There’s been an uptick in discussions about gender theory in the atheoskeptosphere lately, and I’ve noticed a not insignificant number of people throwing around ideas about gender theory in ways that clearly demonstrate they don’t know what they’re talking about. Rather than wading into the specific discussions that have inspired this post, I want to try to clarify some key concepts in gender theory that I have noticed people misusing. For anyone interested, Veronica has written a post addressing how these concepts play out for trans people specifically.
NOTE AND A WARNING: Comments on this thread that are antagonistic rather than conversational and/or that try to bring in the specifics of any particular fight around gender theory will be deleted. This post is about gender theory in the general and is an attempt to clear up misconceptions. If you comment on this post, it better be in the spirit of clarification and scholarly discussion.
I should also note that this post is necessarily a gloss of many of these ideas, and that I am simplifying them in an effort to help clarify. There is, as usual, much more to these ideas than is in this post. But for our purposes, I am really only interested in clearing up misconceptions rather than writing a dissertation. If you want to delve deeper, I have included a list of recommended readings at the end of the post.
Let’s get started.
Essentialism vs. social construction
Often in the atheoskeptosphere, arguments around gender take the form of people fighting over “what is real,” which is usually premised on the unspoken assumption that something which has a material existence is “really real” and something that is socially constructed is “not really real.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of social construction.
What does it mean that something is socially constructed? To say that something is socially constructed means that its existence is dependent upon social relations and the contingent meanings that we create. In other words, we construct it and give it meaning through our social actions. That something is socially constructed does not mean that it is “not real,” but rather that it is depends on social relations for its existence. There are plenty of things that are socially constructed that people consider to be real without questioning it such as money, marriage, national borders, and even language. Similarly, gender (and race and class) are social constructions—their existence arises out of and depends on social relations. So when someone makes the argument that “race is a social construction, it’s not real,” what they are actually saying is race is a social construction and it is not a meaningful biological trait for humans, which carries with it the hidden assumption that only biological traits are real (and, I have to note, saying race isn’t real can do serious damage as it can lead white people think that color-blind racial ideology is appropriate—if race is not real, why do I need to pay attention to it? But race is real, it is a real social category that affects people’s lives in tangible and biological ways).
In contrast with social construction, essentialism is the idea that each thing has a specific trait or set of traits that is required to be able to recognize it as that thing. In other words, there is some essential quality (or qualities) that define the thing itself. Under this rubric, for example, one might argue that marriage is the institutionally (church and/or state) recognized union of one man and one woman, and any other romantic relationship is not a real marriage because it lacks that essential characteristic.
From that example, it is clear that essentialism does not have to be biological. But gender essentialism most often takes the form of biological reductionism; that is, it reduces gender to one or a few essential biological traits. For example, a genetic essentialist view of gender is that a “man” has XY karyotype and a “woman” has XX karyotype. (I am setting aside the issue of the sex/gender distinction, and would encourage people to read up on the biology of sex because it’s not as clear as many people think it is. See recommended readings at end of post for some recommendations). Under this view, gender necessarily arises out of the sexed body; the biologically sexed body is indistinguishable from a person’s gender—they are either considered the same thing or gender is simply an expression of the sexed body. These traits are also usually viewed as immutable, meaning they do not change over time and they cannot be changed—they are “hard wired.” In this perspective, gender has an objective reality outside and regardless of how we make sense of it—thus, a “man” is a man regardless of how a person may identify as long as they have the essential (biological) traits of “man.”
It is no coincidence that many people within the atheoskeptosphere tend toward essentialism. After all, most people in these communities tend to highly value the natural sciences and think of science as a culture-free objective enterprise. Thus, the “soft” social sciences (and the non-scientific humanities) are often viewed as being wishy-washy and far less objective than the natural sciences, and so any theories developed in these disciplines are subject to increased, if not hyper, skepticism.
So we have these two camps that view the world in very different ways. How does this play out with gender? The example I use when teaching this distinction in anthropology courses is “gays in Ancient Greece.” An essentialist would argue that there were gays in Ancient Greece because there have always been men who are attracted to/have sex with other men, and we can see the evidence of these relationships in the archaeological record. Here, “gay” is used as a self-evidently simple word to describe any male-male same-sex relations. A social constructionist, on the other hand, would argue that “gay” is a historically and culturally specific term and that its meaning is not so self-evident; further, the forms of same-sex relationships between male-bodied people in Ancient Greece were not the same as they are in contemporary Euroamerican contexts. Those relationships were based on an active/passive understanding of sex and centered around age and status rather than gender. Thus, under a social constructionist view, there were no “gays” in Ancient Greece even if there were romantic and erotic relations between male-bodied people.
Ian Hacking argues that for people, unlike for (most) things, our categories actually bring into existence that which it names. So, whether or not Pluto is a planet (a socially constructed category) is irrelevant to the fact that there’s a giant ice rock floating around in space. That material thing will be there regardless of how we name it or categorize it. But the same is not true of kinds of people, which come into existence along with the categories we assign them. Thus, “gay” as a kind of person brought into existence with it particular modes of expression, of feeling, of identifying, which were taken up and further reproduced by people. To be “gay” is more than to be a male-bodied person attracted to another male-bodied person, as anyone who has experienced gay culture can tell you.
Performance vs. performativity
Gender, then, is a social construction. It is a way of categorizing people that is dependent upon social relations. But what is this construction based on if not on the material realities of sexually dimorphic bodies? Well, there are a few different ideas, but the one that makes the most sense to me—and the one I see being cited most often—is that gender is a performance. But what does this actually mean?
In her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, feminist theorist Judith Butler laid out the argument that gender is performative. This is quite often misunderstood as saying that gender is like a stage performance—we put on costumes and act out our gendered characteristics on a social stage. But this dramaturgical understanding of performance is not actually what Butler was arguing.
Butler drew on J.L. Austin’s speech act theory and extended it to the analysis of gender. In speech act theory, language is not merely descriptive, but rather language is social and works to help people relate to one another. A performative speech act is an utterance that does what it says, versus a constative utterance, which is descriptive. We might better think of the “perform” part of “performative” here in the sense of “to carry out,” such as to perform a task. Performative utterances are thus not subject to true/false verification in the way constative utterances are because they are actions rather than descriptions.
So, for example, “I’m sorry” is a performative utterance because saying it actually does the act of apologizing. It is not a simple descriptive statement. You can disagree that I actually mean it, or you can reject it, but regardless of those things I have still apologized. On the other hand, if I say “the dog is brown,” that is a descriptive statement and is subject to true/false verification—me saying that does not make the dog brown.
Butler’s argument was that gender is performative in this sense. Gender is something that we do, an action or set of actions that continuously (re)enact, (re)inscribe, (re)produce, resist, reference, etc., the social meanings we attribute to bodies, behaviors, and ideas, rather than something that we are or have deep down inside of us. Gender becomes solidified or consolidated as a sense of self over time and space through our constantly citing/repeating of the social meanings (conventions, ideologies, etc.) associated with gender. In other words, gender is real because we make it real through our discourse—our language and our actions—not because there is some immutable and innate gendered self that we simply express through language and action.
So, what is gender?
Gender happens simultaneously at many levels. At the social level, gender is a socioculturally constructed system of organizing different kinds of bodies. The criteria that are utilized in the construction of such categories are culturally relative—the things that are emphasized as “masculine” or “feminine” or “androgynous” shift across time and space. At the individual level, gender is a socioculturally mediated identity that arises through discursive performances. This sense of self builds and strengthens over time, and for many of us it comes to feel as something natural, something we were born with and discover, rather than as something that has been and continues to be constructed and reconstructed throughout our lives.
To close, I want to make the important note that I am not trying to deny the material existence of bodies, and our biologies certainly play a role in our attractions, desires, physical characteristics, and so on. But those things do not produce gender; rather, as Butler argues, gender helps us make sense and meaning of those things. Thus, it’s not that any particular trait is biologically required for any particular gender, but that for each particular gender we have assigned particular biological traits to have more meaning than others. So there’s nothing about a body with XY karyotype, a penis, testicles that produce sperm, and higher levels of androgens that necessarily and inevitably equals “man” because the grouping of those traits is the result of a particular sociocultural milieu that is not true across time and space. And, in fact, we mostly move through our daily lives not knowing the truth of any of those traits about the other people we encounter. We assume, based on our gendered understandings of bodies, that some kinds of traits mean that all of those traits are present.
So how do we know if a man is really a man? Well, to paraphrase Susan Stryker, a man is one who says he is a man and then does what man means in his particular sociocultural context. I think what is at stake in many arguments against gender identity in the context of transgender lives is that people are contesting what “man” or “woman” actually mean. For many, a performative or constructivist approach to gender feels too flimsy and they want something more solid, more based in “nature” and the material world than it’s all a socially-agreed upon reality. But at the end of the day, that approach is still a social construction (haha, gotcha essentialists!), and such debates are part of the ongoing performative construction of gender.
Ultimately, gender is a complex issue and trying to boil it down to simple facts about one’s body obfuscates this complexity. I would hope that as self-identified critical thinkers, people within the atheoskeptosphere would drop the attempts at simplistic understandings of gender (and sex for that matter) and start making themselves be more comfortable with its complexity.
Here are some excellent resources on gender theory that I highly recommend:
How To Do Things with Words by J.L. Austin
Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach by Suzanne J. Kessler & Wendy McKenna