“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a renowned Nigerian novelist essentially sums up the issues of the construction of gender in our society with this quote. As the LGBTQ+ community all across the world celebrated Pride month with aplomb in June, as they do every year, it seems rather necessary to discuss the nuances of gender and how individuals are socialised into either the male or female gender, something that is now being strongly questioned. The LGBTQ+ community is one of the main reasons why the concept of gender being fluid has been introduced into contemporary discourse.
In light of this, how does one understand gender and to what extent it has been constructed for an individual?
A misconception that has always prevailed is of the distinction between sex and gender. An individual’s sex is their biological identity; the way they are born. This biological identity could either be male or female and is identifiable by the difference in their sex organs. On the other hand, our gender is a product of the culture we grow up in. From the time we are children, our gender is taught to us, it is instilled in us as something that is so basic and so universally accepted that any deviation from the norm is considered an aberration.
We are systematically programmed to assume our gender roles. Girls are encouraged to be coy, shy and demure whereas boys are applauded for their brash behaviour. Things as banal as colours are gendered as well, pink for girls and blue for boys is the most common example. At every step, the distinction between a woman and a man is reinforced. Over the course of time, gender has become a way by which a society is able to segregate and then control. For as long as there is a clear demarcation between genders, certain fixed, regressive notions can be passed on from generation to generation and status quo is maintained. The kind of ambition imbibed in girls and boys is strikingly different. Men are encouraged to pursue their careers and lead independent lives whereas the end goal for any woman, in most cultures, is always marriage and ‘finding a boy.’ If a woman chooses to pursue her career instead of fostering a family she is immediately termed ‘too ambitious’ and her greatest failure then becomes her inability to find a man and start a family for herself.
This discrimination is so ingrained in cultures all over the world that women themselves have internalised certain notions about who they should be instead of embracing who they are. This repression, overtly, seems to only befall the women, but men are just as impacted by patriarchal norms as women. The toxic masculinity that pervades popular culture urges men to steer clear of vulnerability and only display their brute force. They are taught to repress emotions and their true selves in the fear of being rejected by society. Popular culture is constantly working towards constructing gender and is therefore an example of how powerful cultural representations are in determining identities. Films, advertisements, television shows have fixed representations of both women and men. Women have been historically portrayed as the object of desire, confined mostly to a domestic role and men in contrast are strong, macho characters in control of most situations.
These representations solidify the construction of gender perpetuated by society and push individuals further away from exploring their gender identities to understand who they are and what they identify with. Gender often also becomes an indicator of culture. The way a man or woman dresses, speaks, and behaves all indicate what kind of culture they belong to. As they perform their gender roles, they also very clearly display the kind of culture they belong to. Culture and gender are intrinsically linked, which has created immense conflict for an individual.
Despite such strict, repressive constructions of gender, all hope is not lost. As cultures and societies evolve, the understanding of gender is also evolving. The feminist movement has played a powerful role in making the society sensitive to the perils of gender discrimination, sexism and the controlling nature of patriarchy. Popular contemporary media is attempting to break gender stereotypes by etching out characters that defy norms. Single mothers, stay-at home fathers, high-ranking women professionals, unabashed women discussing their sexuality are all being portrayed in films and television. This might be a small percentage compared to the majority of representations that are flawed, but the change has begun.
Stereotypes are being broken; women are coming to the forefront and discussing their experiences in a society that has always tried to silence them and their desires. Women’s movements are burgeoning all over the world to fight for gender equality. The LGBTQ+ community is striving endlessly to show the world that gender is a spectrum and it is up to an individual to identify as whoever they think they intrinsically are. More fundamentally, breaking down the constructs of gender has to begin with parents teaching their children to take time to understand who they are instead of imposing a fixed gender identity on them. Starting a conversation on gender neutrality, gender fluidity, feminism and its impact on culture is crucial. The most one can hope for is a future where society as a whole understands the damage caused by imposing gender identities on an individual and attempts to undo generations of damage.
Picture Credits: Pacific Standard