn is that people don’t often think about the fact that even if gender is a completely imaginary construct, it still has real-life manifestations. Sure, in an ideal world the constructedness of gender might mean that gender is absolutely irrelevant. But our world isn’t an ideal world. Ideas about gender still hold tremendous sway in our society, influencing our self-perception, our roles, the amount of money we earn at work. We can’t just say gender doesn’t exist when it still clearly impacts on the way broader society still functions. None of us, however confident of our own identity, exists in a vacuum where other people’s ideas about gender don’t affect us.
And then recently, especially since beginning to work on historical gender research, my views on gender have changed again. I’m finding that I can no longer think of sex and gender as inherently separate categories – it’s too simplistic, especially in relation to ancient Roman society – to think of sex purely as biological and gender as purely socio-cultural. So much of gender does, in the end, have some sort of base in biology, be it larger or smaller. It’s all well and good to talk about transgressive gender performances in the Roman world, but those performances were transgressive precisely because they were contrary to accepted ideas about male and female bodies and the behaviour and qualities those bodies intrinsically have.
So my own going understanding, of gender and sex and the relationship between them, is at the moment that gender is the stuff that happens in the space between the body/biology and the society/culture it is located in. The stuff can have quite a bit of variation across different societies, and there’s no inherent shape it will take. But it always involves both the biological and the social, working together or against each other in wariness of each other, whatever the circumstance may be. Granted, it’s not the neatest definition of gender, but it makes sense to me. At least until the next shift in understanding comes along.