Social Construction of the Gendered Self
September 26, 2016
The differences in male and female epistemologies come to light in Patricia Collins’ Black Feminist Thought (2000). Rather than ignoring the view of the author and examining the work in a vacuum, Collins considers the value added by understanding the author’s context in order to understand the perspective of their viewpoint. I want to use invoke this black feminist epistemological method presented by Collins to discuss Judith Butler’s assertion that gender is a social performance. I will follow this up with an example presented by Catharina Landstrom wherein we see that the divide between males and females is perceived to be larger than it truly is.
Judith Butler’s Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions from Gender Trouble (1999) opens the door to the idea of socially constructed genders. Butler forces the reader to question whether gender is assigned based on “the sexed body” or through political circumstances — circumstances that confine an individual’s personality to their biologically sexed physical form (Butler, 1999, p164). Rather than accepting the supposition that the body is a manifestation of an internal true self, Butler views the body as a trapping container that allows society to sort people into social classes. Truly interesting though is the role that people may play in confining themselves within the socieo-political class of gender.
Butler states that a person’s actions define their personality and that these actions are choices. The “act, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an inner core or substance” of an individual and these “acts, gestures, enactments… are performative” in nature, that they are “fabrications” (Butler, 1999, p173). Butler then justifies the concept of gender as a performance, suggesting that “gender identity might be reconceived as personal/cultural history of received meanings subject to a set of imitative practices which… construct the illusion of a primary and interior gendered self” (Butler, 1999, p176). Gender here has been defined as an imitative, self-constructed self-image that an individual attempts to convince others of believing through social discourse. As science has a social structure of validation, these self-created social roles then go on to influence the process of science.
Collins makes us aware that black feminist epistemologies value different forms of knowledge validation than the traditional Western epistemologies:
For most African-American women those individuals who have lived through the experiences about which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read or thought about such experiences. Thus lived experience as a criterion for credibility frequently is invoked by U.S. Black women when making knowledge claims.
(Collins, 2000, p257)
Being able to reflect on a specific situation may be more meaningful than a bunch of situations if the specific situation was lived through fully. In this case, first hand experiential knowledge is valued more greatly than knowledge given by a well read individual.
To utilize a feminist epistemological methodology and bring a past personal experience into this investigation: I have a vivid memory of working at a large corporation (200+ employees, 1000+ nationwide) where there was a distribution of male and female workers. I worked in the IT Dept. as an intern; there were not very many women there. As a friend of the CTO I was welcomed to privileged situations more than once — going out to lunch with heads of sections, working special projects, and behind closed doors with upper level management. Being behind closed doors with the all male upper management was an eye opening experience. At 16, I was the youngest male in a group of four or so others ranging from 45–65. Naturally, I played a passive, listening role — these are supposed to be the men I look to as role models right? They were speaking derogatively of women in their work place. It made me extremely uncomfortable and 5 years later it still does. I had not yet learned of the concept, but that was the day I realized the reality of ‘the old boys club’. These men would not have been so comfortable to have conversations concerning a specific woman’s breasts or intelligence if a woman had been in the room. In a way though they have created a social setting wherein women do not belong. The subject of the socializing in the created setting almost always crossed the topic of women.
I have been in other similar, gender-driven work situation that could support the idea of ‘the old boys club’ but none as clear and obvious as that one. Young boys learn from adult males and are told to be ‘real men’ which sometimes includes the idea of patriarchal society. I would hypothesize that other young men have felt similarly uncomfortable in these situations but watching the gender performance of their elder counterparts learned to act as such — perpetuating the patriarchal micro- culture in that context.
Butler describes how “we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right” and how “gender requires a performance that is repeated” which leads to gender “legitimation” (Butler, 1999, p178). Returning to the closed door meeting with the upper management men, as a new man in the situation I am to learn from them and mimic their behavior. Failure to accept the way they viewed their female co-workers felt as like a rebellion against the existing social structure. As a single actor within the network, I felt powerless to create change and pressured to agree with and perpetuate the existing status quo.
An example brought up by Landstrom in Queering Feminist Technology Studies, however, shows how these differentiations exist almost solely in social settings. Quoting an insight from a study by Tine Kleif and Wendy Faulkner, Landstrom zeros in on the reality of social perception of gender versus the reality in of their actions within a specific — technological — context:
As noted earlier, women’s and men’s accounts of themselves were more differentiated than their practices seemed to be. Such findings confirm the strength of stereotypes around gender and technology as norms; they also confirm that gender is actively performed rather than being laid down in early psychological development.
(Landstrom, 2007, p15)
The gendered view that individuals have of themselves is more different the difference of actions performed by the genders. The way that men and women think they act differently from each other is more of a fabrication and exaggeration that the true differences that they exhibit in their actions. The lines between the genders are drawn by us everyday when we take actions to ‘be a strong man’ or ‘be a proper woman’. These distinctions are no realer than the significance that we give them. As active participants in the construction of gender, we can make a change by not attempting to fit into a role and not being afraid to call out micro-aggressions. Our acceptance of the divide only encourages belief of its existence.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Collins, Patricia Hills. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Landstrom, Catharina. “Queering Feminist Technology Studies.” Feminist Theory 8 (2007): 7–26.