When Freud declared that women’s anatomy is our destiny, I doubt he could have predicted just how many times his claim would be debunked. Feminists have long argued that gender is performed and not innate. Throughout history, the majority of feminists have argued that our biology does not define us, nor does it make us naturally inferior to men. However, it has certainly been used as an excuse to suppress our sex.
Before contraception, our biology certainly limited us. Most women were unable to control the number of children they had and spent the majority of their lives as nursing mothers. As lactating mammals, women had no option but to be around their children at all times. Men, on the other hand, were free to go out, roam and hunt.
From Beauvoir’s famous declaration: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to gender theorists today, much has been written about how we perform gender and how we are socialised to conform based on our biology. From the minute we’re born, gender expectations are placed on us and stereotyping begins.
Because it is mostly impossible to tell the difference between baby boys and girls, we dress them according to the gender we want them to be perceived as. Girls, assumed to be more delicate, are swathed in pink and feminine clothes. The toys they are provided encourage domesticity such as baby dolls and kitchen sets. Other sexualised dolls, like Barbies, serve another purpose: to perpetuate the beauty myth.
Toys are used to instil the cults of masculinity and femininity in children. Boys are given aggressive ‘manly’ toys such as guns and tanks. They are encouraged to be loud and violent. Their rowdy behaviour is justified and dismissed as ‘boys will be boys’. Loud, aggressive girls, on the other hand, are told to behave like ‘ladies’ or are declared tomboys, thus attributing the male gender to them, which implies the assumption that the realm of aggression solely belongs to the male.
Gender socialisation doesn’t begin and end in the home. We police each other to conform to gender throughout our lives, collectively, as a society. We judge parents who don’t teach their children to act normatively. We use language that reflects our biases: strong men are admirable, but strong women are often called aggressive. A man who cooks is a chef, but a woman who cooks is simply performing her duty as a woman.
Schools and teachers then further reinforce gender norms through various means such as encouraging children to segregate and bond with their own gender. Teachers discourage female students from traditionally male subjects like mathematics and the sciences.
We also often choose our careers based on what is considered appropriate for our gender and use terms to remind ourselves of what is traditionally a male or female career. For example, a female doctor is often referred to as a ‘lady doctor’ and male nurses are often called ‘male nurse’ instead of simply doctor and nurse.
Taking gender for granted, we assume it is a natural part of who we are. Those who conform may truly believe the essentialist view that sex and gender are the same, but when faced with those who don’t conform, especially physically, assumptions fall apart. In our culture, we have a third gender, the hijras who tow the fine line between men and women. Not quite men and not quite women, hijras confuse us and make us question if biology is indeed destiny.
The human obsession with gender reveals just how obsessed we, as a species, are with difference. At the end of the day, the only genetic difference between men and women is the one chromosome. Yet, based on that one tiny chromosome, we have decided to divide ourselves in two classes and women, unfortunately, have suffered for it.
Published in The News.