Thursday, July 14, 2011

What is Gender?

This is a question that has been on the minds of us anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, psychologists and the like since the word came about. How is it different from sex and is it the defining factor that makes a person who they are? How then go they relate to the concepts of male and female, masculine and feminine?

Let’s first start out by separating “gender” and “sex.” Sex is the physical and biological characteristics that separate both men and women. So for example: women menstruate but men don’t, women have ovaries but men have testicles, women can lactate but men can’t and men have robust (massive, thick) bone but women have more gracile (smaller, thinner) bones. Thus the terms “female” and “male” are categories of sex (World Health Organization).

Gender then is much different. Instead of being defined by the physical attributes, gender is the “socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given considers appropriate for men and women” (World Health Organization). So for example: in most of the world women do more housework than men, men are more likely to hold positions of power in most countries than women, in the U.S. men make more money than women, in Viet Nam men are more likely to smoke than women and in many parts of the Near East men are allowed to drive cars but women are not. Thus “feminine” and “masculine” are categories of gender.

Already can you see some problems with figuring out just what gender is? From there though we look at the first part of what the definition of gender is: “Socially constructed roles.” So which society and which roles? Already I can poke tons of holes into the concept of gender. Does this mean that gender then is different from one society to another depending on their roles? Then we come to the next stop in this study, what are “gender roles?” Are they somethings that are mandated by societies, by individuals or is there commonality between them?

Yes I realize that there were a lot of questions there but let’s face it this whole discussion is bound to bring up tons of questions. I am here not to answer the questions but to theorize some possible answers based on studies done of different cultures. So gender roles are what? Well anthropologists have come up with this general definition which isn’t any better than the definition of gender: “A gender role is a theoretical construct in the social sciences and humanities that refers to a set of social and behavioral norms that, within a specific culture, are widely considered to be the norm” (Webster’s Dictionary).

So then once again the question becomes: what is the norm? As I stated about in the examples of gender, different cultures and societies have different norms. Some societies consider sex and gender to be the same; others consider it very different and even others don’t even recognize the concept of gender at all. It then becomes increasingly frustrating to me to think that our “roles” in societies are defined by our physical appearance. On the flipside is it not due to the physical but based solely on the cultural and social factors?

This then leads to the next part of gender: gender identity. The question then becomes what is gender identity and can one identify with a gender identity that doesn’t match up with their “sex?” Gender identity is then defined as the gender (or multiple or even lack thereof) a person self-identifies as. It is not necessarily based on a person’s sex, either real or perceived, and it is distinct from sexual orientation (which is a whole separate issue). It is then one’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman. So we can see that this is much different than the gender roles. The gender roles are dictated by the society while the gender identity is dictated by the person internally.

Like I mentioned above there are two “main” genders but there are many other cultures that have other genders present. For example “androgyny” (the mix of masculine and feminine traits) is considered to be a third gender and some societies have five or more genders. This then leads to the last part of gender which is “gender expression.” This then takes a mixture of sex, gender roles and gender identity and showcases the individual through external ways (haircut, behavior, clothing, body movements, etc).

So here’s the part where I tell you you’re all entitled to your own opinion about these concepts but from an anthropological perspective and from MY perspective “sex” and “gender” are two completely unrelated ideas. If I had my way the word “gender” wouldn’t exist just like I think the term “race” shouldn’t exist (which is a whole separate issue). These next couple of blog posts I will focus on different cultures around the world going back from the dawn of man to the present day. There I will show that there are many different ideas of what really “gender” is and what “gender roles” are.


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