Talking Gender by Fernando Amador II
According to philosopher Judith Butler, human beings fit into one of two gender identities: man or woman. While biology dictates whether human beings are born with male or female anatomy, social norms assign the roles of men and women (gender). Thus, gender is a mere social construct and those who do not perfectly fit these identities are often called into question. When an individual’s gender category does not match that of their biological sex, they are perceived as “alien,” and often face ridicule and exclusion. Therefore, this perspective on gender has not only created labels that reinforce specific behaviors, but it has also constructed a unique social paradigm that places men at the pinnacle of power.
Butler states that western societies “call into question” those who do not conform to the defined labels of masculinity and femininity. Why? One answer lies in fear of the “other.” A society tends to alienate anything foreign to its social construct. Therefore, individuals who attempt to reside outside these gender categories are ostracized. If anyone does not acquiesce with their given gender and its norms, society reacts with a degree of confusion and disregard.
The most common way that individuals in the west categorize others is primarily through sight. Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí explains that in Western societies there is no distinction between sex and gender, because social categories have a long history of being embodied. This embodiment of gender has to do with the notion that power can only be seen when exercised. Thus, for a long period in history it became evident that the only recognition of political power occurred when men practiced it. As a result, the responsive behavior displayed towards each gender reinforced gender identity and established stringent social categories for men and women.
The creation of two distinct genders –where men are on top of the social hierarchy– derives uniquely from the Western mind. Archeological and historical evidence displays pre-historic civilizations, such as the Indus-Valley Civilization, practicing matriarchal forms of power and decent. Furthermore, African societies such as that of the Yorùbá, did not rely on gender as a form of identification. Individuals in this society organized themselves first from slaves to rulers, followed by seniority. It was not until the infusion of Western categories that gender identities became “essentialized,” and men were positioned at the top of the political power hierarchy.
Thus, the construction of gender norms creates a power hierarchy that predominantly favors men. Those who are classified as men enjoy access to more political power, while women face certain underlying constraints, such as the notion of the “glass ceiling.” Although there are attempts to resist these embedded social norms, those at the top of the hierarchy continue to maintain the established masculine dominance.
Butler’s quote on the problematic social construct of gender proves valuable in that this construct maintains the western paradigm of power. Society created these labels, and history has reinforced them. Such ideas only impede society by diminishing individualism and maintaining a masculine gendered hegemony.
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