First of all, something that I learned in my cultural anthropology class last semester, is that we humans love to categorize and put labels on things! We seek order to understand the world around us, and one easy way to do that is to create categories and put things in them; simple! But, when it comes to categorizing humans depending on sex and gender, we often make the mistake of either mixing them up, thinking they are the same thing, or not acknowledging that there are more than two categories within each definition.
Sex is a biological and physical distinction of people depending on whether they display female or male features, and gender is the social and cultural norms, values and roles assigned to the female and male sexes. However, there are more than two biological sexes in the world than just female and male (a person can be born with many different combinations of X and Y chromosomes, with various physical implications) which first of all complicates things; and secondly, these roles assigned to the sexes are often polar opposites, as if there were no middle ground: values and roles assigned to men could be for example strong, unemotional and leaders, while for women it would the be opposite; weak, emotional and followers. The distinction between sex and gender is therefore crucial; while sex is a biological definition based on a persons reproductive system (or what sex chromosomes they have), gender is a social and cultural construct, and thus, the roles, norms and values attached to each gender is not fixed to the sex at all, but enforced on us by our society and culture.
These gender roles and norms manifest in the forms of masculinity and femininity, and the distinctions between what is seen as masculine and feminine are very clear. Robert Jensen describes dominant masculinity in the US culture as the assumptions of how real men should be/act: strive for dominance, control and conquest by being aggressive and competitive, and by distancing himself from all things womanly/feminine, whether it be actions, mindset, emotions or material things. Men should strive to be the King of the Hill, the one and only in control and dominating others. Compare this to what Lynn Peril describes the definition of femininity from the WWII era; pink think. Basically, pink think implied that women, (like the pastel color pink), is delicate. Other values of femininity include being soft spoken, always looking out for her man, taking good care of the home and the children, attending to her appearance (wearing pants was unacceptable!) – all of these values implies that a woman’s goal in life was to find a man, get married, have children, stay at home and raise them while the men eared the money – and in order to get a man you’d have to be feminine, because no man would want an un-feminine woman!!
These “basic”, or stereotypical, views of masculinity and femininity are definitely still alive today. I have to say though that I was more conscious about it when I was younger, especially as a teenager when all you really wanted to was to fit in and be normal (which implied that you had to follow the rules of masculinity/femininity), but of course, I still see it today, both among my people I know and as shown in the media. For example, one of my roommates has been talking to this guy on a dating website, but according to her, it’s not going anywhere because this guy hasn’t asked her out yet! Of course, my suggestion was that she asked him out instead of just waiting around, but that was not an option in her mind, not because she wouldn’t mind doing it, but because she thought it was something the guy is supposed to do and that it would sent the wrong impression of her to the guy (being masculine or acting like a guy)… The media is perhaps even more trying to keep these views in place, especially as we say in advertisements, like the different codes of gender displayed. I had never thought much about why women always pose with heads/torso tilted, or standing with a knee bent etc, but after learning about these codes, I am now more aware about it than ever, and I can see it has a effect on us as viewers and consumers. It is naive to think that the constant exposure in the media, like advertisements, TV, movies, games etc enforcing these views of femininity and masculinity won’t affect us in one way or another, but mostly, it’s going to be stereotypical or exaggerated, and thus affecting us in negative ways.
Personally, the way I have struggled with my own femininity has basically been the source (aka ruled) for the way I have lived my life for the past fifteen years or so. Of course, when I was little, people always tried to enforce “pink think” on me. My parents raised me and my one year younger brother pretty much the same, and to make it easier for them, I didn’t get pink clothes or dresses to wear for example, but instead more neutral stuff that my brother could use as well. However, there were others that did try to enforce more feminine stuff onto me. My father’s aunt for example, always gave me tons of super girly dresses and dolls as presents, but the more I was forced to it, the more I disliked it – just because I was forced to it. As a result, when I was younger I hated the color pink and anything “girly”; the girls I knew played with dolls, took riding lessons, sang in the choir, wore dresses to school, had pink backpacks, shoes, dresses, notebooks, pens etc, and so I came to dislike anything connected to them or what they did. It didn’t make my life any easier, because instead of trying to spend time being feminine and conforming to the norms and rules, I did everything in my power to be the opposite, which was also quite the challenge… I never tried to be masculine or try to fit into the boy’s world, I just didn’t want to be associate with the girly stuff.. I don’t know if I would consider this as “resistance” to the norms, to me it was more of a personal vendetta, but maybe it made others see masculinity/femininity in a new way, because of the way I refused to conform…
(Originally posted on 2014/10/30 for Melanie Klein’s class blog “Women and Popular Culture”)