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Last week we started discussing what gender and its social construction means to you”a subject that we will be building on th


——Last week we started discussing what gender and its social construction means to you—a subject that we will be building on through this week’s discussion of the ways in which gender is created through various socialization processes. Judith Lorber, the author of one of our assigned readings this week, puts it well when she says that “talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water.” This is especially true for those of us whose gender identities match that of our biological sex and the dominant standards of our societies. But let us try to be fishes out of water and attempt to perceive and talk about the water in which we live.

One of the first sites for gender socialization is, of course, the assignment of sex (male or female) to infants based on their genitalia. Thus “a sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender markers (Lorber 113)—think of the traditional practice of dressing boys in blue and girls in pink. As soon as children can talk, they begin referring to themselves and others using gendered pronouns (he/she). Children might be raised in an environment in which parenting is often divided according to gendered roles deemed appropriate for mothers and fathers, and they are likewise treated differently along gender lines. Sexuality then comes into play during puberty, and by then adolescents have been socialized in various ways to assume certain gendered roles. The mating rituals associated with adolescence are in turn thoroughly shaped by gendered norms and expectations, and most of the time, those who don’t meet those norms are criticized or otherwise treated differently by their peers. It’s no wonder that it is hard for many of us to talk about and think critically about something that has permeated our lives since birth.

Why do the majority of humans engage in gendered socialization processes since birth, or as Lorber puts it, why do we “do gender”? Gender is one of the major ways in which humans organize their societies. It is used in many societies as a means of allocating work, rights, and responsibilities to different individuals and in creating different social statuses. In Western capitalist nations like the US, women have historically been valued less than men, and are thereby paid less for their labor and take on more devalued roles and responsibilities (childrearing, housekeeping). Due to the stratified nature of US society, which has historically perpetuated social inequalities of various kinds, “the continuing purpose of gender as a modern social institution is to construct women as a group to be subordinate to the interests of men as a group” (Lorber 117).

The very existence of male and female gender categories is therefore based on social interests and the distribution of power, and not the necessary or “natural” result of biological sex, hormones, or genetic predispositions. “Gendered people,” as Lorber writes, “emerge not from physiology or sexual orientations but from the exigencies of the social order, mostly from the need for a reliable division of the work of food production and the social (not physical) reproduction of new members” (117). Biology is not destiny, just as “[f]or humans, the social is natural” (117).

—–Michael Kimmel writes that “the great secret of American manhood” is that men “are afraid of other men,” and that “[h]omophobia is the central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood” (149). Men are socialized from a very young age to be subject to the scrutiny of other men—fathers, brothers, peers, work colleagues, etc.—who act as a kind of “gender police” regulating the socially appropriate and hegemonic standards of masculinity. Those who somehow don’t measure up to these standards are then often derided or humiliated by other men, called “sissies” or “faggots” whose behavior have more in common with women than men.

Homophobia, then, as Kimmel points out, is not so much about fear of gay men as it is fear of being perceived as gay. Many men go out on a limb to prevent themselves from being perceived as gay, and thereby exaggerate the traditional traits of masculinity, such as readiness for violence and sexual predation of women. “Homophobia and sexism go hand in hand” (Kimmel 151). Masculinity then becomes a macho mask and ruse that men feel that they must assume in order to escape humiliation in front of other men and to be dominated by more powerful men; it is used in our culture as a yardstick by which men measure themselves and are constantly made to feel inadequate by.

*2) The social construction of biological sex

2) The social construction of biological sexAs Estelle Disch writes in her introduction to Part II, “Although the genes that determine sex come in several different combinations (not just two), and although the hormonal makeup and physical characteristics of human beings fall along a continuum defined as masculine at one end and feminine at the other, allowing for many combinations and permutations that define one’s biological sex, the social contexts in which infants are assigned a gender do not allow for more than two categories in mainstream US society” (107). Disch’s belief, like Lorber’s, is that even the assignment of male or female sexes based on genitalia is a social construct; that is, our practice of immediately assigning infants to one of two sex categories is itself conditioned by our society’s need to organize itself along binary gender lines.Recent research has shown, however, that individuals whose genital sex does not match their chromosomal sex (or vice versa), or whose emotional sex doesn’t match their genital sex (e.g. transsexuals) add diversity to the continuum of gender identity. Such individuals prefer to call themselves “intersex,” even though this is not a sexual identity recognized by most of the institutions and systems of classification in our societies.

***3) Masculinity as homophobia

3) Masculinity as homophobiaMichael Kimmel writes that “the great secret of American manhood” is that men “are afraid of other men,” and that “[h]omophobia is the central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood” (149). Men are socialized from a very young age to be subject to the scrutiny of other men—fathers, brothers, peers, work colleagues, etc.—who act as a kind of “gender police” regulating the socially appropriate and hegemonic standards of masculinity. Those who somehow don’t measure up to these standards are then often derided or humiliated by other men, called “sissies” or “faggots” whose behavior have more in common with women than men. Homophobia, then, as Kimmel points out, is not so much about fear of gay men as it is fear of being perceived as gay. Many men go out on a limb to prevent themselves from being perceived as gay, and thereby exaggerate the traditional traits of masculinity, such as readiness for violence and sexual predation of women. “Homophobia and sexism go hand in hand” (Kimmel 151). Masculinity then becomes a mask and a ruse that men feel that they must assume in order to escape humiliation in front of other men and to be dominated by more powerful men; it is used in our culture as a yardstick by which men measure themselves and are constantly made to feel inadequate by.

*****4) Beauty norms

4) Beauty normsIn “Who’s the Fairest of Them All?” Jill Nelson talks about her struggles as a black woman in the US. She writes that “[i]n the last thirty years there has been little real alteration of the beauty industry’s marketing of whiteness as the norm, the standard to which all the rest of us should aspire” (138). Noting that while there are more images of black women in mainstream media than thirty years ago, she nonetheless points out that most of them are of black women who have straightened hair, lighter skin, and/or Caucasian-like features. “It is a psychological given,” she posits, “that all people feel most immediately comfortable with those who look like them” (138). Without images of dark-skinned women with natural hair (except in the pages of Essence magazine), Nelson often felt that she did not measure up to the dominant standard of female beauty.



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