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Gender is a social construct. You can’t get through a liberal arts degree without either saying this, hearing this, or reading this. But what does it actually mean? As a young transgender person, for me that statement meant that gender was a mental phenomenon, something in your brain. Something that was different to sex, which was a physical thing manifested between one’s legs. But as all liberal arts students will be able to tell you: this is a gross oversimplification of the notion that gender is socially constructed.
What if I said gender was socially attributed, instead? This refers to what academic Judith Butler described as the “performativity” of gender. Meaning that regardless of whether or not genders are real and in our possession, we make judgements about people and attribute a gender to them based on recognised (or stereotyped) features. These associations between features and judgements become concretised as people use them. So you may look at someone wearing a dress with long hair and then attribute “woman,” without any regard for what, if any, gender that person attributes to their self.
It sounds weird to say it at first, but it makes sense that when we identify someone as being either a man or a woman we really are making a guess based on a shared cultural understanding of the kinds of things that are said to indicate a particular gender. Gender is typically thought of as something we have or are—as essential to our being. Butler’s reframing says that instead it is something that we are recognisably seen to be doing. This de-essentialised version of gender puts a focus on how individuals are seen as being either men or women as a function of the way they act, how they look, and which genders they claim or self-attribute. Gender attribution and the gender system that supports and organises it were the foci of work by ethnomethodologists Harold Garfinkel, Suzanne Kessler, and Wendy McKenna in the 1960s and 1970s.
Their work is based in ethnomethodology, working to understand how people make meaning of their everyday lives through social practices. Their study works from the basis that many of society’s givens, like gender, are actually skilful, accomplished acts rather than essential elements of the social world. In a study based on the accounts of a transgender woman Agnes, in the 1960s, Garfinkel analysed how she construed gender. Talking with Agnes, he saw she achieved being recognised as a woman by learning recognisably “feminine” traits and skills from her friends. As well as prompts from her partner, who didn’t know she was transgender, on on how a “proper lady” should act. Agnes believed she had always been a woman and needed her body to be corrected.
From conversations with Agnes, Garfinkel claimed that transgender people expose the gender system that everyone unconsciously works under. He concluded that construction of gender consists of two categories (male/man and female/woman) and that sex and gender are conflated; one cannot change between genders. It is assumed the genitals are the primary marker of someone’s gender, and people claiming to be able to transition between genders shouldn’t be taken seriously (it is either a ritual change, as in pantomime, or a symptom of pathology). In short, gender is treated by members of society as natural and essential, thus everyone has to be a member of one gender category.
It’s important to remember that this treatment is not based on any kind of truth, but is how people act as if gender is. These rules explain why the attribution of gender is so fundamental to our social interactions and also why gender diverse and transgender people are so problematic for society. It also explains the existence of the standard “born in the wrong body” discourse. When Agnes claims that she has always been a woman and her body is wrong, she is making the claim that her self-attribution of a gender, which cannot be seen by others, takes precedence over the cues other people have access to (her appearance, presence of a penis, et cetera). Once she has surgery her body will be seen by others as indicative of the essential gender inside herself and people’s attributions of her gender should be more in line with her own self-attributions. This was the view of many transgender women and the establishment that treated them. The body is the primary indicator of and justifier for gender attributions, so it should be correctly adjusted.
Transgender people throughout history have been seen to be corrupting some kind of natural order by messing with gender (look to the bathroom issues in the US, or the Pope likening transgender people to weapons of mass destruction). However, by explaining their gender as inconsistent with their body and changing their body to match, transgender people are not subverting the gender ‘system’, but are upholding it by supporting the link between bodies and gender. This way, transgender people have never changed their gender, they just changed the body to be more indicative of their ‘true’ gender.
The other ethnomethodologists, Kessler and McKenna, go as far to state that transsexuality as a medical diagnostic category exists because of the gender system and its inability to accommodate certain varieties of human gender and sexual expression (for example, men with vaginas or women with penises). The medical profession has developed methods that allow the ambiguities of human experience to be corrected, or at least be made comprehensible within the system. Regarding this, Kessler and McKenna state that “since genitals can now be changed, gender identity can now be seen as the less flexible criterion indicative of someone’s gender.” All people are trapped into this gender system as a way of understanding themselves and others, and therefore the criticism laid against transgender people (i.e. that we’re lying, tricking, or fake) is unjust due to everyone’s manipulation of the system. Everyone of any gender is putting on a gender self-attribution show in order to be recognised as they want to be.
All this theorising, while grounded in real social action, is still just theorising. Is there reason to believe that gender is treated the way Garfinkel said it was? Kessler and McKenna’s book addresses this issue in two studies. One study modified the popular game 20 questions, where the participant asked questions about a person known only to the researcher. The catch was that the person in question was not real and the researchers were randomly answering yes or no to the questions. The only rule was that participants could not ask the gender of the person outright and after each answer they had to state what gender they thought the person was and why. For the researchers the aim of the game was to see how the participants would argue for the gender attribution based on randomised “facts.” Participants asked about all sorts of things from clothing preferences to physical features, but few asked what genitals the person had. When pressed, many explained that they felt that would’ve been tantamount to asking their gender, which clearly shows how primary genitals are in gender attribution. Two participants did ask first as to whether the person had a vagina and regardless of the answer given they then asked whether they had a penis, suggesting that the presence or absence of a vagina did nothing to indicate the presence of a penis. But when the people who asked first whether the person had a penis were told no by the researcher very few of the them went on to ask whether they had a vagina, suggestive of the irrelevance of the vagina in gender attribution compared to the importance of the penis. This importance placed on the penis for gender attribution was also seen more generally in the increased number of questions regarding penises compared to vaginas in total. The authors concluded that genitals equated to gender, and that once a gender attribution was made anything could fit it by using categories like cross-dresser or hermaphrodite.
A follow-up study utilised a set of transparent overlay sheets with different appearances on them so a picture of a body could have a variety of clothing, or no clothing, and the genitals could be changed or removed entirely. Every combination was tested with participants being asked whether they thought the figure was a man or a woman and what features would need to be changed in order to make them the opposite gender. They found that over two thirds of the attributions made were “male,” and that many of the “female” cues, like long hair, breasts, or wide hips, were often found on figures attributed “male,” but the “male” cues were never found on figures attributed “female.” Figures that showed a penis were almost always identified as male (regardless of their other features), but vaginas didn’t nearly have the same power for leading to attributions of “female.” It was concluded that, while Garfinkel was right regarding the primacy of the genitals, it is only one form that matters the most. Gender attributions are based on the assumptions made about whether someone has a penis or not. No matter how feminine one is, if there is any reason to think they might have a penis, a female gender attribution is withheld.
So where does this leave us? Are we all stuck being men and women forever, with people making assumptions about us based on what genitals they think we have? Of course not! Kessler and McKenna surmise that gender attribution developed out of selecting an appropriate partner for sexual reproduction. As an organisational method, in our modern age, this is now defunct.
This gender system is already being challenged in small ways. People who are recognisable as men are giving birth (challenging gender’s role in determining reproductive capacity or interest), transgender people are retaining their genitals from birth and other secondary sexual characteristics regardless of their claimed gender, and new gender categories are being invented.
The grandest challenge of all has been issued by the gender nihilism movement, which supports the abandonment of a gender system entirely with the claim that gender is determinist, coercive, and violently limits human expression through the limitation of what certain ‘types’ of people can or should do and contains an inherent hierarchical class-like structure.
Gender is just one example of a system that developed (read: was socially constructed) to organise society. Just because we study how it works doesn’t make it an essential part of reality and that we can’t, or shouldn’t, try to change or eradicate it. In fact, as agents of social interaction we have an obligation to understand how we “do” society and work towards an approach that isn’t dependant on irrelevant anatomical features. This “doing” society is what it means to socially construct something. Society and its institutions, discourses, and practices all exist and are maintained as a result of people doing something. Gender and all its implications (stereotypes, jokes, violence, drag, sexuality, etc.) are maintained by talking about gender in ways consistent with the system Garfinkel, Kessler, and McKenna outlined. This is what it means for gender to be a social construct, and being a social construct means it can be socially deconstructed. We are in control.