Gender gingerbread people and peacocks — Breaking down gender essentialism
So, the inevitable has happened. You are thinking through gender as a social construct, the notion that all that we assign to a given gender — housework, repair jobs, parenting, you know, the usual — is just a construction of the patriarchy designed to keep one gender superior to the other. Then you begin to deconstruct fashion, make-up, hair, music… the list becomes endless. The point where you may as well Eeyore and turtle up with a mug of coco and the latest Judith Butler. You know, that feeling.
Tongue slightly out of cheek, sometimes I do the whole thought experiment of socially constructed gender, trying to unpack my own gender identity and privileges just so I can better understand myself. I fully appreciate that the vast majority of people have no compulsions or conniptions about their gender or gendered identity, just preferring to exist and just be, which is fine. However, given that a lot of my research and reading is grounded in intersectional theory, I find it useful to unpack things, especially what I take for granted.
Generally, society tends to assume that gender begins at XX/XY and ends somewhere around husband/wife, with a few kids and lots of expectations thrown in for good measure. Somewhere in my twenties hinterland I was introduced to the gender gingerbread person, Kimberley Crenshaw, and a massive dollop of feminist banter from soon to be very good friends. Out of this gloop of identity spinning sidereal came a personal appreciation for how gender is constructed in three layers:
1. Our own internal gender compass/identity
2. Our external biology dictated at conception by genetics
3. Gender expression
Societally we tend to conflate all three into this amorphous blob we like to call gender, male/female and all the canards attached to it. We like to structurally place people into these boxes because it suits the needs of a capitalist market society that must sell us all the things. Yes, I am going there — I am indeed wrapping up our gender issues with capitalism, power dynamics, and need to sell us all the pink and blue objects just because we have certain genitals. Gender expression and biological labels are powerful indicators, often assigned at birth, reinforced through social upbringing, and hard to breakout of without cause a stir. The very essence of your assigned identity is commodified, packaged up, and sold to you as this hill from which you may never climb down from.
Of course, this is a load of codswallop. Each of us assimilates this screed, unless we have parents and teachers who cut from different social cloth, yet by the time we reach adulthood we have generally transcended the absolutes encouraged by marketing, education, media, and society at large. None of us as alpha examples of our gender, for to be such a thing would break the back of the hardiest folk. Thus, it becomes how much do we want to rigidly reinforce the constrictions of gender, and how far to we want to create our own gender expression.
You may notice I am leaving gender identity out of this. How you personally relate to your gender is a separate issue entirely, one which invites a level of complexity most people have no notion of, nor wish to delve into. The fact remains that even in a genderless society where you were free to buy any and everything you wished and be as butch or femme as you like, how you relate to your physical form is a completely separate issue. Your genetics may have given you a certain form, but if your internal gender identity states something different, then you have every right without fear to be able to conform your flesh to that self-image. How you then dress it up, be it blazing femme peacock or dandy or tracksuited butch has nothing to do with this dynamic.
And there lies the rub for most conversations surrounding gender. The confusion of the peacockery with identity. One may flow into the other, but like correlation is not causation just because your physical form is XX or XY (or everything in between) does not mean you have to act, dress, or socially perform a certain way. For me this lies at the heart of the feminist debate over gender and transgender rights and place in society — namely, we confuse the personal right to biological gender identity with the gender performance we undertake on the daily. Being assigned a gender at birth is a marketing exercise, a means through which the leavers of control and power are played out. It is not a lifelong sentence to behave or act in a rigid code, but it is often portrayed as such.
Internal identity, and the physical form you inhabit, are a matter for you and your own understanding. No matter what marketing and education is foisted onto you, ultimately you have to live with your own knowing and sense of self. How you externalise that into the pageantry of life is also your own choice, though those choices are shaped heavily by all the influences around you.
The crux of this article is that we need to separate the two portions of this conversation — the structured application of gender as a marketing and control dynamic, and the internal notion of a gendered self. By tackling the first we can break down the performative notion of gender, and potentially bring about a genderless society where we can all just be whatever we want. The second requires a leap of faith and understanding in that even without societal gender identity there is still an internal gendered self that wishes to correspond the internal self with external biology. This leaves room for the hinterland beyond biological cisnormativity, allowing those who wish to reshape their biology to do so in the fullness and wellness of society. Only when we split these two questions apart can we tackle the gendered modes of control without demonising those who wish to externalise their internal gender by reshaping their biology.