Understanding Individual and Society
In the light of the many events around the world concerning the construction of gender identities in society, I have decided to start off with the identity of ‘men’ or ‘women’. Hence, it becomes primordial to acquire a thorough understanding of gender identities. Today’s focus will be on the question asked in the title, though we will try to delve further in the matter starting from a popular misunderstanding.
Advice to readers: This is quite a long post on gender matters as viewed by social sciences and people. So, please bear with me or if you can’t, come back later for a better read.
Gender or sex; the same thing?
Here we are! This is a very common mistake adopted and indoctrinated by people with little or no knowledge on the subject. We commonly assume both to be major distinction between male and female. Is it? Wrong, it’s not the case. Sex, the word that appears on your Birth Certificate, is the biological differences that categorise you as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. In other words, your physical characteristics define your sex but not your gender. Gender is a social construction of your identity, that is, culturally created differences between sexes through the process of gender-role socialisation. The sociologist Connell argues that we not born as ‘men’ or ‘women’; we become ‘men’ or ‘women’ by the social construction of gender identities.
With these notions properly established, we can now move on to the question.
Why? Is it in their nature, DNA, or their attributes?
Actually, this is a debate, so no wrong answers. You are many to have asked these questions before, right? Does the aggressiveness of men stems from their genes? Are their behaviour internally controlled/directed by their impulses? They are naturally prone to violence and domination. You might be right to speculate on these possibilities but you may be wrong.
The famous debate on whether human behaviour is a product of socio-cultural environment or our genes is called the Nature v/s Nurture Debate. The social sciences support the Nurture view whereas our scientific counterparts advocate for the Nature view. However, here, we shall consider only what is related to the question on gender issue. The debate is very heated and much ink continues to be spilled on this topic. Theories that advance that genes predetermine behaviour are termed as genetic determinism. One such dominant theory is Sociobiology. Developed by E.O. Wilson in 1975, it is in part based on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Sociobiologists believe that human behaviour is shaped by a genetically based program called instinct. So, to resume, human beings are programmed to behave in certain ways. Thus, the difference in the behaviour of men and women are explained by the different genes we possess. For instance, Tiger and Fox conveyed the idea of biogramming. Tiger and Fox argue that men and women have different ‘biogrammers’, or genetically-based programmes, which predispose them in behave in distinct ways. ‘Male biogrammers’ code the behaviour and naturally procure the faculties of being dominant, imposing, charismatic, bread-winners, aggressive whereas on the contrary ‘Female biogrammars’ encourage women to be emotional, caring, soft, child-bearing and to express maternal instincts. Another view stems from differences in the intellectual capacity of the brain. There are claims that hormones have indirect effects on male/female brain development. One area of research focused on the issue of Brain Lateralisation or The Split Brain Theory as conceived by John Nicholson. The left hemisphere of the brain specialises in verbal and linguistic abilities whereas the right side is mainly responsible for vision-spatial abilities. It is believed that the left side is more dominant in girls which leads to greater verbal ability among them. The right side is more dominant in boys and as such they perform better in spatial and mathematics test. Thus, sociobiologists believe that gender differences are the result of biological differences. In general, men are naturally equipped to behave in the way they do because they were programmed to do so and the same is applied to women. They are considered to be passive, dependant on men because this is how roles have evolved from prehistory. The Psychoanalytic Theory also supports these views but adds further by saying that gender identity is fixed before even children are aware of genital differences. For instance, Person (1974) found that blind children develop stable gender identities and share social definitions of femininity and masculinity.
So, it’s our fate as women. We should accept it and stifle in a male dominated society with no agency just because our biology tells us that we are weak and men are strong.
Wrong! Totally wrong, it’s just one side of the debate, my dear female friends. It’s what they ‘think’, and if we philosophise on the word ‘think’; It limits to the thoughts/opinions of a group of people, and it can be counteracted. Have you already forgotten, it’s a debate! We are yet to explore the Nurture view of sociologists. Sociologists argue that human behaviour is dictated by certain principles, because on this side, they believe that people will think and do certain things as they have been taught to do or think. That is, we act as we do because we have learned to be the people we are. Sociologists advance many counter-arguments to defend their stance. However, let’s focus again on the gender-related ones. There is an indirect example which shows evidence of social construct of gender. Around 1918, in India, in a cave-like den, two abandoned female children, later called Amala and Kamala, were discovered in the company of wolves. Sociologists refer to such persons as Feral or wild children. Their claim was if human behaviour was simply predetermined genetically, then, those girls would have behaved and survived as civilised humans. Thus, sociologists formulate that no individual can become one without undergoing the process of socialisation, in the presence of human society. It is with the adherence of society that we develop our conscience of individuals constituting it. We learn the expected pattern of behaviour as no such thing as ‘instinct’ commands our willpower. Those expected pattern or guidelines for behaviour are called norms. As such here, biology is a not valid explanation to explain gender roles and identity. Instead, society shapes our gender perceptions. As far as Amala and Kamala are concerned, let’s take them as example. The Indian conservative society emphasises a lot on decency of clothing(this is a prevailing norm in Indian society), however, when discovered for the first time, the girls were unclothed because in my opinion, they were never taught to hide their body in clothes because the learning they received from the animals inculcated them that nudity is not a shame, rather it is natural to be naked. As they never received the education that clothing was necessary in society, they never wore clothes as they was no one to teach them that. So, dressing sense for females are acquired by the social learning process by inculcating and internalising the adequate norm for this in society. Thus, through what sociologist calls gender-role socialisation, we acquire notions about gender-appropriate roles and responsibilities. Feminist writer Ann Oakley heavily contributed to this view by suggesting four main ways in which gender socialisation takes place in the first years:
- Manipulation – Parents encourage behaviour that is seen as normal for the child’s sex and discourage the behaviour associated with the other sex. For instance, mothers may encourage girls to pay more attention to their appearance than boys.
- Canalisation – Children are ‘channelled’ towards activities and toys appropriate for his/her sex. For instance, girls are given dolls which reflect their desire for physical beauty, miniature houses and kitchen toys to show their future household role and arouse and sustain their maternal feelings.
- Verbal apellation – There are distinct ways to address a child depending on whether he’s a boy or girl. An experiment carried by Will et al. reveal this pattern of parental behaviour. He observed young mothers’ interaction with a baby presented as both Beth and Adam. With Beth, they used dolls and words such as ‘sweet’ to describe her. With Adam, (the same baby reintroduced but unknown to the mothers), they offered him a train and received fewer smiles. Though treated differently, it was the same child dressed in different coloured clothes.
- Different activities – Boys and girls are encouraged to pursue different activities. While we expect more indoor activities and household participation from girls, boys on the other side obtain greater freedom. This persists even while girls and boys grow older.
Simple. If socialisation within the family is the root of the problem, then we can change things pretty earlier by encouraging non-sexist education and prevent male behaviour from going wrong.
Dear girls and women, if things were so simple, everything would have changed from a long time ago. Yes, we can agree on socialisation being the cause of the problem and rectifying some educational errors could help but not solve the problem. Actually, I retake the example of Adam and Beth earlier mentioned, it is your subconscious that somehow interferes in the education of men and women. We do not readily change what existed from so long because it is here since ages, somewhere hiding in our sub-conscience. Every action cannot be a result of our decision. We may end up saying or doing something contradictory with our beliefs; it happens almost all the time so how can you consciously modify every aspect of your kids’ education to prevent sexism? And yes, don’t forget the overpowering contribution of secondary institutions of socialisation. For instance, the media through serials, daily soap operas, advertising can change the game. Media which I frequently call a powerful ideological institution, for example, can encourage boys to adopt a very active and adventurous lifestyle by constantly portraying them as the stories heroes or invincible protagonist of action movies where women may be sidekicks only to support a romantic subplot or at best be accompanying agents in spy movies with less scope for action, thus, telling girls to be passive, submissive and dependant on men for subsistence. Advertising on cosmetics may encourage exaggerated concern for looks and sex appeal for women. Not only the media, there is also various institutions like Religion, Education, Work and even Peers which influence gender perceptions. So, they are likely to contradict your plans if you want a gender-balanced society with future generations. Things are of course changing but I do not think we are likely to progress much even in this fast changing world.
So, no chance at all. We will always be at a dead-end.
Not really. Apart from the Nature v/s Nurture debate, other evidences reveal something towards a changing/mutating gender identity and its roles and responsibilities. We will take a closer look at that later.
Male and female identities
Sociologist Connell revealed two forms of dominant gender identities:
- Hegemonic Masculinity – associated with traditional physical and mental characteristics. For instance,physically, men are encouraged to adopt a particular body shape to fit in the notion of the ‘ideal’ men, having robust strength and an impressive physique. Mental abilities include logical thinking, better problem-solving faculty, leadership skill, calculating, cool among others. This is a dominant form of identity.
- Emphasised Femininity – female identities are traditionally defined by interests and needs of men. The dominant identity is the one that ‘matched and complemented’ hegemonic masculinity.
An element of choice however is to be considered as alternative to these two identities exist.
Sociologist Schauer found these alternatives:
- Subordinate masculinity – ‘retrograded’ form of masculinity. Actually, either men are unwilling or unable to fulfil hegemonic roles. For instance, physical incapacity may be a cause.
- Subversive masculinity – challenges and undermines hegemonic masculinity by alternatives. An example may be the serious hard-working student in contrast to the traditional gender markers such as bunking class or failing.
- Complicit masculinity – newly feminised masculinity. For instance, men combine paid work with their share of household works. This type sees women as equal. This identity occurs due to the changing status of woman, becoming more powerful in society.
- Marginalised masculinity – refer to men who feel excluded from family lives. They cannot fulfil traditional responsibilities of bread-winner and family provider. Willott and Griffin notes that this type is prevalent in long-term unemployed working class families as the belief about the ‘good family man’ collided with their reality.
There are three main forms of femininity in contemporary society:
- Contingent – Framed and shaped by male beliefs, behaviours and demands which include a normalised identity, where women play a secondary role to men and a sexualised identity which is fashioned through male eyes and fantasies.
- Assertive – It reflects the changing position of women. Though this identity approves of breaking free from traditional roles, they do not completely set themselves apart from their male partners. Different types of assertive identity exist: ‘girl power’ identities such as ‘sex for fun’ and the importance of female friendship but older women are excluded, modernised identities which relate for older women. These locate new-found female economic and cultural power within the context of family relationships. The assertive aspect here is the desire for personal freedom and expression. Ageing feminities which assert the right of elderly women to be fashionable, active and sexual beings.
- Autonomous – involve competition with men on female terms. Sociologist Evans points to a female individualism as part of a ‘new gender regime that frees women from traditional constraints’, such as pregnancy and childcare. Autonomous women are likely to be: highly educated, successful, professional middle class and career focused. They also tend to non-committal heterosexual relationships, and are unlikely to involve marriage and children.
Is masculinity crisis a good news for women? Why are they reticent to change?
Wrong question. If your aim is to build a matriarch in vengeance, then we are not friends. Sorry, I advocate for gender balance. And it is not definitely not a good news for no one. Sociologist Benyon underlines these causes:
- long-term unemployment
- gradual decline of traditional male employment in manufacturing industries
- lower educational achievement to girls
- rise in female-friendly service industries
Such rapid changes are causes to the unwillingness of many men to cope with the forgoing of traditional gender markers. Trans-sexuality, homosexuality and metro-sexuality also threaten hegemonic roles of men. In response to the crisis, exaggerated forms are asserted in order to re-establish traditional forms of male identity.
- Retributive – where men try to claim back ‘their’ concept of masculinity from peer groups. Typical behaviours include binge drinking, fighting and womanising. This identity is rigidly patriarchal, aggressive, oppositional to alternative identities and reclamational.
- Hypermasculinity – Wolf-Light characterises this form as ‘authoritarian, autocratic, impersonal, contemptuous and violent’.
Thus, no good news to rejoice at. Instead, we may dive back to square one in no time if this was the case of every man.
It is a rather very long post and I’m quite tired. Next time, transsexuals as a contradiction to traditional gender classification and how they differ from the characteristics associated with men or women. Also, the metro-sexuality culture in men and its impacts.
Continue to follow Understanding Individual and Society edition on Young Writers and Poets to know more!! Stay connected.