Reactive / Active
On gender, authenticity, and the queer individual
In an attempt to understand the workings of gender as a cultural, social, personal and political phenomenon, I have laid out some of my considerations of major gender theories and the ways in which they are applied to bodies in social discourse. I write from my perspective as a non-binary person and student of gender theory, and thus this is entirely subjective and hypothetical.
In the beginning there was biological determinism — people with wombs were women, women were feminine, femininity involved natural care instincts, domesticity, passivity; people with penises were men and men were leaders, providers, fighters. Biological sex was a given and not only influenced but hugely shaped individual personalities, opportunities and lives. Gender is not only binary — men and women, male and female, masculine and feminine — but also complementary. Men and women are naturally different, and heterosexuality is the natural union of these differences. People are a gender.
Then came the dawn of social constructionism — gender is NOT the same as sex, gender is NOT innate the way sex or biology are, gender is cultural! Gender is social! Gender is created by society and mapped onto the individual. Girls are not inherently drawn to the colour pink, they like the colour pink because we’ve been giving them pink toys all their lives. Biological determinism is essentialist — it negates individual personalities and preferences and experiences — and reductive — it doesn’t take social influences sufficiently into account. Men and women are forced into masculine and feminine roles, roles which have unequal positions in society and which constrain their individual personality. Gender is external and imposed onto the individual through social processes — Lego for boys, dolls for girls. People do gender.
One is not born, but rather becomes woman. — Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949.
Then, drawing on social construction theory, Judith Butler proposed her theory of gender performativity — gender is a series of repeated acts, a performance. This performance creates gender, reifies it as it constructs it. Giving girls pink toys makes them girls. This performance is not done by the individual in the sense that the individual does not choose the performance, and cannot choose to end it, but is in fact created through the performance. Butler contends that social construction theory correctly identifies the influence of social systems and expectations, but that it overstates the role of the individual. The individual does not exist, there is no one ‘behind’ gender performance, there is no individual ‘before’ the performance — the performance produces the performer.
There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender… identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results — Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990.
From this basis, I will consider the workings and experiences of gender and gendered individuals. Social constructionism (and, by extension, gender performativity) posit gender as a cultural and social phenomenon that is not inherent or even related to individual identities, psychological or mental states, or experiences. The individual is simply a weak agent that is located within the field of gender and onto whom gender is projected. This makes sense in most cases, because most people relate to their gender in largely the same way — by which I mean that most people are cisgender. Most people are mostly comfortable with their location in the gender domain. By this, I do not mean that most people are satisfied with gender roles or expectations — most women would today take issue with the idea that women should do more than their share of the housework because housework is ‘women’s work’, for instance. Rather, what I mean is that most people with vaginas, wombs, breasts, with XX chromosomes, etc. etc., are considered by (a) society, and (b) themselves, to be women.
Gender is not one-size-fits-all, but rather one-size-mostly-fits-most
However, in some cases, the individual finds themselves at odds with the gender domain in which they are located — referring to transgender people, under which umbrella label I (hesitantly, but for the sake of clarity) include those who label themselves transsexual, transvestites, genderfluid and genderqueer, agender and non-binary, and the host of other labels and definitions of ‘gender non-conformity’. For some reason, (binary, or cis) gender is mapped inaccurately, insufficiently, or incompletely onto some individuals, resulting in what I think of as ripples or tears in the fabric of gender. Inconsistencies. I would like, at this point, to make clear that I am not interested in the reasons this happens — looking for a reason for something like this generally also means looking for a ‘cure’ or ‘prevention’, which is needless and harmful.
The interactions between the individual and their socio-cultural contexts are an ongoing process, and this includes gender and navigating the gender domain (taken to comprise of the gender ‘binary’ of male/female, masculine/feminine, and everything that comes between and outside of these parameters). If gender is cultural, socially constructed, and projected or assigned onto the body, then there is something in the individual that reacts to this projection. Due to the fact that the majority of the population react mostly positively to this gender construction, in the case of what we would call cisgender people, the reaction goes largely unnoticed. However, I propose that in the cases of transgender people, that reaction moves negatively against constructed, or external, or cultural gender, and in doing so creates a ripple, or a tear altogether, in the otherwise mostly smooth fabric of cultural gender norms. Thus I am at odds with Butler’s negation of the individual. Positing gender as solely external and performative does not account for individual gender ‘identities’, whatever they may be based upon.
Thus, gender norms are projected onto the individual, who eventually reacts to this projection, forming their own gender identity.
This reaction is not immediate, immutable, or easily defined. The question of individual reaction gives scope for the infinite variations of gender identities, expressions, and forms that are beginning to be recognised. A conception of personal gender as a reaction allows for the interplay between personal, social and political identities. A reaction does not constitute an entire identity, nor does it limit an individual to either the cisgender or transgender labels, but allows the individual to navigate their relationship and their placement within the field of gender. Conceiving gender as reactive also acknowledges the inherently unrealistic and constructed nature of gender as imposed on the individual, while still valuing the experience of the individual in question. In a more extreme sense, it could also allow us to discard entirely the idea of the cis- or transgender identity, as each individual reaction will be different and personal, and none will entirely align with the impossible expectation, or model, set by society.
What of masculinity and femininity?
Then comes the tricky question of masculinity and femininity. Traditionally we associate men, maleness, and masculinity with being leaders, being providers and breadwinners, being stoic and hardworking, and shaping and safekeeping the future — on an individual, familial level, and also on a collective level, through the extension of the patriarchal figure from head of family to head of state. On the other hand, women, the feminine and femininity are associated with keeping house, with child-rearing, emotional labour, vanity and emphasis on appearance. The basis of this gendering of roles stems from the association of masculinity with ideas like strength, forcefulness, direct speech, assertiveness, independence; and femininity with things like gentleness, emotionality, empathy, nuanced thinking. It can be seen that gendering traits like emotionality/gentleness lead to the creation of gender roles like carers/mothers, for example, and many others. Examining their bases betrays the fact that gender roles are based on unfounded claims of particular traits belonging to particular genders.
Evidently, these distinctions quickly lose traction, as it is commonly acknowledged now that nothing about biological sex automatically engenders an individual to these traits. The pop psychology myth of the male and female brain has been robustly scientifically debunked — see particularly Raewyn Connell, Gender.* It is also commonly acknowledged that both ‘men’ and ‘women’ can display a variety of masculine or feminine traits, even more so in the case of trans and gender non-conforming people. So if a masculine trait is not masculine because it is displayed by men, nor is it inherent in men, nor is it only seen amongst men, what makes it masculine? Even finding traits to name as either masculine or feminine becomes difficult, especially when we recognise and reject the essentialist nature of gendering anything other than the self.
So what, then, do we mean when we describe traits, people, ideas, anything, as masculine or feminine?
I suggest that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are nothing more than words to describe what is valued and what is not valued by any given society.
Most (Western) societies value traits like independence, competitiveness, selfishness, and forcefulness, while they devalue softness, vulnerability, empathy, and passivity. That’s not to say that we eschew these traits entirely. There has been particular increase recently in encouraging men to explore and rediscover their empathy, to ‘get in touch with’ their emotions, etc. etc. However, I believe it can be easily said that, as a society, we only value ‘feminine’ traits in moderation, and only when accompanied by ‘masculine’ traits. Therefore, looking at what a society considers masculine or feminine can give excellent insight into what that society values. However, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ do not refer to gender in the way in which we generally assume they do. This understanding is very important in considering the unequal power structures that are embedded within the gender ‘binary’ and the overall gender domain, but of which I will not really speak here, because many others have done so much better than I. What I mostly want to convey is that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ have much less to do with inherent gender or psychology than they do with society and social values.
Gender and the individual
I’ve spoken about social construction and performativity theories, and my own considerations of gender have developed from these perspectives. As I have also previously mentioned, both social construction theory and, to a greater extent, performativity theory have been accused of negating the role of the individual or the presence of individual agency in the gender process. By positing gender as formed through the reaction of the individual to the social construction, I hope to have re-centred the subject within the gender domain. That being said, I believe that gender is still primarily external, cultural, or social. I also believe that most perspectives are external in this way, extending well beyond gender.
How, then, can we understand the authentic individual? Can authenticity be said to exist? The gender process begins at birth and continues throughout the lifespan of the individual. Gender is mostly obviously mapped onto the individual during the first stages of life. This happens particularly throughout childhood, which is often characterised as not only very overtly gendered, but a time when gender is actively imposed upon the individual, through the promotion of gendered toys, spaces and practices. Throughout childhood, social capital is often amassed through successful gender performance, often for an adult audience, which is seen as the mark of social competence. Childhood and pre-pubescence are generally the era in which external gender norms hold greatest sway with the individual.
However, as we age, we become more aware of social processes and systems at work around us. At some point — probably around adolescence, though often throughout and after teenage years — the individual becomes aware of the external and even constructed nature of gender, gendered roles and the gender performance. This awareness is often subliminal, subtle, even unrecognised, but it is of vital importance, as this is the time at which the individual begins to react to the gender process. As mentioned above, the majority of people will become aware of this external influence, but will not find themselves at odds with it, and therefore are often considered to be cisgender. A smaller proportion of people will react against this imposition, often outright rejecting it, and we generally call them transgender. Often the discovery of this negative reaction can cause considerable distress for the individual.
What comes after the individual discovers the gender reaction is of vital importance, because it is in this aftermath of this discovery that we uncover the authentic self. Once the individual becomes aware of this ongoing reaction, they cannot return to ignorance of it, whether they are cisgender or transgender. However, often when the average cisgender person becomes aware of the constructed nature of the gender imposed upon them, they engage only passively with this process. Recognising the superficial nature of the gendered order does not necessarily beget acting against that order, and for many that recognition will be the end of their active engagement with the gender domain.
Thus it can be said that individual authenticity lies in the conscious reaction to social processes, including the gender process. Furthermore, the greater critical self-analysis carried out by the individual, the more authentic they will become.
Transgender identities generally warrant further personal exploration than cisgender identities. Transgender and queer people will often carry out greater introspection and self-analysis than the average cisgender person, at least in relation to their gender identity and expression. Because transgender people will all at some point question their identities and their place within the gender domain and society as a whole, it is my belief that transgender people tend to engage more critically with their identities, and often tend to be more self-aware.
Considerations of gender, particularly of transgender experiences, often lead naturally to discussion of queerness and queer experiences. Queer theory is a vast and fascinating field, and for the sake of this essay I will only briefly introduce the idea of queerness. In my opinion, queerness is the natural conclusion of the authentic self in relation to surrounding social processes regarding gender and sexuality.
I have not really considered sexuality here; however, it follows quite simply that if binary gender is socially constructed, and individual identities are in practice much more complex than that binary would assume, then binary sexuality (both heterosexuality and homosexuality) are also socially constructed. The idea of learned, or compulsory, heterosexuality is also Judith Butler’s, and it seems clear that the range of human desires and loves cannot be truly encapsulated in the concepts of binary sexualities. This becomes particularly relevant in the case of transgender people — many have reported a shift in sexuality and sexual preferences after transition. In a study carried out by Raine Dozier, he found that some transgender men, who had identified as lesbians before coming out and transitioning, found that they were newly attracted to men after transitioning.** Dozier concluded that the nature of the relationships were not founded on immutable ideas of attraction, but rather that their sexuality shifted to maintain the queerness of their relationships.
If gender relations can be said to be based on unequal power dynamics (masculine as valued, feminine as devalued), and personal gender identity is based on the extent to which the individual conforms to these dynamics (gender as reactive, authenticity as consciousness), then queerness is the natural result of the conscious rejection of these power dynamics in both the fields of gender and sexuality, to the extent that it is even possible to separate them.
Furthermore, if transgender identities involve conscious self-criticism and self-awareness, I believe that queerness also implies not only a certain amount of conscious awareness, but also an active rejection of hierarchical, binarist, patriarchal, racist, etc. etc. society. Queerness requires political and social engagement, awareness, and active empathy, vulnerability, and strength.
All of society is constructed, all of gender is fake, the individual ego does not exist, we construct our conceptions of self through the accumulation of experiences and reflect this back to the world, creating an unending domino effect, imposing ourselves on those around us, creating multiple crises in everyone we encounter. All of this is essentially meaningless, as to understand gender in this way is to recognise its superficial and constructed nature, and acknowledging this means that we must eventually move away from the gendered order that is the subject of this argument in the first place. Through active self-analysis and rejection of harmful processes and structures we can hope to minimise their effect, but we cannot remove ourselves from their influence.
- *Raewyn Connell’s book Gender can be previewed on Google Books here.
- **Raine Dozier’s study is only available online through the journal Gender and Society, though it is behind their paywall.
For further gender thoughts – though in a much less coherent manner – my twitter handle is @unknownnouns. I have PDFs of both and am happy to email them, feel free to get in touch on twitter.