"Gender Junkies": The Post That Wasn’t (Yet?)

For a long time I’ve had a partly-finished post sitting in my draft queue.  It’s entitled (as you might have guessed by this point) “Gender Junkies,” and it’s an attempt to argue that, roughly,

  1. Gender is a social construct
  2. It’s a necessarily hierarchical and therefore unjust social construct
  3. True human liberation requires the end of our belief in this social construct
  4. But it’s so embedded in our thinking that we genuinely cannot conceive of what a society without it would look like
  5. So the best we can do is try to make gender matter less, bit-by-bit.

(But using nerdy analogies like Dune and The Matrix.)

But as I say, I started the post a long time ago, and have been having a hard time finishing it, and in the meantime I’ve been reading various blogs and interacting with various people, and various things have happened; part of the reason, then, that I’ve had difficulty finishing the post is that I’m no longer sure I’m arguing well.  I’ve learned much that I didn’t previously know, for example, about the problematic history of links to transphobia the idea of gender-as-social-construct has.  And I want to avoid, if possible, saying something hurtful because I haven’t thought things through enough or because I’m working from faulty ideas.

So, since I’ve been getting a lot more visitors in the past week or so, thanks to generous links from several other blogs, I thought maybe now would be a good time to try opening a discussion thread.

How do you define “gender”?  Do you see it as a social construct, or a function of biology (including brain biology, mind), or some mix of factors?  Do you think it’s inherently hierarchical, or is a system of gender classification which is also egalitarian conceivable to you?

(Note: I realize that this is a very fraught topic, and what seems like a relatively abstract philosophical opinion to one person may seem to another like an outright attack on their right to exist.  If you join the discussion, please be sensitive to the complexities of the subject, treat others kindly, and assume good faith in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary.)

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7 comments

  1. I think gender is not wholly a social construct, but I lack the imagination to say what effect the part that isn’t would have if the socially constructed parts weren’t there.

    I don’t think it has to be hierarchical either. Obviously as currently constructed there is an obvious hierarchy, and removing that hierarchy probably does involve removing most of the existing construct too, but it’s possible to have differences between people (constructed or otherwise) that don’t involve a hierarchy, so I think you could have socially constructed concepts of gender that weren’t hierarchical. (Again, I lack the imagination to say what they’d be)

  2. I should probably make an attempt at articulating my own notion of gender, too.

    I understand “gender” as meaning a system of social roles, which are in theory (of course practice is always fuzzier) mutually exclusive and non-overlapping in terms of people, though there may be overlap in terms of the content of the various roles — that is, again in theory, each person in society belongs to exactly one category, performs exactly one gender role. Because I’m a bit of a math nerd, I think of this as a partition.

    Roles are normally assigned at birth, based on the fiction of a strict biological-sex binary; each role comprises a set of behaviors and standards for appearance to which the person is expected to conform. I subdivide the roles a bit: I see “boy” as a different (though related) gender role from “man,” and “girl” from “woman” (in the predominant gender-system in US society, I should specify; other systems exist and have existed, but this is the one I know best). Only certain role changes are “allowed” (actually, mandated) by the system.

    The content of each role is, effectively, the stereotype of that gender. Thus obviously no one perfectly performs their role, because no one precisely conforms to the stereotype of their gender; and in practice the possible transitions between roles are not as restricted as the theoretical framework of the system dictates. But because we’re indoctrinated from birth with the rules of the gender system — more on that in the next ¶ — variance from the theoretical rules typically makes us uncomfortable, and we try (necessarily unsuccessfully) to suppress the variance, or learn to live with the discomfort, or try to rationalize it somehow, or engage in the harder work of confronting, thinking critically about, and trying to eliminate our discomfort by reducing the hold the rules of the gender system have on our thinking.

    That we’re soaking in this system literally our entire lives means that it’s functionally impossible (for, at least, virtually if not literally everyone) to cease thinking in gendered ways. We can’t stop thinking of which gender role a person performs as being an integral, essential, definitional part of who that person is. But we can erode it a little. It takes conscious effort, but we can make gender matter less to our thinking, and make ourselves more comfortable with fuzziness and overlap and crossover between the categories. And if enough people do that, then the next generation inherits a world where the rules of the gender system are less strict, and so even if it can never be wholly gotten rid of, its importance asymptotically approaches zero. In some sense that “zero,” that ideal, although mired in gendered thinking I can’t conceive of what it would be like to live there, is a society in which there are no arbitrary groupings of behaviors and appearances, whether assigned by genitalia or genetics or what have you, but instead all possible behaviors and appearances are “a la carte” as it were; any particular person might adopt whichever of them they chose, temporarily or permanently, and adopting one would not be grounds for any other person to guess what others they might perform as well.

    As to hierarchy, clearly the gender-system we currently have is hierarchical. Maybe it is in some sense possible — maybe there’s nothing about partitioning society into gender roles that in and of itself requires hierarchy — for a non-hierarchical gender system to exist, but I don’t believe it’s possible in a practical sense. Every way of grouping people ends up hierarchical. So I think the only path, ultimately, to liberation is to erode away all systems of grouping that do not admit of free opportunity to move between groups. (That is, a hierarchy based on learned skills, the training for which everyone has fair equality of opportunity to access, is not repugnant to human liberation in my view.)

    So that’s sort of a sketch of the argument I was planning to make in “Gender Junkies,” though the full post was (believe it or not!) to be considerably longer, and if my ideas, premises or reasoning are faulty or incomplete, I feel more comfortable right now expressing it here, as part of a conversation, than as a declamatory top-of-the-page post.

  3. “Every way of grouping people ends up hierarchical.”

    I don’t think it’s inevitable. People are regularly grouped by county (UK)/state (US), for instance, but even though there are stereotypes about the residents (or emigrants) of certain counties/states, these don’t form any socially-enforced hierarchy between the counties/states. [1]

    Eye colour is another grouping that isn’t currently detectably hierarchical but has been at times in the past.

    [1] Except in so far as classism and racism intersect with county/state stereotypes, of course.

  4. Everything is overlapping bell curves. See the graph on this pagethis page about 2/3 of the way down.

    My experience with trying to raise children without imposing gender was that some of the difference is innate, but culture is so strong that it’s hard to tell. Your #4 was huge.

  5. Oof. Yeah, dangerous argument there, especially since it makes so much sense to cis folks like you and me…

    You seem to have dodged some of the common pitfalls, such as creating a new hierarchy of gender roles by favoring “transgressive”, generally androgynous, ones. Not that this would stop people from using your argument as a basis for such an action, mind.

    On the other hand, your argument still fundamentally erases (some?) trans people. What place do they have in this bold new view of gender, except as people so totally deceived by the current, broken gender system that they believe they have to change their gender entirely? (Explaining this problem fully is beyond my skills, but have you seen this post at Questioning Transphobia about it?)

    Probably best not to use any form of this argument until you find some trans women with knowledge in this area that are willing to talk over the issue with you. (Ideally trans men too, though you really do need to talk to trans women specifically; for various interesting reasons, they seem to be affected by this in a way that trans men aren’t always.)

    1. To be honest, your comment sounds to me like you stopped reading my actual post just after the part where I enumerated the argument I had been planning to make in the post I haven’t written, and decided to lecture me about what’s wrong with that argument, instead of noticing that I already said that I’m aware it’s a notion that has a problematic history from which it may be impossible to extricate much of value, or that the discussion I hoped for in comments was not “what’s wrong with this theory?” but “what’s your theory?”

      I’ve let it out of moderation anyway, because if we were having that other discussion those would be good points, and although I hadn’t seen that specific post at Questioning Transphobia I have seen those points made elsewhere, which is (to return to that thing about how reading the whole post is a good idea) part of why I published this post, instead of the one just making the argument you criticize.

      However, if you’re going to continue to participate in this discussion, please 1) stay on topic and 2) drop the condescension. I want a discussion here, not lectures.

  6. How do you define “gender”?
    An expression of personality and sexuality. Includes mannerisms, thoughts, sex role, attire, and body.

    Do you see it as a social construct, or a function of biology (including brain biology, mind), or some mix of factors?
    A confusing mix of social construct, reproductive biology and brain biology.

    Do you think it’s inherently hierarchical, or is a system of gender classification which is also egalitarian conceivable to you?
    Without the influence of hierarchical nature of human psychology, gender classifications would be more egalitarian, I think. As it stands, our gender classification system is too narrow and specific, so that most people are forced to fit. A more egalitarian approach would be to allow more flexibility so that non-normatively gendered (by our current standards) would be considered normal and natural.

    PS- I’m trans and I didn’t have a problem with what you have stated thus far, except I clearly disagree that gender is only a social construct.

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