It’s the issue at the core of identity politics! Is gender biological, or cultural? That feeling many of us have, the sense of belonging to a gender, does it reside in our naturally evolved bodies and brains, or in our socially impressionable minds? Is gender a human innovation, or are progressives deluding themselves again?
I don’t know. I haven’t read nearly enough gender studies publications to boast an informed opinion. And neither theory sounds right to me. Can the feeling of being a certain gender really exist as a physiological phenomenon? It’s hard to imagine. But equally hard to imagine is the idea that gender is exclusively determined by what society tells you. I’m inclined to believe that gender is a combination of nature and culture, but even that I can’t be sure of. Also, if gender is biological as some claim, how does it differ from sex? Yes, the nature of gender is a mystery, and I won’t be the one who figures it out. (Worse, gender is an infamously multifaceted concept. In this post, I’ll disregard gender expression and stick to gender identity, for simplicity’s sake.) If you know of a study that conclusively proves one side or the other right, please share it, but until then, I’m staying on the uncertain middle ground. I don’t think gender is either entirely biological or entirely social, but I can’t confidently say it’s a mix, either.
However, I do sympathize with the “entirely social” camp. People who claim that gender has little basis in biology usually do so with a political motive, one that I support: to challenge societal perceptions of gender. “If gender is a social construct, we can change it,” they say. I’m all for challenging societal perceptions of gender, for two main reasons:
- Humanity should never stop reevaluating itself. Then we wouldn’t do our uniquely self-aware brains justice. Gender should be consistently analyzed and challenged, just like emotion, ethics, language, art, and everything else that defines our beautiful species. Develop definitions is what we’ve always done, and of course gender should have a place in that process, in humanity’s vast philosophical enterprise.
- Our current perceptions of gender do terrible damage. I recently said that I think gender roles can be a lot of fun, and I meant that – I like it when I feel like a manly man (every other month or so), and I’m attracted to women who I perceive as traditionally womanly. But that’s me. There are so many people in the world who don’t share my comfort. They’re smothered by gender roles, restricted by the public’s idea of what gender entails. It’s not uncommon for this type of discomfort to lead to mental illness, or even suicide. Challenging society’s view of gender is a good way to help. Let’s offer non-conforming role models in entertainment, do research on what it means to be transgender, and listen to non-binary people when they say they’re non-binary. (Oh, and while we’re at it, sex should probably also be reevaluated.) I stand by my philosophical first reason, but really, this ethical second reason is reason enough. No one should live in misery because of gender.
This is why my sympathies tend to lie with those who consider gender a social construct. They’re usually the ones who encourage the conceptual development of gender. They’re the ones who fight to include the excluded. I’m on their side, no question. But I don’t have enough evidence to firmly believe them. I’m not convinced that gender has no basis in biology. That uncertainty used to effect severe cognitive dissonance in my SJW mind. How can I stand behind those who challenge gender, if I can’t be sure gender isn’t biological?
But then I realized how unnecessary my inner conflict was. The fact of the matter is that gender can be challenged no matter what it is. It can be challenged as a biological feature of our species. It can be challenged as a social construct. It can be challenged as a bit of both. No matter what you believe gender is made of, no matter the ratio of its ingredients, you’re free to question it.
Throughout our existence, us humans have challenged both our bodies and our minds. The mind part is obvious. From the get-go, we’ve sought to eclipse our understanding of our own psyches, and we can claim ample success in that endeavor. If gender is a social construct, then it’s a part of our minds and can be easily challenged as such. But we’ve also challenged our view of the body. We used to think disease was punishment from the gods, but we’ve since invented medicine. We used to think we were molded to perfection by an intelligent creator, but we’ve come to notice signs of the unintelligent evolution that really spawned us. We’ve invented clothing, bodybuilding, veganism, prosthetics, hormone therapy – all of them challenging the idea of how the human body should look and what it can do. So, let’s say, hypothetically, that gender is biological, and it exists in our bodies, be it in the physical brain, in the endocrine system, or in the spleen. It’s still not absolved of human scrutiny.
The way us humans view ourselves, our bodies and our minds, has always been malleable. Like modelling clay, we may hold a certain shape for some time, but as thousands of smudged fingerprints let on, we’ve taken thousands of shapes in the past, and we’ll take thousands more in the future. Gender is part of the lump of clay. No matter what realm it inhabits – the physical, or the cultural – it’s malleable too.
Is gender a social construct? Well, the question is fascinating, and should continue to be contemplated by people more studious than me. But perhaps it’s not a question we urgently need to answer. Perhaps I can stay on the uncertain middle ground of the debate (the only place where I feel intellectually honest), and still vigorously support gender studies, queer feminism, and so on. Perhaps we don’t need to call gender a construct in order to challenge it. Oh, and to those of you who, like me, feel comfortable in our current understanding of gender and don’t want things to change too much, don’t worry. Challenge doesn’t necessarily mean replace.