Show me yours - I show you mine? About the social construction of gender

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004
25 Pages, Grade: 14 Punkte

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Structure
1.2 Aim

2 Theoretical approach
2.1 Distinction between sex, gender and gender role
2.1.1 Sex
2.1.2 Gender
2.1.3 Gender role
2.1.4 Gender identity
2.2 Gender as a social construction
2.2.1 Survival of the fittest – evolutionary explanations
2.2.2 Social learning processes
2.2.3 Cognitive-developmental theory
2.2.4 Interim findings
2.2.5 Why study transsexuals and transvestites?
2.2.6 Looking behind the wings

3 Summary

4 Bibliography
4.1 Primary Literature
4.2 Secondary Literature
4.2.1 Books
4.2.2 Articles
4.2.3 Internet Sources
4.3 Other sources

“We have dual powers within each of us. Men could be very female and women can be very male. Gender is an illusion.”[1]

1 Introduction

How does one know whether a person is a male or a female? In most cases we do not ask for a demonstration of his or her sex explicitly. As a consequence, there has to be secondary evidence for gender, such as physique, clothing, and behaviour. In our society, there is a firm belief that because there are only two sexes, there are only two genders as well. Moreover, we believe in gender roles – an extended set of gender norms, which governs the role and conduct of men and women in all areas of social life. These norms have been built upon a biologically based sexual dimorphism. All societies have in common strong forms of divergent gender appropriate conduct – but such forms vary enormously across different societies, and across different periods of their histories (Davenport 1976)[2].

However, fundamental differences of behaviour and ability, which are determined by biological sexual dimorphism, seem to be very limited (Maccoby & Jacklin 1974)[3] and most social roles are not absolute (Tully 1992) – but nevertheless the members of a sex-group seem to have to act according to their biological sex to fit into this binary system we nourish in our society as well as in our minds. Usually, gender is such a familiar part of daily life that it takes a deliberate disruption of our expectations of how women and men are supposed to act to pay attention to how it is produced (Lorber 1994). The belief is tempting that gender, like sex, is bred into our genes – and for most people it is hard to believe that gender is a constant process of creating and re-creating gender roles out of human interaction and social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a product of our society – a human construct – and it depends on everyone permanently “doing gender” (West & Zimmermann 1987)[4].

We work with expectations and prejudices all the time when interacting with people – in fact, we have already judged (and misjudged) them the second we lay our eyes on them. Gender is one of the big markers in society (beside race or religion) – a means to put people into one of two categories without even having to think. It cannot be denied that it works out most of the time – but one has to be aware that by categorizing people one ignores the fact that this binary system is rather a social construct than an unchangeable fact given by nature. Gender is just another prejudice.

So what is to be done if somebody’s gender does not fit like a glove? The close-up of each individual confirms that gender is a variety of different shades of grey and not just black and white as we readily tend to believe.

1.1 Structure

In the main part (chapter 2) of this paper, I will dwell on the theoretical basis of my work, i.e., give definitions of important terms and introduce in general various theories that approach gender as a social construction.

Later on, I will analyse how the protagonists of two novels, Martin (Tremain, Sacred Country) and Joss (Kay, Trumpet) – both characters who suffer from what is scientifically called Gender Identity Disorder (GID) – construct their gender.

GID is characterized by a persistent and determined wish to be the opposite gender coupled with an intense dislike of one’s own gender (which is especially true for Mary/Martin). Despite both novels describing the life story of female to male transsexuals, it is boys with the syndrome who are referred for clinical evaluation far more frequently than girls by a ratio of approximately 5 to 1 (Zucker & Green 1992)[5]. The onset of Gender Identity Disorder almost invariably occurs during the ages of 2 to 4 (Coats/Wolfe 1995).

In Sacred Country and Trumpet the protagonists deconstruct the gender they were born into. Feeling that they are of the wrong sex, they construct a gender identity of the opposite sex.

Important questions to be analyzed are: How is gender constructed? The most important question is: Is there any evidence in the novels that shows that gender is a social construction at all?

It goes beyond the scope of a term paper to analyse social structures as a whole. But since each member of a cultural group (i.e., society) represents as a micro-cosm in himself or herself values and beliefs which are shaped by his or her social environment, an analysis of the means used by a single person to construct gender identity could also be regarded as an analysis of the means used by society to construct gender. The vital issue of this paper is: Does the theoretical thesis as introduced turn out to be true in the novels?

1.2 Aim

The focus of this paper is on giving a theoretical guideline, which enables the reader to understand the different layers of gender construction in our society. It is meant to be a basis for further discussion of the topic. The exemplary scenes – which deal with Tremain’s Sacred Country and Kay’s Trumpet – are kept short and serve as an illustration and elaboration of the theoretical approaches rather than being a polished analysis of the two novels.

I decided to put the emphasis on the theoretical background because I wanted to show how gender is constructed in reality. Since the hypothesis that gender is a social construct can be compared with a melting pot of various theories with evidence in support of and against, one has to be aware of these approaches to make one’s argumentation rock solid.

2 Theoretical approach

The following chapter builds up a theoretical background to the topic of my paper: the social construction of gender. At first, I will define the terms that are essential for a discussion of the ambivalent character of the issue; secondly, different theories that try to give an explanation of the fact that a biological category as sex became such a strong social force like gender are introduced.

2.1 Distinction between sex, gender and gender role

First of all, in order to enable the reader to understand the course of my argumentation, it is important to define the core terms I am using in this paper. The following chapter discusses Stoller’s (1968) definitions of sex, gender, gender role and gender identity.

2.1.1 Sex

The definition of sex is – in accordance with Stoller (1968) – strictly restricted to biological aspects. It refers “to the male or the female sex and the component biological parts that determine whether one is a male or a female”, i.e. external and internal genitalia, secondary sex characteristics and hormonal states.

Sex is regarded as the material basis for gender dichotomy. Through transformation by culture and social practices sex becomes something on which constraints are placed and which has qualitatively different patterns (Lorber 1994). Therefore, with gender and sex it is not six of one and half a dozen of the other as people usually tend to think. Gender is supposed to be a social construction and does not result from the mere existence of male or female genitalia and reproductive organs. Judith Lorber (1994) states that physiological differences such as sex, stage of development, colour of skin, and size are crude markers in the construction of social statuses. She further points out that they are not the source of the social statuses of gender, age grade, and race. Social statuses are carefully constructed through prescribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation, and enforcement.

How far social enforcement in particular can go is shown impressively by Tremain in the scene in which Sonny forces his transsexual daughter Mary (who – wanting to hide any evidence of her femaleness – bandages her breasts) to expose her breasts in order to make her realize what she really is:

Sonny […] crooked his left arm round Mary’s neck and pinioned her against his chest. With his right hand he pulled off her school tie and opened her shirt. […] The crepe bandages were exposed. […] Sonny cut into the wad of bandage in the cleft between Mary’s breasts. […] When he’d cut through the wedge of bandage, he pulled back her shirt. He held her breasts in his hands. He pushed them up, showing them to her. He said: ‘Look at them. Go on. You look at them!’ She had her eyes closed. The tears came out and ran down her face and fell onto Sonny’s hands. […] Sonny kicked her thigh. ‘You’re an abomination,’ he said. ‘That’s what you are.’ (Tremain, pp.117/118)

Susan Coats and Sabrina Wolfe (1995) claim that the symptoms of GID are almost always encouraged by parents.

2.1.2 Gender

In contrast to sex, gender “is a term that has psychological or cultural rather than biological connotations” (Stoller 1968). This means that gender is not necessarily linked with a person’s sex. Goffmann (1977) defines gender as a complex which every society elaborated upon the sex classes. “In all societies, initial sex-class placement stands at the beginning […] persons who are sorted into the male class and persons who are sorted into the other[6] are given different treatment, acquire different experience, enjoy and suffer different expectations […].”

In our culture, we often use gender and sex synonymously. Most people in Western society do not question gender dichotomy. The gender statuses masculine and feminine are supposed to mirror the sex statuses male and female. This questionable belief in a mimetic relation between gender and sex – whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it (Butler 1990) – has to be revealed and put up for discussion. Are there really only two genders?

If we have a look at different cultures, we see that some societies know three gender statuses – woman, man, and berdache (I will return to this issue in chapter 2.1.3). And there are others where gender is rather defined by the fulfilment of a gender role than by sex. If a person is able to fulfil a socially prescribed gender role he or she changes gender status and is regarded and treated as masculine or feminine – even if he or she belongs to the opposite sex.

A similar case is shown by Kay in Trumpet. Josephine More, a transsexual who did not go so far as to have a sex-change surgery and biologically still is a woman, becomes Joss Moody – a man – by ‘simply’ dressing and behaving like one. The most prominent feature of Joss is that he himself does not define his masculinity by getting rid of all the female parts with which he was born but by taking on the masculine way of life: He is a trumpet player in a jazz band (which was quite rare at the time the novel is set), gets married to Millicent MacFarlane (a heterosexual woman) and is the father of Colman (the son the couple adopted). In the most telling scene (and in retrospective the most irritating one as well), Kay describes an argument the couple has over their child’s name:

Joss and I nearly divorced when it came to naming Colman. Joss wanted Miles; I wanted Campbell. Joss wanted Louis; I wanted Alastair. Joss wanted a jazz or a blues name. What about Jelly Roll, I laughed. I was bent over double: Pee Wee. Joss slapped me across my face. ‘That’s enough,’ he said. ‘White people always laugh at black names.’ I rubbed my cheek. I could not believe it. I just gave him a look until I saw the first bloom of shame appear on his face. (Kay, p.5)

Kay has not yet revealed that Joss is biologically a woman. This very ‘masculine’ way of treating a woman might be expected from a man but it definitely is not expected from a woman. Having the scene in mind, the revelation of Joss’ ‘true’ identity changes the reader’s judgment of the incident. However, Joss’ blushing remains ambiguous. Since he is described as a person who does not even tell his son about the femaleness of his body (because he is a man through and through and does not even see the need for any confessions) it is as plausible that he simply blushes because he as a man treated his wife wrongly as that he suddenly becomes aware that he just adopted a masculine trait of behaviour that is not an acceptable way for a born woman in which to behave against another woman.

Even more intriguing and without need for further comment is Tremain’s raping scene:

It wasn’t surprising then – not to me – that when she told me about Timmy I flung a lamp at her and then a book ant the vase of cornflowers and all my invalid’s pillows. And then I flung another much more terrible thing: I flung myself. The lamp knocked Pearl over and she fell onto the floor. […] She tried to get up. She kept saying: ‘Don’t, Martin! Don’t!’ but I told her to shut up. I said I didn’t want to hear any words from her mouth ever again unless they were words of love for me. I knelt over her. Using all my strength, I took her thin wrists in my hands and pinned them down behind her head, among the pieces of broken glass. […] I opened my mouth and put it on Pearl’s. She tried to twist her head away from me but where her head moved, mine followed. My head is as heavy as stone. […] I kissed her. I put my tongue into her mouth and sucked all her sweetness. I drank her. […] She was weeping. Her face was hot with sorrow. (Tremain, p.311)

In our modern Western society, in addition to the two gender statuses man and woman, there exists the ‘status’ transvestite – referring to a person who dresses in opposite-gender clothes – and transsexual – referring to a person who has had sex-change surgery (Lorber 1994). Even if transvestites and transsexuals are not institutionalized as a third gender, they are the nearest equivalent to it. Even until the middle of the 20th century, transvestites and transsexuals were regarded as people who suffered from some kind of illness. Stoller (1968) refers to them as “abnormal cases”. The question is: Are they really abnormal, or is it our binary system that knows nothing but black and white?

Transvestites and transsexuals make us aware of the fact that gender is independent from a given sex. What’s more, they reveal – by constructing their gender status in the (socially prescribed) way they dress, speak, walk, and gesture – that gender itself is a social construct (Lorber 1994). As any ‘normal’ person who tries to make a given sex-category visible, they behave in the way expected of men or women in order to be accepted as a member of feminine or masculine gender.

Both transsexuals in the novels begin to construct their new gender identity by changing their names. Josephine More becomes Joss Moody; Mary Ward becomes Mary Martin and finally Martin Ward. Both dress and behave in the way prescribed for men – and are accepted as men.

2.1.3 Gender role

“Gender role is the overt behavior one displays in society, the role which he plays, especially with other people, to establish his position with them insofar as his and their evaluation of his gender is concerned.” (Stoller 1968)

In the course of our lives, we are greatly influenced by factors such as the jobs we choose or our friends and by the attitudes and values we represent. Such choices are very much influenced by gender roles. The term gender role describes ways of behaving that are socially prescribed for males and females in a culture at any point in its history (Turner 1995).

In our modern industrial society, biological sex functions as the basis of a fundamental code in accordance with which social interactions and social structures – or gender roles – are built up. To a different amount, this is true for all other societies as well (Goffmann 1977). These gender role structures are not absolute; they are different in each society and are constantly changing. The following example illustrates the ambiguity of the subject: Nowadays, the majority of British secretaries are female – a fact that is commonly accepted; just as it is accepted that most soldiers are male. A century ago, however, the work done by today’s secretaries was mostly performed by male clerks. And in some cultures women go into battle. Similarly, in Europe many waiters are male; in the UK – with the exception of choice hotels – they are predominantly female, and in Japan men never wait on table (Turner 1995). In times of war, women took on all the work usually done by men; just as men fulfil tasks ascribed to feminine gender role in mainly male social environment such as the army. They cook, wash, and clean – tasks usually prescribed to belong to the female gender role. Evidently, gender roles are not unchangeable. If this is the case, how is it possible that these roles are such a strong and persistent force in our society that they even become destiny for most of its members?

The key question with regard to theories that attempt to explain social and personality development is how gender roles developed in the first place. Is there a biological or social basis for the division into feminine and masculine gender roles? The so-called nature/nurture controversy is a dispute between those who argue that all human skills and attributes are inborn[7] – which is the ‘nature’ argument – and those who believe that they are learned[8] – the ‘nurture’ argument (Turner 1995).

Today’s research on gender-role development influences and is influenced by popular debates about gender roles – for example the feminist call for equal rights for men and women.

Gender codes also establish the conceptions of individuals with regard to their fundamental human nature (Goffmann 1977). They are the social instrument for not only being a biological male or female but socially becoming one by taking on the role prescribed either for masculine or for feminine gender.

Gender identity is usually based on accepting gender roles by and large. Lorber (1994) points out the major misunderstanding in the discussion about gender: “[…] gender cannot simply be equated with biological and physiological differences between human females and males. The building blocks of gender are socially constructed statuses.” Studies show that humans are more alike than different (Turner 1995) – consequently, biological features are not enough to explain why there is such a vast difference between feminine and masculine gender.

The example of Joss (of whom only his mother and his wife know that he is born as a woman) shows intriguingly how easy one could pass as a man – one just has to make sure that nobody expects one to be a woman. It is just when Joss dies and the ‘truth’ comes out that people realize that his features could pass just as easily as feminine ones as they have passed as masculine ones. In the scene at the undertaker’s, in which Albert Holding embalms Joss, Kay convincingly shows how strong expectation can be in a human mind:

He started to get the body ready for the embalmer. He took off his pyjamas, a rather expensive pair of pyjamas in a cream linen, very trendy for a man of his years. […] The first thing he noticed was that the man’s legs were not hairy. Then Holding noticed that he had rather a lot of pubic hair. A bush. The absence of the penis did not strike him straight away. Perhaps because he was expecting it, he imagined it for a while. When he did notice after a few moments that there was no visible penis, he actually found himself rummaging in the pubic hair just to check that there wasn’t a very, very small one hiding somewhere. […] Underneath the pyjama shirt were several bandages wrapped firmly round the chest. […] And so he began to unravel the whole length of bandage. It was quite a difficult business, because of course Holding couldn’t sit the body up. […] Even though Holding was expecting them, he still gave out a gasp when he saw them. There they were, staring up at him in all innocence – the breasts. […] He didn’t mean to but he happened to glance quickly at the face. It gave him quite a turn. The face had transformed. It looked more round, more womanly. It was without question a woman’s face. How anybody could have ever thought that face male was beyond Albert Holding. How he himself could have thought it male! (Kay, p.110)

In the end, it turns out that expectation builds up the image of a person in our minds. If we have no reason to doubt a person’s membership to one of the two gender categories we usually assume straight away that this person belongs to the category into which we put him at first sight. All feminine features are simply interpreted as masculine ones and the other way round.

The fact that Western societies know only two genders, “man” and “woman”, does not mean that this division is the only one. As a case in point, in some societies three genders exist – men, women, and berdaches or hijras or xaniths. These third gender statuses indicate biologically male persons who behave, dress, work, and are treated in most respects as social women.

In our language, berdache means “male women” (Lorber 1994).

There are some societies – for example African or American Indian tribes – that have a gender status called manly hearted women. These people are biological females who work, marry, and parent as men. Since they fulfil the masculine gender role, their social status is “female men” (Amadiume 1987; Blackwood 1984)[9]. Manly hearted women do not even have to behave or dress like men to achieve the same effect as Western business women who wear suits in order to be taken as seriously as men in business matters. What makes these women men – and what gives them the right to assume the social responsibilities and prerogatives of husbands and fathers – is the fact that they are wealthy enough to buy themselves a wife. “Modern Western societies’ transsexuals and transvestites are the nearest equivalent of these crossover genders, but they are not institutionalized as third genders” (Bolin 1987)[10].

Evidently, genders and gender roles are not of necessity attached to sex. Gender boundaries are not absolute but turn out to be obsolete; since the differences between the genders are socially constructed, all men and women can take on the opposite sex’s behaviour because everyone knows the other’s social script (Lorber 1994).

Gender blenders, gender benders and members of this so-called third gender (i.e. transvestites and transsexuals) show us that what we ordinarily take for granted – namely that people simply are men or women – is not true. People have to learn to be women or men. With their extraordinary power to disrupt, expose, and challenge, crossover genders put into question the very notion of the ‘original’ and of stable identity (Garber 1992)[11] and at the same time provide theorists with immediate evidence of how gender is constructed.

2.1.4 Gender identity

“Gender identity starts with the knowledge and awareness, whether conscious or unconscious, that one belongs to one sex and not the other, though as one develops, gender identity becomes much more complicated, so that, for example, one may sense himself as not only a male but a masculine man or an effeminate man or even a man who fantasises being a woman.” (Stoller 1968).

As soon as an individual is able to perceive himself or herself as a gendered person, this awareness of belonging either to the feminine or masculine gender – this core gender identity (Stoller 1968), which might be developed or modified – usually remains constant throughout life.

Elaborating a gender identity does not only mean bare perception of one’s own gender, it means that each individual learns to be – i.e. behave, speak, walk, gesture as – a feminine or masculine member of his or her social group. He or she adopts prescribed ways of behaviour and at the same time by adopting them is re-constructing gender as a social dimension. Since adopting prescribed gender roles means accepting them one confirms the system whenever one behaves in a ‘gender-appropriate’ way.

2.2 Gender as a social construction

“Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes. Most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of that social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a human production that depends on everyone constantly doing gender” (Lorber 1994).

It is the belief in a mimetic relation (Butler 1990) of gender to sex that tempts us to presume that gender follows a binary system as well. But above all, the most prominent feature of human nature is the fact that we are social beings – and this involves gender dichotomy, too. Therefore, gender – since humans are a weakly dimorphic species, i.e., the genders are more alike than different and tertiary sex characteristics (like behaviour, clothing etc.) are needed to distinguish them (Lorber 1994) – is mainly the result of cultural processes. To put it bluntly: Our binary gender system and its consequences result from social construction (Gildemeister 1992).

Consequently, in order to explain why gendering is done constantly and by everyone from birth, it is necessary to look at gender rather as a social construct than only as the way individuals experience gender (Lorber 1994).

Since the 1970s, theory has approached gender by regarding it not as a biological category anymore but as a socially constructed one, which both nourishes and is nourished by gender beliefs of the members of society.

It is important to understand that gender is a representation and that at the same time this representation is its construction.

Transsexuals as shown in the two novels – since they are not born as men – demonstrate that the masculine gender can be convincingly represented by naming, dressing and behaving in a masculine way. Representation is their way to construct a new gender identity and to make sure they become accepted members of a social group into which they were not born. Joss and Martin do what everybody unconsciously does. Transsexuals are the only ones who make it possible to observe a conscious construction of gender.

Gender is as busily constructed today as it has been in earlier times. Paradoxically, one means to construct gender is its deconstruction – as for example by any discourse (feminist or otherwise), which discards it as an ideological misinterpretation (De Lauretis 1987). One reason in favour of the fact that these discourses are a means of deconstruction is that the vast majority of discourses never even doubts gender’s one predominant feature: In these discourses, gender binary seems to be as honest as the day is long.

When dealing with gender dichotomy, it is important to differentiate between descriptions (‘there are men and women’) and judgments (‘men and women are different, therefore they have to do different things/have to be treated differently’)[12].

2.2.1 Survival of the fittest – evolutionary explanations

One approach to explain the gender differences observed today (for example, in aggressive or care-giving behaviour) is the analysis of our evolutionary history.

The evolutionary theory was mainly influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin looked into the way the characteristics (anatomical, physiological and behavioural) of a species were selected over time to be adapted to the kind of environment in which it lived. The origins of sex differences are assumed to result from the selective pressures which influenced human’s evolutionary history (Turner 1995).

The biological destiny of all living entities in evolutionary terms is successful reproduction – and the requirements for male and female mammals for successful reproduction are not the same. For example, female mammals devote far more time and energy to looking after their young than do males. Males spend a greater part of their time and energy competing for females to mate with, often by fighting with other males. Therefore, one may predict that natural selection will have produced behavioural traits in males and females that differ between the sexes (Turner 1995). However, there is no immediate evidence that different behaviour as observed in today’s mammals really mirrors an early stage of behaviour of the human species. As good and logical modern evolutionary theory may sound, regarding behaviour it is very vague and is rather a hypothesis than an irrefutable fact. One has to remember that the environment of our early ancestors was way different from our current environment; today human behaviour has not necessarily to be adaptive to ensure survival.

Early human society was constituted by and depended on a predictable division of labour, assigned responsibility for children and those members who could not care for themselves, common values and their systematic transmission to new members, legitimate leadership, and symbolic productions such as music, art, stories, games. “One way of choosing people for the different tasks of society is on the basis of their talents, motivations, and competence – their demonstrated achievements. The other way is on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity – ascribed membership in a category of people” (Lorber 1994).

Available evidence indicates that early humans lived in small groups as hunters and gatherers. The division of labour in such groups was probably quite marked, as it is in present-day hunter-gatherer societies. Men were primarily responsible for hunting large animals (which often involved long-distance travel) and for making and using weapons. Women gathered and prepared food, looked after the home and cared for the children. Men and women were under different selection pressures (Turner 1995). A gathering and hunting society’s survival usually depends on the nuts, grubs, and small animals brought in by the women’s foraging trips, but when – once in a blue moon – the men’s hunt is successful, it is the occasion for celebration (Lorber 1994).

Biology became destiny (Butler 1990) – and probably even the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all (Butler 1990)[13].

Evolutionary arguments propose that at least some behavioural differences are linked to genetic preferences of occupation in men and women. This does not mean that sex differences are either inevitable or desirable. To say that behaviour is subject to the influence of natural selection does not mean it is” genetically determined” in the sense of being unmodifiable. Gender-specific behaviour is – despite common belief – not inborn but learned. Nevertheless, it is treated like some kind of genetic ‘defect’, for which there is no cure. Moreover, people do not think that there might be a need for a cure.

2.2.2 Social learning processes

Social learning theory, put forward by Bandura (1977) and Mischel (1970)[14] in particular, proposes that children’s behaviour is shaped by the behaviour of others, especially their parents, and that this includes the acquisition of gender differences in behaviour and attitudes (Turner 1995). This approach is especially important when comparing different cultures. It seems much more convincing that differences – as for example between Saudi Arabia and Germany – come from socialization than from evolution.

There are two important social learning processes: (1) Reinforcement is the process whereby parents and others encourage appropriate behaviour and discourage inappropriate behaviour. (2) Observational learning or modelling refers to the process whereby children observe and imitate the behaviour of others – who are called role models.

As soon as a human is born, socialization begins. Adults make a difference between baby boys and baby girls, for example in the colour and type of clothes. There is also evidence that adults differ in their behaviour towards, and expectations of, infants depending on the sex. As a case in point, in one telling study by Condry and Condry (1976)[15] the sex of a baby was labelled differently (i.e., the same infant was labelled as male or as female) for different adults. People tended to judge the behaviour of the infant and its expressions congruent with sex stereotypes. Adults who saw a child labelled ‘a boy’ displaying an ambiguous response interpreted the response as ‘anger’, while those who saw the same child labelled ‘a girl’ interpreted it as ‘fear’. In this study, the perceived sex of the child (rather than the true sex) was the crucial factor, which demonstrates that adults judge boys and girls differently – quite independently of ‘real’ differences in behaviour (Turner 1995). However, it is difficult to generalize from these studies because they always show only one side of the story. Adults were asked to describe or interact with a newborn or an unfamiliar infant. “Under such circumstances judgements or behaviour may be more stereotyped than parents would show with their own children. If the sex of a baby is the only thing one knows about it, it is likely to have a greater influence on judgements or behaviour than it would if the individual’s characteristics are well-known” (Turner 1995).

Through naming, dress, and the use of gender markers a sex category becomes a gender status. Once a child’s gender is evident, others treat those in one gender differently from those in the other (Lorber 1994). Parents and others reward appropriate behaviour and discourage or disapprove of inappropriate behaviour – a process called reinforcement (Turner 1995). The children respond to the different treatment by feeling and behaving differently.

As soon as they can talk, they start to refer to themselves as members of their gender. Adolescent boys and girls approach and avoid each other in an elaborately scripted and gendered mating dance. Parenting is gendered, with different expectations for mothers and for fathers, and people of different genders work at different kind of jobs. The work adults do as mothers and fathers and as low-level workers and high-level bosses, shapes women’s and men’s life experiences, and these experiences produce different feelings, consciousness, relationships, skills – ways of being what we call feminine or masculine. All of these processes constitute the social construction of gender. (Lorber 1994)

From the very first day, an individual’s whole life-history is constructed upon a foundation whose prominent feature is the polarisation of the sexes. In fact, there is no possibility for anyone to construct a gender identity outside this gender dichotomy (Gildemeister 1992).

For individuals today, the thesis that “biology becomes destiny” has to be re-defined: Nowadays, it is culture that becomes destiny (Butler 1990).

2.2.3 Cognitive-developmental theory

At an early age, children begin to categorize other people on the basis of social dimensions such as familiarity, age and gender. Gender is among the first distinctions that children make when classifying others in their social world and it is crucially important for their developing self-concept (Turner 1995).

Kohlberg (1966; 1969)[16] was one of the godfathers of the cognitive-developmental approach to gender-role development. He regarded the child as an active agent in the socialization process. Cognitive-developmental theory proposes that in the children’s attempt to make sense of the social world, their own attitudes and beliefs about gender roles are of primary importance in guiding their interaction with the environment. Kohlberg argued that it is a child’s growing ability to categorize himself or herself as a boy or a girl which is crucial to subsequent gender-role development. He believed that children are aware of gender-appropriate behaviour because they watch and imitate same-sex models. As a consequence, they engage in activities which, in their opinion, fit to the sex they belong to. For this process – which has been referred to as ‘self-socialization’ – parents, other adults, peers and the media can all serve as models (Turner 1995).

Mary serves as the best example for self-socialization. Her road to becoming a man is paved with stereotypical ideas of how men have to be. These ideas become role models she tries to fulfil, even if they are quite unimportant such as being taller as the woman one adores:

“Mary was trying to grow. Her head barely came up to Lindsey Stevens’s shoulders and she wanted it to reach much higher, to her eyes.” (Tremain, p.95)

2.2.4 Interim findings

We have seen that the various approaches try to find different explanations for the development of gender roles. The evolutionists believe that the prescription of certain ways of behaviour to the sexes which made sure that the species could survive was rather an expression of their preferences than an example of social reinforcement. There might be some truth in this – but the evolutionary approach does not explain why today – in a society where both partners work and earn their living – it is still considered normal that the woman takes care of the young. A man doing the same job is at the same time respected and pitied more than women in the same situation; child caring is not a pattern of the gender role prescribed to men.

With the help of social learning theory, it seems to be possible to explain how gender roles developed and why they are still persistent in society. But this approach disregards the fact that the child itself acts as a socialization agent himself.

Nevertheless, both – cognitive and social learning approaches – have the idea in common that the children become aware (1) of the division existing in society into men and women, that (2) these two categories are characterized by sex-appropriate behaviour and that (3) this division into two different categories is based on biological sex (Turner 1995).

Since all the approaches have their share in the truth but fail to explain all arising questions, it has to be supposed that they are interacting. Evolutionary theory, however, must be considered to be rather obsolete nowadays, and it is not a strong argument in favour of the origin of gender dichotomy in recent discussions on the topic.

2.2.5 Why study transsexuals and transvestites?

Transsexuals and transvestites are capable of convincingly constructing their gender in spite of being born as a member of the opposite sex. If it was true that gender just mirrored sex and consequently had to be inborn, transsexuals would not be capable of constructing gender identity outside their own sex. But if gender was rather socially constructed than governed by a person’s sex it would have to be based on a social script which can be adapted by anybody. Consequently, gender and gender roles can be taught and learned – what’s more, they have to be taught and learned. Transsexuals and transvestites make us aware of the fact that they do what any ‘normal’ person subconsciously does every day of their life: They construct gender by adapting prescribed gender roles to be socially recognized as male or female.

Studies on transsexuals by Kessler and McKenna[17] have shown that genitalia – even if they are not physically existent – can be present in a cultural sense. Once gender is ascribed to a person, this belief is not shaken even if turns out that this person’s genitals contradict this ascription. This shows how hard people try to maintain their original classification.

Basically, the protagonists (i.e. transvestites or transsexuals) are only responsible for the initial categorization – afterwards, practically any response (even sex-change surgery) is interpreted as supporting ascribed classification. The other way round, every response or characteristic might as well be used to discredit the protagonist: “I always knew he wasn’t really a woman – his hands are way too big” (Gildemeister/Wetterer 1992).

Even if transsexuals cause a sensation and seem to cross gender boundaries in their jobs, social relationships, and in cultural productions (such as movies, musicals and novels) with an ease that seems to mock ‘nature’, they do not challenge the social construction of gender. Since their goal is not to establish themselves as a third gender, but to be recognized as feminine women and masculine men (Kando 1973)[18], gender statuses remain. “Those who do not want to change their anatomy but do want to change their behaviour fare less well in establishing their social identity” (Lorber 1994).

Paradoxically, from society’s point of view, bending gender rules and passing between genders rather preserves than erodes gender boundaries. Since others feel that a transvestite is only transitorily ambiguous and is “really a man or a woman underneath” (Lorber 1994), gender dichotomy is not disturbed by transvestites. As far as transsexuals are concerned, gender statuses remain because – after having had sex-change surgery – transsexuals end up as men or women with the appropriate genitals (Eichler 1989)[19].

Studies on transsexuals and transvestites make it possible for sociologists to observe how gender construction really works because these studies prove the evolutionary argument wrong.

2.2.6 Looking behind the wings…

It is important to make binary gender system the subject of critical analysis. As long as people do not understand that gender dichotomy is just constructed by society (i.e., themselves) there will always be the danger that these constructions are constantly re-produced. Recent discourse (such as feminist or other) cannot improve women’s situation if gender is still regarded as a self-evident truth (Gildemeister/Wetterer 1992).

Transsexuals and transvestites are the ones who prove evolutionary theory wrong. With the evidence that gender indeed is a construct one beats the people who discriminate the opposite sex because of gender-role beliefs at their own game.

If gender is regarded radically as a generative pattern which emerges from social processes, re-creates and legitimates them, it is possible to understand that gender is a powerful ideological resource. Gender creates choices and boundaries which only exist because at one point in life one was put into a social category and not because nature made this categorization inevitable (Gildemeister 1992). This might have been a social “best practice” for a long time; however, today it is obsolete because gender typing is (1) a means of discriminating against the members of a society: This concerns not only women but also men. Indeed men are the real victims. Feminine traits in men are much more subject to reinforcement and discrimination than masculine ones in women. Men are so much convinced that gender dichotomy is the one and only reality that most of them do not even feel oppressed. They are born into a world which regards every feminine trait as either a sign of weakness or homosexuality. This assumption is believed among men as well as women and – despite the fact that cultural productions advertise the image of “men who show their feelings” – nobody ever regards ‘normal’ attitudes towards men as sexist. (2) Gender typing restricts personal development (Turner 1995).

3 Summary

Despite the fact that there is some genetic and evolutionary evidence against the hypothesis that gender is a social construction, there is much more evidence in support of it. Therefore, evolutionary theory might be a slight influence; however, it is not the source of gender dichotomy. Gender is constructed by social enforcement and self-socialization, and it is not the result of preferences men and women have because they are biologically or genetically determined. There is no such thing as determination when one talks about gender or gender roles. The members of a society are the ones who construct gender – and they are the ones who are able to change this construction. To be able to make changes, one has to be aware that one has not to accept the way society is structured.

The example of both novels has shown that gender is not unchangeable. It is not even necessary to have a sex-change surgery to pass as man in society. The features of which gender is constructed are called naming, dressing, and behaving in a prescribed way. We have seen that these ways have to be learned by men and women, just as transsexuals have to learn them. And we have seen that these ways are not the same everywhere. Each culture has its own prescriptions for masculine or feminine gender. Some cultures even have more than two genders. These third genders are evidence against gender dichotomy mirroring biological dichotomy and in support of gender being socially constructed.

The answer to the question asked in the introduction is as follows: In the novels there is no evidence at all that gender is not a social construction. Both protagonists construct their gender by making use of markers such as masculine names, masculine dress and behaving – sometimes even negative traits of behaviour – in a way prescribed for and expected of men.

4 Bibliography

4.1 Primary Literature

- Kay, Jackie. Trumpet. New York: Vintage, 2000.
- Tremain, Rose. Sacred Country. London: Vintage, 2002.

4.2 Secondary Literature

4.2.1 Books

- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
- Kunzmann, Peter / Burkard, Franz-Peter / Wiedmann, Franz. dtv-Atlas zur Philosphie. München: dtv, 1991.
- Lorber, Judith. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1994.
- Stoller, Robert J. Sex and Gender. Vol. I: The Development of Masculinity and Feminity. New York: Jason Aronson, 1968.
- Tully, Bryan. Accounting for Transsexualism and Transhomosexuality. London: Whiting & Birch, 1992.
- Turner, Patricia J. Sex, Gender and Identity. Leicester: The British Psychological Society, 1995.

4.2.2 Articles

- Goffman, Erving. “The Arrangement between the Sexes.” Theory and Society 4 (1977): 301-331.
- Coats, Susan / Wolfe, Sabrina. “Gender Identity Disorder in Boys: The Interface of Constitution and Early Experience.” in Psychoanalytic Inquiry. Vol. 15/1. (Edited by Joseph Lichtenberg. New Jersey: The Analytic Press,) 1995. 6-39.
- Gildemeister, Regine. “Die soziale Konstruktion von Geschlechtlichkeit.” Feministische Vernunftkritik: Ansätze und Traditionen. Ed. Ilona Ostner und Klaus Lichtblau. Frankfurt/M. und New York: Campus, 1992. 220-239.
- Gildemeister, Regine / Wetterer, Angelika. „Wie Geschlechter gemacht werden: Die soziale Konstruktion der Zweigeschlechtlichkeit und ihre Reifizierung in der Frauenforschung.“TraditionenBrüche: Entwicklungen feministischer Theorie. Ed. Gudrun-Axeli Knapp und Angelika Wetterer. Freiburg: Kore, 1992. 201-254.

4.2.3 Internet Sources


4.3 Other sources

- Star, Darren. Sex and the City. Season 3, Episode 4. New York: HBO, 2002.


[1] quoted from „Sex and the City“

[2] quoted from Tully (1992)

[3] quoted from Tully (1992)

[4] quoted from Lorber (1994)

[5] quoted from Coats/Wolfe (1995)

[6] This quote does confirm Cixous and Clément (1986) who pointed out that women’s status is “night to his day”. Women’s gender status in today’s society is devaluated, men’s social domination generally accepted, there indeed is only one gender: A and not-A, man and the other (see Goffmann above) – man and wo-man (Lorber 1994).

[7] see chapter 2.2.1 on evolutionary theory

[8] see chapter 2.2.2 on social learning processes

[9] quoted from Lorber (1994)

[10] quoted from Lorber (1994)

[11] quoted from Lorber (1994)

[12] The philosopher David Hume (1711-76) was one of the first who pointed out that one has to differentiate between impressions (descriptions) and ideas (judgments). Whereas impressions are what one can perceive with one’s senses, ideas are abstracted impressions. Impressions and ideas are not linked by cause and effect – but they are often treated as if they were. Truth is, they are linked by expectation: Because one has often observed that A followed B, the idea develops that cause A effects B. Hume said that it is more likely that the true origin and cause of all occurrences are hidden to the human mind.

[13] Judith Butler (1990) puts the thesis up for discussion that “if the immutable character is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be not distinction at all“.

[14] as quoted in Turner (1995)

[15] as quoted in Turner (1995)

[16] quoted from Turner (1995)

[17] quoted from Gildemeister/Wetterer (1992)

[18] quoted from Lorber (1994)

[19] quoted from Lorber (1994)

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Show me yours - I show you mine? About the social construction of gender
Saarland University
(De-)Construction of Gender: Contemporary Perspective
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Show, About, Gender, Contemporary, Perspective
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Andrea Hahnfeld (Author), 2004, Show me yours - I show you mine? About the social construction of gender, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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