The Social Construction of Gender

Gender was crafted in an attempt to simplify our interactions with one another and to assign roles for groups of individuals to play.

February 12, 2020

Humans are socially conscious by nature. As babies, we look up to our parents for our earliest life lessons. From getting people to pay attention to our needs to reading social cues, we learn to navigate relationships through observation. We are inclined to equate repeated patterns to norms, which become a benchmark for how we behave, present ourselves, and interact with one another. Standards that comprise our normality tend to “reflect the identities of those in power” (Shaw and Lee, 50). Gender exemplifies a  fusion of norms imposed on people who are characterized as either masculine or feminine by society and hierarchy.

Gender, way before it was given a name, emerged as a tool to organize an otherwise chaotic society. It “constructs and interprets perceived differences among humans and gives us ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ people” (Shaw and Lee, 116). The gender binary serves to classify individuals as men or women based on their physical features and further to associate each end with static images and qualities that the authority deems natural. For instance, masculinity connotes mighty, muscular leader figures while femininity implies vulnerable, dependent follower models. These segregationist gender ideals are “made normal and ordinary” so that their practice “occurs on a subconscious level” (Shaw and Lee, 119). Gender is made prevalent in all aspects of society by individuals who embody gender. An embodiment of gender happens in every visible or invisible form: values, biases, statements, fashion, art, and any other type of expression.

What this means is that gender is not only what we ‘do’; it is a process by which we ‘are’ or ‘become’.”

— Susan Shawn & Janet Lee

Each individual carries their own intersectional narrative. One’s gender cannot be seen separately from one’s other identities, because they were bred simultaneously into all cultures and present themselves in every moment in a conjoined medium. “What this means is that gender is not only what we ‘do’; it is a process by which we ‘are’ or ‘become’” (Shaw and Lee, 117). An individual existing in their wholeness is enough to contribute to society’s understanding and portrayal of gender: the dynamics of a community bring new insights to its approach to gender. Therefore, different groups of people across generations and regions may attribute various connotations to gendered concepts and abide by different norms. For example, slender (often bony) bodies are deemed beautiful for women in modern-day South Korea, whereas curvy bodies with big hips have become the paradigm for female attractiveness in the United States. The subjectivity of gender reaffirms its construction.

Throughout history, male-identifying people have been privileged to sustain their social, political, and economic dominance. The primary reason for their acquisition of upper positions lies in the “provider role, composed of ambition, confidence, competence, and strength” (Shaw and Lee, 126) that masculinity expects from them: men are societally approved and empowered to lead. Upon reaching a certain prestige, men gain access to opportunities to shape society’s laws and institutions. Since they provide the most input, it is them whom the output benefits. Their decisions may fortify systems that set them on successful tracks, but omit female voices whom femininity urges to “do the domestic and emotional work of society” (Shaw and Lee, 131) or fail to alleviate women’s stress caused by the same systems.

“…beliefs and practices that disparage women become institutionalized if standardized tests … contain language and gendered content that is less accessible for girls … , thus facilitating lower scores for girls and women that provide the “evidence”…. (Shaw and Lee, 51)”

Here we witness the subordination of women and female-identifying people at an institutional level; how inequality among different genders can systematically oppress those who are underrepresented and even rid them of voice by permeating into their conscience. Resisting against the regime that undermines their capability implies increased publicity and potential threats to their reputation, career, and financial health. Gender as a social construction encompasses “the ways certain groups who believe they would lose from a redistribution of power have worked hard to discredit and destroy the feminist movements” (Shaw and Lee, 19) as it is congenitally tied with the idea of fixed roles in society and how it pervades the lives of all gendered individuals.

Gender has been crafted by the hands of humanity in an attempt to simplify our interactions with one another and to assign roles for groups of individuals to play. Living among immeasurable diversity can be a daunting task; in pursuing cohesion, we struggle not only to discover the points at which our identities converge and diverge but also to stand our ground. We study our social scripts so intensively and practice them unquestioningly, as adaptation is our intuition. A more practical question is: who has the pencil? Paying attention to whose voices are documented on our script will broaden the scope of our gendered reality.

Work Cited

Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, “What Are the Myths Associated with Feminism?” Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminsit Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, McGraw Hill, 2015.

Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, “Difference, Hierarchy, and Systems of Privilege and Inequality.” Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminsit Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, McGraw Hill, 2015.

Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, “Gender, Culture, and Biology.” Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminsit Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, McGraw Hill, 2015.

Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, “Masculinity.” Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminsit Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, McGraw Hill, 2015.

Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, “Femininity.” Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminsit Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, McGraw Hill, 2015.

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