It has been a staggering few years of change when it comes to sex, gender, and all associated issues. Ideas and ideologies that were flitting around in academic circles have gained traction and action out in mainstream society, causing larges swathes of confusion as more traditional ideas clash with the new.
I, for one, have watched these changes with a sort of bemused confusion. It is clearly evident, to me, that there are some astoundingly ridiculous and non-sensical assertions being bandied about, and I do not understand how their proponents cannot see them. Is it a case of the Emperor’s new Clothes? I thought so, at first; I assume that the ideas were so palpably thin and silly that, eventually, they would be exposed as just that. However, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, it would seem that there is more fervent belief in these ideas than ever.
I think that a part of the problem is that many people do not choose to think deeply about what they believe. They are taught something and accept that it must be reasonable to hold that view. But this is not the case at all; it’s quite often the case that, if we drill down to the fundamental principles of an idea, we find absolutely no grounds to accept it. We find nothing but smoke and mirrors.
This is the case with much of Gender Theory.
What is “Gender”?
“Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.” — WHO.com
“Gender tends to denote the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society.” — MedicalNewsToday.com
Definitions like this abound. But while you may accept them (and they may even be true, to an extent), do you ever wonder where ‘gender’ comes from? I mean: do you wonder how we understand or analyse these ‘socially constructed’ roles? How do we learn about them? How do we track them?
This is important, because understanding how we discover these characteristics is critical to following the logical progression through to its conclusion. So bear with me.
‘Gender’ is something that we understand by studying groups of people. It’s a measurement of a trend, or a tendency, that is shared by a group of people. But the critical distinction here is that this trend, or tendency, is NOT universal, nor is it required, nor is it even necessarily prevalent. The trend is often only visible in contrast to the trend, or tendency, in another group of people.
The easiest and most intuitive way to understand this is to think of height. If you measure the female population’s height, you will end up with a graph called a bell curve. Because, well, it’s shaped like a bell. The middle section (what we might call the ‘normal’ range) is where the majority of people land (think 95%). The outside edges contain very few people — the ‘outliers’ — who are not typical (in that they do not share their height with many others), but who are still a part of the overall range of experience within humans.
This is all fairly intuitive. Obviously there are less females at 6'7" than there are at 5'8", but all ranges are part of the experience. We would say that the 6'7" tall female is not ‘normal’ or ‘typical’, since that height is quite rare among females, but as an outlier she still falls under the bell curve: all people within the group do.
However, while the range of all individuals is broad and diverse, we could still make some truthful statements about the height of women, as a group. We could say that women typically range in height from 4'11"to 5'11". We could say that women tend to be around 5-and-a-half feet tall. These are, clearly, generalizations; an individual woman can be ANY height under the curve; but these statements are still truthful, and can prove useful.
Where things get more interesting is when we compare this bell curve to another. This allows us to make even more generalizations. As per below, we can see that male and female height tends to be similar, but that males tend to be taller than females, and that most males are taller than the majority of females.
You may notice that I am using qualifiers. Most. Tend to. Typically. This is because, even though we can make some truthful observations using this information, there are some things which we can not say. We can not say that all men are taller than women. We cannot say that 5'0" is an exclusively female height. We cannot say that a person who is 6'5" is, by default, a male.
In bell curves like this, there is overlap. Even if the majority of the curves do not overlap, the full range for BOTH curves is practically identical: there are men and women at both the extreme left, and the extreme right. Which means that, while we can identify trends and tendencies, we cannot identify or exclude any particular individual from one group or the other based on their position on the graph.
And so it is with gender. Because measuring trends in gender is exactly the same process: we can separate two groups (males and females) and find trends or tendencies in preference, behaviour, or personality between both groups. For example: we might find that females tend to be more empathetic, and males tend to be more aggressive. Or that Females tend to prefer working with people (face-to-face), while males tend to prefer working with things (side-by-side). Females generally have longer hair and males generally engage in more insulting banter. The list of traits goes on and on. And so these trends inform ‘gender’ for our culture, and we end up with a list of traits or qualities that are seen as typically feminine and typically masculine. These traits represent the uneven distribution of the bell curves: the ways in which the graphs do not overlap perfectly.
So now you know what Gender is. It is the amalgamation of all the trends or tendencies for one group (male or female) to behave. Some of these differences will be biologically rooted, and others will be completely cultural, but just which ones and how much is a different discussion altogether — and that is irrelevant to the point at hand. Whether you agree that these traits should exist or not is irrelevant in this discussion; all we need to worry about, for now, is understanding how the measurement of a group of people will give us some truthful information about how that group differs, as a whole, from another group. Where the tendency is higher in a group of females, we call that a feminine trait; and where the tendency is higher in males, we call that a masculine trait.
When people speak of gender, this is what they are referring to: the many areas in which males differ from females (in preferences, personalities, etc.) when they are measured as groups. Often these qualities/traits are reflected in the norms of society at large (ie: the expectation that females will raise the kids), and they may even be imaginary (ie: measuring preference for pink vs blue does not have any correlation with males or females — their graphs overlap perfectly), but the critical thing to remember is that we are measuring the overall trends of the entire group. Nothing more.
Where it all goes Haywire
And so gender makes sense. We can make some accurate claims about males and females when we measure them in groups. Some of those claims of difference will be false, as the two bell curves are actually identical, and the cause of others is contested (social vs. biological). Whether the curves are identical, or mostly overlap, is irrelevant for now. Whether the typically feminine or masculine traits are biologically true, or social constructs, is irrelevant for now.
Where everything goes wrong is not about the truthfulness of gender traits in society; it is in how proponents of gender theory try to reverse-engineer individual identity out of our measurement/beliefs on group trends.
Going back to the example of height, we can see that there are many individuals who would fall more closely in line with the ‘typical’ height of the opposite sex. There are a large number of males (the blue shaded area) who are what we might call ‘female’ height. My wife, at 5'10" (178cm), has a ‘male’ height.
And herein lies the problem with trying to use group measurement to identify an individual. We all understand that it is patently ridiculous to claim that 5'10" is a male height, as though males have exclusive claim to it. While we can understand that 5'10" is — factually and truthfully — a typically male height, we cannot take that fact and claim that someone with a typically male height is, in fact, male. The overlap of the two bell curves prevents this assertion.
Gender works the same way. Males might be more typically aggressive than females. We may call aggression a masculine trait. This may be an accurate portrayal of gender in our society. But to claim that anyone who is aggressive is male is a ridiculous assertion.
This is why stereotyping is wrong: not just morally, but factually wrong. To make the claim that females are typically nurturing, empathetic, gentle, supportive, and creative might be an accurate claim. It might accurately represent the tendency of women to behave, as a group.
But to reverse this, and to claim that an individual who is nurturing, empathetic, gentle, supportive, and creative is, therefore, a female… well, this is just plain nonsense. It ignores the fact that all of these qualities overlap hugely (even moreso than height) with the male population.
It is impossible to take the trends of a group and to apply them to the individual, as long as there is overlap between groups. This makes no rational sense, and is not helpful. If you are not prepared to declare that an individual who is 5'10" is, as determined by that trait, a man, then you cannot do the same with preferences, personality, or any other overlapping trait.
Gender Identity Crumbles
Despite the ridiculousness of the above method, this is exactly — EXACTLY — the foundation for many of notions of gender theory. There is no getting away from it; it’s all based on these faulty ideas of reverse-engineering the trends found within groups and using them to label the individual.
Gender Identity is the most obvious cuplrit. Called the ‘personal sense of one’s own gender’ it is, by definition, the invidual’s useing of these trends and tendencies in order to identify him/herself.
Since gender is a social construct and not an individual one, I cannot have an individual sense of gender without FIRST having some sense of what ‘genders’ are in the first place: without being informed by those social norms. in other words, I cannot declare ‘I am a man’ without first having some concept of what a man is. It is my personal acceptance of/understanding of/association with the tendencies of one sex or group: I am laying claim to that group’s trends.
Gender Identity is the individual accepting a premise like: if females tend to be (nurturing, empathetic, gentle, supportive, and creative), and I feel (nurturing, empathetic, gentle, supportive, and creative), then I, too, must be a female. Replace the section within the brackets with any trait/quality/list of preferences that you like; it’s all the same kind of assertion.
This is, quite clearly, preposterous. Not all females are anything, in spite of the fact that females (as a group) may have tendencies. We know this, because we can measure or observe any group of females of sufficient number and see all kinds of un-feminine behaviours and traits within. There are plenty of females who are (insert list of masculine qualities here), and plenty of males who are (insert list of feminine qualities here). To claim that the entire group is defined by any particular trait is foolhardy at best, and sexist and regressive at worst. But this is only the first issue with gender identity.
Now, I have been using the words male and female, quite intentionally. I have been avoiding ‘man’ and ‘woman’ because I need to address the way that these words are used. These words used to be synonymous with adult male and adult female. I recognize that many people now use them to mean something like the following: ‘women’ (or men) are concepts that are nothing more than the collection of gender norms and qualities that our culture associates with femininity/womanhood (or masculinity/manhood). In which case, a ‘woman’ is someone who associates with/identifies with/prefers/aligns with those woman-specific gender norms and qualities.
On the surface, this seems well and good. But think — even for a moment — and immediately we run into problems.
Firstly, this belief relies on giving the stereotypes a weight that they do not hold. It relies on a caricature, rather than reality. If I am to claim that a man is someone who associates with masculine qualities, then I am saying that those qualities are the purview and domain of men, and men alone (or at least that men get first dibs). I am accepting the premise that an individual who is 5'10" is a man. Or that a person who likes to BBQ is a man. By definition. I am literally making, and accepting, the claim that a man, by definition, is nothing more than the stereotype of masculinity.
How could it be otherwise? I am excluding from my definition any person who is nurturing and caring and empathetic, or who has long hair, or who is 5'5", or who has any qualities that are outside of the trend, or tendency, or stereotype. Remember my definition: a man is someone who associates with/identifies with/prefers/aligns with those specific gender norms and qualities. So anyone who falls outside of those stereotypes is, by definition, not a man.
This excludes… well, just about everyone. Any man who is empathetic, or not aggressive, or not hairy, or not a fully typical masculine caricature is excluded. And the same goes for women who do not fall into the caricature/stereotype. The other alternative is to define the stereotype so broadly as to render the words themselves as meaningless: a man is anything and everything. Clearly, no one uses to word in this way. What would be the point, if the word could mean anything I wanted it to?
This brings us to our second issue: Gender Identity is subjective, which renders it meaningless.
If the definition of a man/woman relies on the identification with/alignment with gender norms/tends/stereotypes, then it is impossible for any two individuals to have the same — or even a similar — understanding of their own gender. Even within the same culture, our personal understanding of gender is going to be terribly disparate; where one individual may associate masculinity with violence, manipulation, lying, and cruelty, another may think of the typically masculine as timid, soft, goofy, and harmless. This is as obvious as thinking about the TV that we watch: is the vindictive lawyer/CEO masculine, or is the affable sitcom husband masculine?
And so an individual who claims to identify as a man is, in fact, identifying solely with his own version of the masculine. There is nothing to ensure that his own version is the same — or even close — to the version of the masculine that the next fellow aligns with. Taking into account the huge range of experiences and interpretations of individuals, and we can quickly see that the word ‘man’, defined subjectively this way, can mean anything and everything. Get enough individuals in a room and have them write down what traits describe a man, and you will get all the traits that there are. The word ‘man’, used this way, means nothing less than ‘person’ or ‘human’. But we already have those words… and so we end up with a definition, and a word, that is useless.
In both cases, we are ill-served. The definition of gender either becomes a shallow caricature, based completely on ridiculous shared cultural stereotypes, or it becomes an expression of individual interpretation which can be shared with, and understood by, no one. In both cases, the very concept of individual Gender Identity falls apart.
In the end, we must go back. When you have taken the wrong road, it is the person who turns around first that is making the most progress.
Gender, as a concept, is meaningful. Exploring the trends in groups can help us understand more about each other, more about our culture, and more about what drives us. But we need to understand the limitations.
We used to believe that gender defined us — or that it should. We used to believe that our sex determined our gender role; that the tendency for women to want to raise children meant that all women ought to be raising children, and that this quality defined women. We did not understand that two things can (and must!) be true at once; that a group can have a tendency to act in a certain way and that’s okay, while at the same time allowing for individuals within that group to buck the trend and find their own paths.
We are now heading down that path again, and it’s not pretty. It is resulting in abhorrent behaviours, like telling our children that if they like a certain thing, that this ‘makes’ them a boy or a girl. It is causing us to demand that individuals fit a pre-ordained mould, rather than allowing them the freedom to exist in a way that is unique and requires no change. It is placing the expectation on many thousands of (particularly young) people that they must change their physical appearance/bodies in order to align themselves with their (or society’s) preconceptions, rather than celebrating their differences and beauty as they are.
We need to get back to defining gender as we understood it for a brief time in the late 20th century. As the exploration of group trends, within which there is a wonderful and wide array of acceptable diversity. It’s the only coherent way forward.
It’s time to walk away from the nonsense.