Gender is a very complex concept, which honestly cannot be explained in 5 points or less. However, I will attempt to explain the five main aspects about gender identity in this post.
Before you continue, I have made a video post which explained social constructs, which is a key point in this post!
1. Gender is a social construct
I have made a video which briefly explained social constructs creating privileged and oppressed categories of people. Gender is a socially constructed idea, and in this post you will see many similarities between gender and other forms of identity, such as race as discussed in this post.
Social constructs are a set of ideas, beliefs, or stereotypes which work by us, as part of society, talking about it. For example, we believe women should act a certain way, so we talk about how a woman might be wearing too little, or that mums who work are not putting their children first. When a whole society talks about a certain idea, we start to believe it. We even start to change our own behaviour to suit what the society says about it, especially if a whole society says something we are doing is negative. We generally do not want to be ostracized by other people, so we try not to be socially outcast.
I mean, it doesn’t feel good, right? To have our own behaviour criticized and be talked about by other people. That’s how it works. We as a society make some actions to be thought of as negative. This is a form of negative reinforcement. We also use positive reinforcements to form what is considered as ‘good’ behaviour to shape what we believe women should do. From this, we learn what not to do as women, how to act as women, based on what the society says we should be.
2. Gender is fluid.
We associate interests and mannerisms with certain genders. We think boys like football and have short hair, while we think girls like dolls and have long hair. When we think of gendered interests, we think cooking is done by women, and fixing things are done by men. That is, until these interests become a profession, because a lot of chefs and tailors are men. So why do we associate cooking so strongly with women when it clearly isn’t a thing that only women do?
Again, these are socially constructed ideas. Pink actually used to be associated with boys, instead of girls. So the meaning of the colour pink being feminine isn’t actually because of the colour, but rather what we say it is.
The truth is, as men or women, we do a lot of things that are both feminine and masculine. This divide in gendered actions is never as clear as black and white. Or perhaps the things we do don’t need to be gendered. But people believe so, and it freaks some out when we don’t do what we’re supposed to do. Transgender communities for example face a lot of violence because society believes gender identity – being men or women – must be based on the sex that we are born in.
More intrinsic aspects of gender, such as what we think we are (rather than interests and mannerisms people can see us do) matters most as to what our genders are. Not everyone identifies as the gender that we are just told we should be. Typically we believe someone born male is a man, and someone born female is a woman. Transgender women are people born male but identifies as women. They do not identify themselves as men, and should be treated and termed as women. Some people don’t identify as either men or women, and instead feel they belong to a third gender.
It’s complex, but just remember, gender is not just pink or blue. It is a whole spectrum of colour.
3. Why are women oppressed?
In this video I’ve made explaining social constructs, I had explained socially constructed ideas that oppress certain groups of people. Women were one of these oppressed groups. Watching that video first would better explain what I’ve talked about in this post.
Socially constructed ideas about what women are or should be have been used as a way to enforce sexism. These social constructs are often enforced through negative reinforcement. We say things like: “Women shouldn’t do that. That is for men”, “If you’re too independent, nobody will marry you”, “You’re dressed too skimpily”, “You’re a slut”, etc.. The list goes on, and they’re all ugly.
When I say “we”, it doesn’t necessarily you, the reader, or I, but as a society in general, these things really are being said. And these are used to oppress women.
Think of the ways in which women are disadvantaged – we are sexualised, face sexual assault and harrassment, we get underpaid at work. These are all facts. Check out this infograph I’ve made which outlined UN Women’s global statistics on violence against women.
The inequalities women face are often justified through “facts” – such as blaming a woman’s dressing for being sexually assaulted, or that women shouldn’t be working and just stay at home. These imbalances are just some of many ways women are oppressed. Oppression is a systemic inequality – systemic here means rooted in powerful institutions such as workplaces, schools, the law. Together, they create a system which causes gender inequalities.