In the last 70 years, feminist scholarship has come a long way in illustrating the constructive dimension of gender. Simone De Beauvoir called an entire generation to action when she famously declared that one was “not born, but rather became a woman,” challenging the long-established ideal of the eternally feminine. More recently, Judith Butler has written on the performative aspect of gender, characterizing it as a series of repeated social acts that one eventually comes to adopt as their reality.
Despite the good intentions guiding the imperative to view gender as a social construction, I contend that we should not infer from this that gender, as an issue, need not be taken seriously and recognized as something which elicits tangible effects on the lives of many. In our post-modern societies, we have a tendency to use the word “construct” quite liberally. For instance, knowledge is commonly understood as a construct inseparable from inter-subjectivity, as are human rights and systems of language. When we define gender as a construct, we consequentially acknowledge it as something that can be re-constructed. This is a fundamental insight of feminism and one cannot deny that it paved the way for much progress to be made in challenging gender roles and stereotypes. However, it does not suggest that we should dismiss gender as a mere abstract principle, as though it does not significantly impact sexual identity by conditioning our behaviour. The gender construction is not arbitrary and the norms it prescribes are not trivial fictions, but values that come to be believed and endorsed. Gender power structures have real, harmful effects on human beings that must be accounted for. More pressingly, we cannot endeavour to reconstruct gender, or eradicate its restrictive qualities, without first acknowledging these qualities for precisely what they are.
There has been much talk in the West lately about possibly eliminating gender identification from items such as passports. I see this effort as a double-edged sword. While in principle it seeks to contest gender categories, it operates on the illusory premise that we can deflate their value and scope of influence simply by masking them. Yet this alone will not change the insidious mentalities that are so deeply imbedded in our concepts of gender roles and “norms”. Why is it that we are so often ready to believe that making changes in formality is a sufficient condition for eventual chances in practice? Why are we willing to engage in an all-out struggle to alter the description on our passports, but remain hesitant about teaching a multi-gender perspective in our biology classes? I’m not trying to imply that changing our legal system would serve no purpose, but in the long-term these kinds of solutions can only produce a negative gender peace. Considering the fact that nearly all of my friends had never even heard of “intersexuality” as a topic before their first year of university- and that was only because they took specific courses in gender studies- I see a more urgent and structural problem in the lack of gender education. Drawing on the realism of Margaret Urban Walker, I propose that an understanding of gender as construction must go hand in hand with a realistic position on the negative power structures that emerge from it. When it comes to reconstructing gender, we must examine where we are in order to build an understanding of where we ought to be going. That said, a reconstruction of our gender education (introduced from early childhood) is the most urgent step we need to take in dealing with the problem of the gender gap.
We must bring gender back down to earth, where we can interpret it not as a flighty creation, but a concrete phenomenon that systematically dictates what makes one “male” or “female” and categorizes anyone who does not conform to the two-gender system as “other”. Despite our best endeavours to make it so, gender is not dead. It is alive and well and to treat it flippantly, as though it were a weightless issue that did not incapacitate its subjects, it is the most insidious pretence we can adopt towards it. Whose interests does the current gender system serve and who is marginalized (or altogether ignored) through the power structures it creates? These are the questions we must focus on addressing and never cease asking.
By: Sophia Trozzo
*Please note that the opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author’s and not The Cafe Phenomenon.