What Is Gender?

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

- Simone de Beauvior, The Second Sex

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Gender is back in a big way. It’s always been a complex topic, though the idea that gender is constructed and imposed has risen to the top. But another view has been brewing for some time and it’s now in the public square questioning established perspectives. The stakes are rising—from a theoretical debate to a fierce disagreement in the real world.

Listen to The Philosopher's Zone episode: Gender Bending

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Gender is burdened by a lot of adjectives these days. It’s non-binary, it’s fluid, it’s ‘over’. According to the American rapper Young Thug, an artist at the helm of hip-hop who is known to occasionally wear dresses, ‘there’s no such thing as gender’ at all.

These descriptions share the common assumption that gender is mutable, not fixed. Most contemporary public conversations about what it means to be men and women will engage with some version of this thesis – a development that’s due, in large part, to the work of the American philosopher Judith Butler. Her theory of ‘performativity’ upended ideas about gender by shedding light on the many processes that produce it, and the theory’s far-reaching consequences are still widely misunderstood.

It’s unfortunate that popular culture often reduces performativity to the idea that ‘gender is a social construct’. This catchphrase sets the ‘social’ against the ‘natural’, and implies that gender is merely an artificial layer, encrusted by choice onto the supposedly more fundamental reality of sex. But Butler was careful to avoid arguing for a simple split between nature and culture, or sex and gender...

Continue reading Will Fraker's article: Gender is dead, long live gender: just what is 'performativity'?

Further Reading

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament”...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

Bonus Webcomic

inMANity - SMBC

Related Topics

If you’re interested in gender, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

AnthropologyCulture | Equality | Feminism

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