This paper is going to challenge the heteronormative gender role system in western society, and discover if is down to the demands and punishments that society imposes, or if it is down to individual self-expression. By comparing contemporary and historical gender roles and demands in the human world and the animal kingdom it will become apparent what gender is, its origins, if it is an innate natural phenomenon or a social construct; the importance it has in contemporary western society, how other non-western societies classify gender expression and roles, its importance to them and if gender carries the same meaning as sex culturally and cross-species. This will also show the impact on these gender roles in society including the feminist viewpoint and if there is a crisis of masculinity.
Sex is ascribed at birth and refers to the morphological, biological identity of a person, based on the representation of the genitals, however sex is more than just the external primary sex organs, it is “biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs” (Eitzen, 2000, p247). Gender can be defined by the socially expected narrative of behaviours, roles, demands and performances of the individuals within the given society “Gender is a combination of social construction, and other social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, religion, and language etc”, (Argosy University, 2015). Genderisation starts before birth, in some cases even pre-conception with the parents considering gendered names, decorating the nursery, purchasing clothing and accessories and aspiring for their child, depending on the biological sex of the unborn infant. It could be argued that the biological sex of an individual and gender are two separate categories; however, they become entwined from the very start of existence they can get confused and combined. Biologically the bodies may be suited to different jobs; a woman can become pregnant and a man’s biological disposition is to be stronger and larger, which means that the social expectations on gender stereotype roles assigned to these physical differences mean that sex and gender become difficult to separate, (Lips, 2014. p2). Fausto-Sterling (2000) supports the theory that gender is not hard-wired or biological, although biologically there is the difference between the chromosomal makeup, the brain chemistry and physical attributes; all people fall somewhere within the spectrum and no one is all biologically male or female, (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). The Capitalist Society has taken advantage of this and has encouraged the gender binary by offering the opportunity to purchase gendered items at a premium, concerningly priced differently depending on the sex they are marketed to, (Parliament, 2016). John Lewis has recently introduced gender-neutral clothing and accessories for children to avoid gender stereotypes and has received backlash because of this (Hosie, 2017). It could be argued that John Lewis’s decision to step away from the gender binary could be a clever marketing ploy to try and monopolize the market for gender-neutral clothing promoting independent gender expression, because it is currently a hot topic: “Caroline Bettis, the head of childrenswear at John Lewis, said: “We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear.” (Hosie, 2017). Coloured clothes and toys depending on the sex empowers society to perpetuate the expected gender roles for further life. Children are given toys to play with that instil societies view of their expected gender roles: dolls, hoovers and kitchens for little girls to help make them familiar to their expected gender role as mother, and domestic labourer. Cars, building blocks and scientific toys for a boy to help them accept the roles that go with their gender. Gender roles are learnt and inherited from family, friends and religion, “Children also absorb ideas of gender roles from media and culture, including television, magazines, music, and other media. As children grow, they adopt behaviours that are rewarded and reinforced by acceptance, love, and approval. They also stop or begin to hide behaviours that are subject to contempt, ridicule, or punishment”, (SexInfo.Online, 2017). This supports that gender is learnt from societal constructed norms and that it exists because of these demands and punishments that society imposes on individuals.
Although gender for humans is primarily a patriarchal social hierarchy, animals operate a different system which varies between the species. The gender norms as discussed above for humans could be because of the physiological difference the gender behaviours are hard-wired to the sex. Which means a woman is expected to be coy, nurturing, smaller, less aggressive and the male is promiscuous, uninterested in the brood, bigger and more aggressive, “males were thought to be promiscuous, dominant and aggressive and the females chaste and passive. For many people, it was just the natural order of the world”, (Robinson, 2016). These societal norms and rules are being broken not only in the animal kingdom but also with humans. With animals, there are fewer rules, demands and punishments imposed by society, there is more fluidity of the sex and gender roles, “There are now myriad examples of animals that break the rules entirely – from intersex kangaroo to a fish with four separate ‘genders'” (Robinson, 2016). Darwin (1859) coined the term ‘Sexual Selection’, which he used to try and explain how animals would compete for mating rights, “males compete for a single female, each male has to show off his worth in some way; either through direct combat, or in a showy display that proves he would be the healthiest father for her young. The resulting arms race led to the evolution of ever more excessive traits in the males of certain species: hence the peacock’s tale, which helps it to advertise its good health to the peahen”, (Robinson, 2016). Although in the animal kingdom ‘sex role reversing’ was always considered to be rare, this assumption is now being questioned and attacked by leading biologists who feel that society has shaped this view with its cultural preferences and the easy answer (Robinson, 2016). Looking at the animal kingdom through the western societal gender binary lenses is proving one size does not fit all. Gender is not as important in the animal kingdom, so it is not an animal species construct, supporting that gender is not an innate natural phenomenon of expression of individuality but a man (and woman) and social made construct.
Let us consider that the sex/gender system and roles are a natural phenomenon, that the binary divide is the only way for society to view sex and gender and that they are not two separate entities. Kane (2013), states that this process creates a divide between the binary categories, “these processes constrain both males and females, socially constructing a strict binary of two highly distinct categories and guiding people, sometimes gently but sometimes coercively, into one or the other” (Kane, 2013, p.13). This western view and these norms and expectations do not take into consideration non-western societies. It could be argued that the western ignorance of other societal norms could suggest that non-western societies do not exist, or that they are invalid. However, non- western societal norms are just different because they do not subscribe to the gender system norms and rigid thinking of western societies. Non-gender binary societies have been around since the start of record keeping, longer than the contemporary western view of the binary genders, “on nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders. Terms such as “transgender” and “gay” are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman)” (PBS, 2015). In many native societies, the biological sex is not the main ingredient in the gender system and there are multiple gender variations, some having three genders or more. Probably the most well-known is the ‘two-spirit ‘native American Indian tribes, “in which a person lives as both genders simultaneously. They play a key role in society as mediators, priests, and artists, and performed both traditional women’s work (pottery and crafts) as well as traditional men’ work (hunting)” (PBS, 2015). Other societies which do not subscribe to binary gender system include; the Dominican Republic where there is a genetical third sex, with its own gender roles. In Hawaii a third role also exists, New Zealand has multiple gender roles as does Italy dating back to ancient Greece, in Peru the ancient Incas and Ancient Egypt. This shows that gender diversity has its roots in history and the binary gender system that western society uses to classify and group the individuals within society are relatively new and socially constructed.
Eitzen (2000, p. 247), believes that the macro societal approach is responsible for the rules of gender, he states that the polarization of men and women means that both men and women are placed differently socially and are ranked unequally and have different social possibilities based on their gender role. The socially accepted rigid dichotomy of contrasting gender stereotypes instils certain social demands and expectations on an individual depending on their ascribed sex. Nanda (1998), argues that the gender system is a micro approach and down to individual self-expression, “everything that a person says and does to indicate to others or to the self the degree that one is either male, female, or androgynous. This includes but is not limited to sexual and erotic arousal and response”, (Nanda, 1999, p114). De Beauvoir (1949) supports the discourse that gender is imposed by societal norms, she describes gender as something we become, not something that we are. With the binary gender classification system that western society has built through a series of social expectations, demands and punishments, it is either one or the other, for those that do not conform to the societal norms of the western binary system of do not comfortably meet the membership criteria for these gender roles based primarily on biological sex there are social punishments. This supports the arguments that the gender binary system is not only a social construct but that furthermore, it is specifically a western cultural societal construct that is attempting to eradicate any societies and species that do not conform to its strict set of membership rules.
Butler (1990), supports the discourse that gender is performative and not simply a natural state, more like a security blanket; stability of self-comes from internalizing and repeated performance of the available discourse’s, (Barker, 2016, p82). Furthermore, Butler, as cited in Theory.org, argues that feminism has made a mistake and closed the door on allowing women the ability to choose their own identity, “by trying to assert that ‘women’ were a group with common characteristics and interests. That approach, Butler said, performed ‘an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations’ — reinforcing a binary view of gender relations in which human beings are divided into two clear-cut groups, women and men. Rather than opening possibilities for a person to form and choose their own individual identity, therefore, feminism had closed the options down” (Gauntlett, 1998). If Butler is correct and that feminism has closed the door on women within society being able to choose their own individual identity, then this will and has had a potentially devastating effect on men, “This struggle between women’s issues and men’s issues is played out across the public and charitable sector and is rooted in the belief that gender equality is a women’s problem often caused by men. Put simply, women have problems and men are problems” (Poole, 2013). Contemporary man is stuck between two very distinct different generations, “Men currently in their mid-years are the ‘buffer’ generation – caught between the traditional silent, strong, austere masculinity of their fathers and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons. They do not know which of these ways of life and masculine cultures to follow”, (Walton, 2012). This causes a contemporary man to feel more isolated which in return has resulted in a rapid increase in male suicide. Hegemonic masculinity is used to describe the ‘manly’ characteristics of men. Those that are learned through socialization as discussed previously, the characteristics, traits and behaviours all add to the insecurities that the male gender role is facing within society. This dominant form of masculinity has been described by Mark Greene (2013) as the ‘Man Box’. This terminology sets out the expected behaviours and characteristics which are considered socially acceptable traits of manliness. Hegemonic masculinity alienates all men who do not fit within the strict guidelines, “it places men above people of other genders AND some men above other men”, (Edwards, 2012). Society is in a catch twenty-two, the more it enforces the gender roles, the more that it is stopping the self-expression, with the threat of punishments and societal demands of free individuals and the more that society is at risk from a crisis of individuality.
In considering and reviewing all the arguments put forward, historical data, sex and gender in the animal kingdom it is clear cut that gender is a social construct and the demands and punishments that this construct puts on individuals mean that it cannot possibly be a form of freedom and self-expression. Humankind is not afforded the same freedoms that historical, non-western indigenous societies and the species of the animal world are. The capitalist western society views every situation through its western lenses tainting the picture of the world. This shows that historically, even before western society became the norm, there was gender diversity. This confirms that the binary gender divide is a relatively new concept and has been constructed by contemporary society. The gender binary has caused issues for women which have resulted in the feminist movements and this has resulted in a crisis of masculinity. In an idealistic egalitarian society, every individual within society would receive respect and be judged as an individual not just a representative of their gender. Society should take a step back and have a look at the demands and constraints it is putting in place and furthermore the damage that this is doing to contemporary society. With the demands, expectations and punishments that society imposes on the individuals, there is limited space for freedom and individual self-expression.