The question of whether individuals are really in control of their identity has been widely studied by anthropologists worldwide. Some argue that our gender identity is innate and deeply connected to biology and personality traits, while the opposing belief is that the subject of gender is malleable and can is influenced and constructed by many outside sources.
The construction and performance of gender are two distinguishable processes. Gender construction can occur and be reinforced throughout the lifetime, but mainly arises during childhood and adolescence. It consists of the factors and influences that create the definitions of accepted masculinity and femininity. A selection of these will be explored in this essay, aiming to understand how far they impact the interpretation of different gender identities.
Gender performance is distinct from this because it is less what influences the creation of identity, and more once this identity is formed, how do individuals act in their everyday lives due to this? Gender performance can be widely defined as acting in a way that produces the impression of being a man or woman. Therefore, almost all gender communication is performed, rather than innate biological expression, through methods such as clothing choice and body language.
In this essay I will aim to examine examples of gender performance and analyse to what extent individuals have autonomy over their actions.
These issues have become of great importance in recent times, with new conflicts and social movements arising to open up the complex subject of gender. Especially in modern Western culture, where a new wave of feminism, based on inclusivity/ intersectionality has formed, where the importance of gender is being more questioned than ever before.
I will argue that, in majority of cases, individuals have a relatively low level of control when constructing their gender, due to a multitude of factors that influence them from birth; performance is often restricted by two distinct stereotypes, and conformity encouraged, due to societal norms. Although there are always exceptions, masculine and feminine qualities are often placed on children at very young ages, with the expectation of compliance.
I will now discuss the different factors which influence gender construction and performance and examine how these affect the extent of individual self-determination.
The first and most obvious way that gender is first labelled onto individuals is straight after birth, by their parents. Many expectant parents discover the sex of their child at 16 weeks, and with this information, begin to buy either pink or blue themed toys and clothes. Although this is not inherently damaging, it does suggest that the majority of people still view the terms gender and sex as interchangeable. While there is a recent movement of raising children as ‘gender neutral’ in an effort to encourage self-definition by the child when they are old enough to decide how they identify, most people take the gender of their child for granted due to their sexual organs.
Due to this, parents will be inadvertently projecting their gendered expectations on their children. As babies can begin to distinguish between adult men and women by the end of their first year, and then have an understanding of their own gender by the age of three (Aydt, H. 2003), there is a small critical window of development at the beginning of life where the individuals gain their first comprehension of what gender means.
Parents are the primary source of information about the world for infants, and due to evolution, value the lessons that elders teach them as children, as they assume they will help them survive and fit in to the community.
A study into children’s gender construction concluded that “children are often intrigued by what they have heard about adults and their lives and use this information to predict what their own life courses may be like” (Aydt, H. 2003). Following this logic, it is understandable that many children are often reported regurgitating buzz-words and phrases in studies, such as “ladies can’t do too much” and “it isn’t right for women to be bosses”, both said by seven-year-old boys (Francis, B. 1999 pp.309), without really grasping the logic or meaning behind them. Due to the absorbency of the child mind, many off-hand comments and the general values of the adults in their lives will have great influence, as before they develop the autonomy to begin to form their own and possibly opposing views, this is the main source of knowledge that they have access to. This is supported by the study by Becky Francis, where it was found that the group of younger boys studied, between 6-8, made a higher number of statements with an unequal view of the genders than the older group of boys, between 10-12 (Francis, B. 1999). This suggests that once the older boys had started to be exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints and influencers, they stop needing to follow the sole lead of their parents.
Some would argue that this proves that an understanding of gender differences is innate because of the examples of children showing gender bias at such an early age. However, I would point them in the direction of a study by Fagot, where children were studied at two critical cognitive development stages: at one year, and then again at two years. This study states that in their first year, infants show two distinct behaviour types, assertive and communicative; assertive involving grabbing and throwing toys, and communicative being displays of babbling and reaching. In the first year, there were no differences in the frequency of these interactions from girls to boys, however the boys would get more attention from the caregiver for assertive behaviour, and the girls from communicative. Then, a year later she documented clear sex differences appearing in their behaviour. As the girls learn to influence relationships through verbal negotiation, boys learn to respond to aggression (Fagot, B.I. 1994).
This further reinforces my argument that children are strongly guided to act in a way that is associated with a certain gender from an early age.
Once individuals have moved out of childhood, and into a more autonomous stage, their view of gender is going to be shaped by a wider selection of factors, such as culture, friendships, media, and history.
Western culture and media has a complex relationship with gender, as we see ourselves to have a progressive ideology, which accepts intersectionality. However, we have a long history of colonialism and oppression and the values and pride of this history still overflow into modern civilisation (Jacobs, M. 2011).
Society has the power to define national stereotypes, and media accentuates these further.
For instance, men are more associated with positions of power and leadership, firstly because of stereotypical expectations of character, but also because of media coverage. Female political candidates are less likely to receive media coverage that focusses on issue positions (Van Berkel, L. 2017). This, in addition to the constant confusion of the identity of women in the media (Carilli, T. 2012), where they are expected to be both strong and independent like Michelle Obama, while also remaining highly groomed and pleasing to the eyes of men, such as Katie Price, has lead to an unattainable image of the ‘ideal woman’, being broadcast and permeating western societies. In contrast to this, the image of men has rarely focussed on clothing and appearance; while female politicians will be compared on the “quality of their shapely legs” (such as in the ‘leggs-it’ scandal in 2017) (BBC, 2017), men will be thoroughly questioned on their views.
These pervasive biases in the media hugely impact gender construction of young adults, and with the new media platforms in the modern west, such as YouTube and Instagram, these perceptions about gender identities are reaching an audience that is larger and younger than ever before.
The underlying patriarchal structure of society is mostly taken for granted in the west, and although the many second and third waves of feminism have aimed to deconstruct and draw attention to this, the engrained expectations of the genders can still be observed.
The traditional male role in the labour force has resulted in them being viewed as possessing characteristics that make them ideal for this role. As men have always been the primary source of employment and income, it is often seen that there must be a fundamental reason for this, such as the intrinsic qualities of independence and being competitive (Hoydt, C. 2012). Similarly, the historic role of women as home keepers and child carers, has lead to the expectation of their character to be compassionate, patient and reserved (Hoydt, C. 2012). Despite women now making up 47% of the workforce in the West, the positions that they have are still disproportionally lower paid and ranking (U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010). Furthermore, women often encounter a ‘double job’ dilemma, as after they return from their ‘first shift’ in employment, they are then also expected to continue into a ‘second shift’ of domestic work and childcare (Hoydt, C. 2012). As although women have now entered the workplace, they still carry the burden of the home, and “motherhood has been demonstrated to strongly contribute to gender inequality in the workplace” (Anderson, D.J. 2003, pp 289). This is reinforced by the confused projection of women in the media, being expected to be both business women and home makers.
Observing the adults in your life fulfil these stereotypical roles will impact on gender construction, as the examples of what is expected and normal for someone of your sex are displayed to you.
Knowledge of history also impacts individuals, as they learn about the events and attitudes of the past, assumptions could be made that there is an intrinsic reason behind certain biases, since they have existed for so long.
The female body has long been defined as an erotic symbol, idolised in high-art, dominated sexually in popular culture (Bordo, S. 1993), and women have been encouraged to see themselves as objects of desire, however, the notion of active female sexuality has historically been repressed. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, female lust was defined as a mental illness needing to be cured: hysteria and nymphomania (Bordo, S. 1993). The definition of hysteria was innocuous, ranging from flirting to being more passionate than their husbands, and even minor transgressions from the image of femininity could be classified as an illness. The cures for this disease were invasive, varying from female circumcision, to a lengthy stay in a mental asylum.
Although a male equivalent existed (Satyriasis), it was much rarer than cases of nymphomania, and never resulted in treatment by circumcision; potentially because the male nature was seen to be ruled by their minds, rather than genitalia, as the case was for women.
The implications of this, were that women were encouraged to present themselves as objects of eroticism, but not to be sexually autonomous.
Attitudes on sexuality of both men and women, along with non-hetero normative sexualities have progressed greatly since this time, and it is mostly accepted in the West that all consensual sexual activities should be a personal choice. However, there are still some instances where sexual prejudice prevails, such as rape cases in the justice system (Hunt, L. 2011), where juries often assume that the female victims in some way presented themselves too sexually, and therefore the male perpetrator is less accountable.
All the previously discussed themes: childhood, media, societal norms, and historical attitudes, effect and shape how individuals perform and define their own gender identity. These themes combined are so pervasive, that there is little chance that someone could make it through life without being impacted by some gender standards. I will now explore the significance and extent of this.
The concepts of “hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity” (Connell, R.W. 2005, p830) are not normal in the statistical sense, but rather are the most valued way of being that gender.
Gender performance can be studied at three levels (Connell, R.W. 2005): Local, involving face-to-face and personal relationships, Regional, at the level of the nation, and Global, containing world politics and media.
Each of these levels is affected by gender, and gender does not exist in isolation. Other factors such as race, age, and status play a part in how free individuals are to define themselves and separate themselves from the culturally normative narrative.
The choice to self-define gender outside of the traditional can have detrimental effects on how others see you. “Successful social relations require all participants to present, monitor, and interpret gender displays” (Lucal, B. 1999, pp. 785), as we glean information about who we are interacting with, and how to interact with them, by the assumptions we make associated with their gender, and in this way, gender is omnirelevant.
Therefore, if an individual constructs and performs a gender identity that either they do not present or is opposing to their sex, many people will find interactions with them potentially confusing. This issue has been documented by many transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid writers; Betsy Lucal presents as male but identifies as female and details the daily struggle of being mis-gendered and misunderstood by others (Lucal, B. 1999). She states: “I can be called on to account for my appearance. I am the one not following the rules, and I will pay the price for not providing people with the appropriate cues for placing me in the gender category to which I belong” (Lucal, B. 1999, pp. 792).
Due to accounts like these, many individuals will remain within the confines of pre-defined gender out of fear of rejection by society, and others are compelled by the Performance theory (Butler, J. 1956), where the themes of influence over gender construction shapes what the individual views as appropriate for their sex and performs similarly.
A final way that individuals perform gender is through sexuality, and as previously discussed, historically there have been huge disparities in the expected and accepted sexual behaviours of men and women. In the modern west, there have been many movements campaigning for female sexual liberation, as well as the celebration of non-heteronormative relationships, which have succeeded in starting the conversation. However, many people still hold bigoted views on these topics, and associates of these individuals risk being ostracised for their behaviour. Western culture is overall moving in the direction of progress on this front (although with expected backlash movements), and it is resulting in the revelation that gender and sexuality do not need to be associated at all, as they are two distinct concepts, which individuals can define separately.
Overall, I would argue that individuals have little control over constructing and performing their gender identity in western cultures at this point in time. This is because the sources that create our ideas of what it means to be male or female are so inescapable, furthermore, the importance of defining your gender clearly is still widely embedded.
Secondly, it has been generally accepted that gender is a social construct, rather than a biological certainty, which could suggest people would have more freedom to identify how they wish, however, I believe that this just opens up opportunity for more the dominant individuals to set the standards for the rest of the population.
Once the general expectations of the ideal characteristics and behaviour for men and women were constructed, the performance theory leads to repetitive performance, where we act out the ideal so often that it appears natural (Butler, J. 1956).
I believe that childhood experiences and societal norms are the most powerful forces of gender construction, as they shape your beliefs in a critical window of development, and due to the authoritative nature of these sources.
Gender performance is governed by the human need to be accepted in a community, and the subconscious urge to be taught. We learn so much about the world and the way to act in it by the influential figures in our lives, and the accepted norms of our gender are no different.
There will always be exceptions to this argument, as people strive to break glass ceilings and purposefully subvert gender standards, but I believe the majority of individuals are unconsciously bound to a set of rules which guide their behaviour and understanding of what it means to be male or female, and to what extent this impacts their identity.
- Anderson, D.J. et al. ‘The motherhood wage penalty revisited: experience, heterogeneity, work effort, and work schedule flexibility’, in Labour Relations Review, Vol 56, 2003, pp. 273-294
- Aydt, H. ‘Differences in children’s construction of gender across cultures’ in American Behavioural Scientist, 2003, vol. 46, pp. 1306-1325
- BBC, ‘Daily Mail’s ‘Who won Legs-it!’ headline draws scorn’, March 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39416554
- Bordo, S. ‘Material Girl: the Effacements of Postmodern Culture’ in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, Berkley, University of California Press ,1993.
- Butler, J. 1956 author of ‘Bodies that matter on the discursive limits of “sex”’, Routledge 2011.
- Carilli, T ‘Challenging the Image of Women in the Media: reinventing women’s lives’ 2012.
- Connell, R.W. ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’ in Gender and Society, 2005, Vol 19 (no.6), pp 829-859.
- Fagot, B. I. (1994). ‘Peer relations and the development of competence in boys and girls’ in New Directions for Child Development, pp.65, 53-65.
- Francis, B. ‘An Investigation of the Discourses Children draw on their constructions of Gender’ in Journal of Applied social psychology, 1999, Vol 29, pp 300-316.
- Hoydt, C. ‘Gender bias in employment contexts: a closer examination of the role incongruity principle’ in The Journal of experimental social psychology, Jan 2012, Vol 48, p.86.
- Hunt, L and Bull, R. ‘Differentiating Genuine and False Rape Allegations: A Model to Aid Rape Investigations’ in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, Routledge, October 2011, pp 1-10.
- Jacobs, M. ‘Western History: what’s gender got to do with it?’ in The Western Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2011, Vol 42, pp 297-304.
- Lucal, B. ‘What it means to be gendered me: life outside the boundaries of a dichotomous gender system’ in Gender and Society, Vol 13, 1999, pp. 781-797.
- Van Berkel, L. ‘Gender Asymmetry in the Construction of American National Identity’ in Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2017, Vol 41, pp. 352-367.
- U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010