Theories try to explain phenomena in generic terms, and so when we theorize gender, there is conscious effort to generalize our perceptions of gender. It questions how we get these perceptions, whether these are developed through outside influences or innate in us. It has a purpose, whether to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves for the sake of it, or as a social tool to achieve ends that a particular gender seeks, or to see how the world affects, and is affected by these perceptions. In the process of this understanding, we try to paint a theoretical picture of gender for the world to test. In this paper, I wish to rationalize this gender theorizing, and in doing so, try to explore gender itself.
Gender seems to be a sturdy wall to break apart. Perhaps because our views about it are deeply rooted in our personality and culture, or maybe that society strongly upholds its dictates to gender. It’s a tug-of-war between what a person feels about herself versus what society tells her to be. As beings that need to socialize for existence, we cannot just shrug off these social forces, but as autonomous individuals there is also a need to express one’s desires by exercising freedom just like anyone else deservedly can. And so the hard question is whether what we perceive of gender is our own making, or if it is built into us as we grow and go about in our society. There is a need to evaluate whether our projection of our own selves is naturally what our bodies and minds develop into, or whether this projection is a derivation of what we see from the outside world. Gender is an idea that we succumb to the moment we gain consciousness; it’s the unavoidable interaction of our self with society, and this process does not stop until our death.
For such an idea that influences our early years and thus sits deeply in our consciousness, we cannot help but to form automatic generalizations about gender. That the father provides and the mother cares for, that men are strong and women are weak, that men are leaders and women are followers, are just some of the simplistic views of gender that we stereotype. How can it not, if we see this picture within our families and in the reality depictions of media?
There also has to be caution in the use of the collective us or we; because our general depictions of gender are not universal across the various cultures of the world. I can thus only speak of the culture that I am a part of, and the culture that is the present, because cultures vary in time and in space. Our ancestral mothers in the primitive hunter-gatherer society were just as active as men in hunting for game. And who is to know if there are any tribes out there that view men as inferior to women?
However large or small the differences in gender perspectives across cultures, there must be some line depicting the overall characterization of men or women. At this point, we draw on our natural anatomies. The women’s physical structure makes them physically inferior to men. The sex organs dictate that only opposite sexes can copulate in order to propagate. The female then gives birth and provides a greater amount of contact with the child during breast-feeding and nurturing. In nature, males generally fight over one another for a female so that the weaker males have lesser chances of passing their genes to future generations. This nature’s way of ensuring success of each species can also be observed in humans: strong, muscular, taller, and more attractive males easily find mates. Women’s brain anatomy also makes them naturally more in touch with feelings than men. These biological observations provide basis for such feminine attributes as weak, child-rearing, motherly, caring, sought-after by males, emotional; while masculine attributes are strong, dominating, bread-winner, pursuer, aggressive, unemotional, rational.
Hence our views on gender are credited to some extent when we look at our natural capacities. But as creatures with greater facility for reason and with greater capacities for intelligence and awareness, we cannot fully be compliant with nature’s design as generally seen in other species. The two biological sexes are transmuted into other forms as soon as we seek fairness in relation to what the other gender has or does not have. Equality and freedom are stronger desires than the pleasure to conform to the dictates of mandatory heterosexuality. Therefore we are not prohibited by our natural forms as shown when a man seeks another man for partnership. Women can take just about any form of work as long as her body allows her to, regardless of whether the job is labeled feminine or masculine. Women have started to penetrate the highest positions in governments and industries. More importantly, women’s voices have started to be heard and become powerful, from the old times when they first wanted their votes to be counted in elections, to more recent times when they desire to be the ones elected.
In these developments, we’d notice that men and women are taking on roles that are traditionally not expected of them. Unconventional not because the particular gender is physically unable to carry out the new roles, but because society is not used to seeing them. So then, when gender is questioned, it involves societal issues. That our law prohibits persons of the same sex to marry, that we raise our brows to men who stay at home while their female partners make the living, that we question the capacity of women who run for presidents – these are issues of gender brought about by expectations of the immediate society.
So when a particular gender raises its voice, it has a social purpose. Women do not complain that they are caring and motherly; they complain that their being caring and motherly makes society think that they are creatures that are best relegated only to their families’ homes, or otherwise in positions that use only such attributes. Gays do not complain about their attraction to the opposite sex; they complain that majority of the people who do not share in their feelings think of them as deviants and mentally ill just because their sexual preferences are not in parallel with the ‘normal’ majority. In other words, a sector that raises gender issues seeks to change what society traditionally and normally expects or thinks of them.
It is a worthy cause, because our gender perceptions will always be manifested in every single thing we do. Each of us has gender ideals whether we are aware of it or not, and the collective perception is mirrored in society, thus making a social impact. When story-writers create roles for women on television or movies, the fictional characters will show what the writers think of each character’s gender as they see it. When policy-makers formulate laws for government, traditional thinking of gender roles will be reflected. When advertisements are created, producers will try to emulate the social norm in order to gather as much empathy and connection with the audience as possible. Thinking norms are thus reflected back to the society that nurtured them.
In order to affect change, the gender plaintiff of social change has to get through to as many people as possible. But to do that, the gender’s identity must first be understood. In the feminist movement, this was not hard to come by, but in other movements such as those of homosexuals, the problem is brought about by the varying degrees of understanding from within the proponents themselves. Such is the case of lesbian feminism where there is diversity in the way their gender is to be construed in the political and sexual sense. Contrast this with queer theorists who advocate the absence of identity by one’s sex, almost becoming the antipode of providing a social identity through gender. Therefore the primary challenge becomes even harder to achieve because the very first step towards achieving it is marred with disunity.
The queer movement’s problem lies in the paradox of changing gender-based inequality in a framework that tries to dismantle gender identity. In gender matters, it’s just not enough to define by negation – “our gender is not any of your gender” or ”our gender is not how you define gender” – if we are to understand what about their gender is the culprit of the inequality that they experience. In feminism gender equality is being pursued by acknowledging the differences of gender. There is gender hierarchy as constructed by society, and that is what feminism tries to resolve. In queers, gender is being removed from sexuality, but is this possible, given that our concepts of masculinity and femininity of gender has sexual origins as described earlier? When we see homosexual partners, it is always observable, however subtle, that one takes on the feminine gender while the other, the masculine one. But one would counter that the categorization of masculine versus feminine is exactly what queerness is trying to avoid – that just because one is dominant in the relationship does not mean he is the masculine one. And when a lesbian couple marries, does the one wearing the gown make her the feminine one? There are totalizing tendencies in defining gender especially relegated to the male and the female ideals, and these tendencies still persist in its dismantling.
Putting this issue aside, we move on to ask, is defining gender really that necessary to pursue goals of equality? But if defining gender is problematic as shown previously, are there other ways to approach the main issue by circumventing gender definition? Perhaps we ought not to define, but seek how it is defined: Is gender identity built gradually from within the self as an essential part of each person, or is it a concept built into our own minds by society?
If we reject the idea that gender is a socially constructed concept, do we acknowledge that society and media has nothing, if not little, to do with it? But if we embrace it, will a child ever get to know what is masculine or feminine, if society’s messages are shun from her development? It seems implausible to completely give credit to one versus the other; therefore it’s necessary to see gender construction holistically – not just a product of society but also as inwardly seen by each person. When seen this way, we do not give full credit to society as the sole cause of our gender ideals because it assumes that each person has the freedom and will to absorb or reject social messages as can be afforded by his reason. In turn, we acknowledge the possibility that the dictates of culture can be changed by the awareness, sensitivity, and action of each individual.
Moreover, it is also important to discover the extent of how gender is applied to other aspects of culture, particularly the affixation to political and post-colonial discourse. Because equality seems to be the forefront of gender discourse, it seems that any form of oppression and repression or the exercise of and succumbing to power has gender roots. It would be enlightening to see if delving on society as patriarchal or if regarding colonization as a conscious masculine effort can help us improve our government or help us move on from the restrictive effects of colonialism. How homophobic or anti-feminist is our society, really? Or are we just too obsessed with the masculine and feminine ideals and blowing these conflicts to greater proportions? Therefore it’s worth challenging the gender-centric attention to social inequality. Perhaps the thesis of queer theory is oriented toward this purpose – that by alienating gender from sexuality, we’d be able to shake traditional thinking to the core in order to affect radical changes toward equality.
It’s clear from the various discourses that gender construction and depiction of society play great roles, and that’s what makes gender theorizing a rational social effort, but let it also be emphasized that gender theories exist only to aid us in making sense of the greater dynamics of society, not as the backbone yardstick upon which anything unequal in this world is to be based upon. Gender is such a difficult idea to put a leash on due to the diversity, scope, and fluidity of the human psyche which is even more elusive at the societal perspective.