Why do we have gender?
May 4, 2016 § 1 Comment
I have several drafts not ready to go. Among the topics I want to write and really think about are: negative gearing, an emerging ‘superficial’ social conscience (much more on that later) and of course something else to do with feminism (and while I’m on the topic, if the word ‘feminist’ troubles you, just remove it and call everyone not in favour of gender equality, sexist – that might help, it might not, also more on that later).
But this has been bugging me for a while. Why gender? I don’t mean the strictly biological kind where a female has two x-chromosomes and can carry a baby. Being a member of a particular sex in our society comes with all the trappings of socially imposed gender stereotypes.
And this is where I encounter problems with being transgender. It has been growing on me ever since I read this article by Lionel Shriver. That I should have any issue with being transgender is troubling enough. Aren’t I liberal? I’ve always supported full autonomy, including that people can choose their gender.
But in an ideal world, people shouldn’t feel the need to pick a gender. In an ideal world, your gender should say nothing about you except whether or not you’re XX or XY.
This is my current philosophical predicament. Some people might identify with being female purely on a biological level – I have no comment on that. But others might feel like they are female because they identify more with society’s construct of the female. For example, that the female is graceful; she is patient, kind and nursing. She is beautiful, she has long hair and wears dresses. Third wave feminism is about transcending gender norms. But the idea of choosing to be female because you are drawn to the female stereotype undermines this movement.
And there’s a whiff of the gender-equivalent of cultural appropriation. Many females feel trapped by the female stereotype that their families and society has imposed on them. And there are other drawbacks to being female – you are more likely to be paid less men; you are more likely than men to experience sexual or domestic violence or abuse. This is why transgender people presented a challenge to Germain Greer’s feminism. A man claims they feel female. But what does it really mean to be female? How can they claim that they feel female when they would never have been exposed to the sort of social conditioning that females receive all the time? Underpinning all this, of course, is that gender is a social construct. When you pick a gender identity, you are not so much picking a gender, as a set of social norms and behaviours that you identity with (and that many women may in fact not).
This is why Lionel Shriver argued that this social construct of what it means to be a particular gender is useless. It should go. Gender doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s personality or attitudes. Arbitrarily placing everyone on a gender spectrum is unhelpful and sometimes hurtful. If we didn’t prescribe certain expectations of behaviour to certain genders then no one would feel the need to pick one over the other.
Of course, on the other hand, being transgender is subverting a gender norm. So now my theory is all in a heap again. Help me get my act together.