gender

The Oxford English dictionary offers multiple definitions of the word gender. Broadly, the word gender means “a class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common.” [1] In this context, the word dates back to Middle English. The more colloquial use of gender is “males or females viewed as a group” and “the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.” The engenderment of male and female dates to 1474 CE, when C.L. Kingsford used the phrase “masculine gender.” [2] However, in terms of gender as a media, the psychological and sociological definition originating in the U.S. is most applicable. The OED defines gender in this context as, “the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex.” [3] This meaning of the word can be traced, largely, back to the women’s liberation movement in the 1970’s, hence, it is politically informed [4]

The main distinction that still requires clarification is that between sex, sex category, and gender (categories Candace West and Don Zimmerman describe in their book Doing Gender). Sex is a socially agreed upon biological category determined by genitalia and chromosomes. Sex category is the decisive statement of male or female. At birth, sex category is determined by sex, but practical sex category is determined superficially in how one fits within social ideas of male or female. In contrast, gender is how one acts and identifies with regard to normative concepts based on sex category. [5] In Gender, sociologist Harriet Bradley explains that gender is an all-encompassing idea, saying, “Gender affects every aspect of our personal lives. Whether we identify as a man or a woman determines how we look, how we talk, what we eat and drink what we wear, our leisure activities…all the institutions which make up our society are themselves gendered and are locations in which the gendering of individuals and relationships takes place.” [6] Social philosopher Ulrich Beck calls gender “omni-present.” [7]

While the culturally accepted view is that of a gender binary (men vs. women), the prevailing academic philosophy tends to see gender as a spectrum. With just two categories, some individuals feel limited and oppressed in their personal expression, whereas others are assured by the definite nature of the binary. [8] (For clarification, the OED defines feminine as “prettiness and delicacy,” and masculine as “powerful in action, strong.”)[9] In The Five Sexes, Anne Fausto-Sterling advocates for a redefined gender spectrum, a range based on anatomy shared with the extremes of male and female. This expanding view of gender calls for an expansion of how we see the process of acquiring a gender identity. Bradley points to men who reject the “macho” stereotype and to women who “keep a tomboy style past their childhood” as examples of those who rebel against “gender orthodoxies.” Clearly there is some action by the individual in the process of acquiring gender; they are not solely passively shaped by society. The new theory of “doing gender” is called gendering, and it happens on three levels: personal behavior, institutionalization, and societal values. [10] By looking at gendering on a personal level, gender as medium begins to take form: the individual is expressing themselves through the means of gender expression.

The power of gender as a medium seems to rest in an individual being aware of the roles ascribed to them and taking a stance on them. It does not matter if a person chooses to fulfill these roles or to eschew them: at the point that they make a decision, conscious or unconscious, about their engendered societal roles, they begin to use gender as a medium. The implications of this choice are many, and can convey infinite amounts of information, based on stereotypes of gender. Gender is a medium that is immediately seen, [11] comprised of the use of other media: cosmetics, clothing, hairstyle and repeated everyday behaviors all combine to constitute an individual’s gender. In Philosophical Investigation, Ludwig Wittgenstein discusses the difference in perception and intended meaning, saying, “the importance of this concept lies in the conexxion between the concepts of ‘seeing an aspect’ and ‘experiencing the meaning of a word.’” Wittgenstein’s main point is the subjective nature of words; they have different meaning within contexts and cultures, but most words have a definition that their manifestation is expected to fulfill. [12] This is the case with “male” and “female.” Wittgenstein says that a “picture held us captive. And we could not go outside it,” explaining that we are bound to certain cultural stereotypes, through which the gender expression of others is viewed. [13] Gender as a medium is construed within the act of perception.

Gender can be used for political activism as well. In Algeria Unveiled, Franz Fanon points out “the way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness, that is to say the one that is most immediately perceptible.” [14] This blends with West and Zimmerman’s theories of gender. People want to assign one another a sex category; indeed it is troubling to some who cannot figure out the gender of another. [15] There is an innate desire to make sense of other people, and Fanon relates the stories of women who used this fact and the stereotypes about their gender to their advantage as they resisted French colonization. The French wanted to change the Algerian conception of a female to line up with their western one. Women reacted to this differently, depending on legal restrictions that arrived with the occupation. Some women continued to wear the veil mandated by their religion as a form of resistance to westernization. A second group began to strap bombs to their bodies, obscured by their veils. A final group stopped wearing their traditional outfits in favor of western clothing. [16] Effectively westernized, these women were allowed through military checkpoints, and so could transport weapons or messages. These three groups of women approached political activism in different ways. The first two groups maintained their gender roles in order to create change, where the final group assumed the womanly role of another culture in order to participate politically. Both ways were effective in using the French ideas of what women were in order to resist French colonization. [17] At the same time, they were crossing gender boundaries, as politics historically have been and continue to be a male-dominated field. By blurring the lines of the gender binary, men and women alike have been able to make political statements. [18]

Fine art provides another outlet for gender expression. From the Guerrilla Girls campaign, which began in 1985, we learn that today, less than 4% of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modern wing are female, while 76% of the nudes therein are of females. The entirely female collective continues to make series of images pointing out the gender discrimination in pop culture, including art, cinema and politics. Through the repeatedly updated version of the How Women Get Maximum Exposure in Museums concept, the ignorance of female artists remains stagnant, likely inspiring other female artists to use gender as art.[19] One of Judith Baca’s untitled pieces consists of a triptych. On one side is a tomboy, on the other a woman in a dress, in the middle is a mirror, begging the viewer to question how and why they express their gender. [20] Photographer Collier Schorr’s project Jens F./ Helga depicts a male model in classically female poses. Schorr says of the piece, “…the audience sees him as a man, but he can only see himself as a woman, because that’s the model he’s looking at.”[21] This gets to the disconnect felt by those whose gender does not match their sex category. Photographer Cindy Sherman takes photos of herself as a hyper-feminine film heroine in order to comment on the conflicting stereotypes of what it means to be a woman. [22] A final example is the work of Barabara Kruger, perhaps best exemplified by Your Body is a Battleground, which is a blatant critique the beauty industry and the ways in which women are expected to alter their form to fit certain standards. [23] It is worth noting that the Guerrilla Girls, Sherman, and Kruger were all contemporaries, beginning a legacy of gender expression in art.

Finally, e dual nature of gender as a medium must be explored, in that it can be used both as mass media and as social media. Sandra Lipsitz Bem makes the point that gendering creates a “cultural native” that is not “able to distinguish between reality and the way one’s culture construes reality,” meaning that from birth, an American child is raised to be an American adult, subscribing to American beliefs about gender.[24] However, as Fanon demonstrates, cultures have vastly different stereotypes about gender, so gender expressions tend to differ in each. [25] The conclusion may be drawn that as a mass medium, gender classifications and roles express general values and ideas held by a culture. As a whole, cultures use gender as a broadcast medium to convey its preferred values to its people and to the world. Conversely, as a personal medium, gender expression becomes a way to relate oneself to those cultural values. One can conform or rebel against the characteristics they are expected to embody. In this dichotomy lies the power of gender as a social and political medium.

— Madison Lands

[1] “gender, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 3 February 2014 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77468?rskey=82SuGB&result=1&isAdvanced=false>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bradley, H. Gender. 2007. Cambridge: Polity Press, print.

[5] West, Candace, and Don Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Trans. Array The Gender and Psychology Reader. . 1st. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 104-121. Print.

[6] Bradley.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 3 February 2014

[10] Bradley.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3rd. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958. Print.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Fanon, Franz. “Algeria Unveiled.” Trans. ArrayDecolonizations Perspectives from now and Then. Routledge, Print.

[15] West and Zimmerman.

[16] Fanon.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See: Kurd men dressing in drag for equality, Marc Jacobs’ tendency toward dresses, the growing acceptance of metrosexual grooming habits.

[19] Guerilla Girls, . How Women Get Maximum Exposure in Museums . N.d. Painting. Museums, Public areas. Web. 3 Feb 2014.

[20] Baca, Judith. Untitled. 2002. Sculpture. Museum. Web. 3 Feb 2014.

[21] Schorr, Collier. Forrest Bed Blanket (Black Velvet) . 2001. Photograph. n.p. Web. 3 Feb 2014.

[22] Sherman, Cindy. Untitled Film Still

[23] Kruger, Barbara. Your Body is a Battleground. 1989. collage. Barbara KrugerWeb. 3 Feb 2014.

[24] Lipsitz Bem, Sandra. “Enculturation and Self-Construction: The Gendered Personalit.” Trans. Array The Gender and Psychology Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 413-428. Print.

[25] Fanon.