“Omg! That Kurt guy from Glee? What’s the deal with him! I don’t get it. He’s a boy but he sounds and behaves kind of like a girl. And Unique Adams! He’s a boy too but dresses up like a girl. I’m so confused!”
A few days ago, I was approached to write for “Schools of Equality” on Gender and Sex. I realized after exploring the deeper issues relating to gender for so long in my study and work, I had lost sight of the fundamentals. So, here I am, re-investigating them. I tried reading up but somewhere down the line, I remembered that examples speak louder than dry facts and theory. I thought that some of my own life experience would serve as a good examples as part of the discussion. But first I’ll explain some of the basics.
Gender and sex are often seen as interchangeable terms although it is important to make a distinction. Gender is a social construct while sex is a biological construct. Sex comprises of what makes you male or female such as biological characteristics. For example,
• Women menstruate while men don’t
• Women have developed breasts that are capable of lactating and a womb and ovaries, while men don’t
• Men have testicles but women don’t
• Men have heavier skulls and bone structures than women
It is important to acknowledge the exceptions as well. Individuals with mixed sex factors are intersexual i.e., they may be born with mostly male-like anatomy but may identify themselves as a female and vice-versa. Sometimes intersex characteristics don’t present themselves at the time of birth and may appear at puberty in which case, the individual may choose to surgically “change” to the sex they most identify themselves with. The second exception, transgender or transsexuals, are individuals whose self-identities don’t comfortably fit with their biological make-up. An individual may be male at birth but may hold a gender identity as feminine. These concepts will be clearer once gender is discussed and how it is related to sex.
Gender refers to the socially or culturally constructed roles assigned to males and females i.e., gender is what makes you masculine or feminine. Culture determines gender roles and what is considered masculine and feminine. For example, the words commonly used to describe femininity are:
• Sexually submissive
• Sexually aggressive
These gender stereotypes to a large extent impact gender dynamics; how men and women are perceived and what is expected out of them. As children, boys and girls assimilate gender roles from their parents. Usually by the age of 3, they learn to choose toys and clothes that are “appropriate” to their gender. Blue for boys and pink for girls, cars for boys and Barbie dolls for girls, pants for boys and pretty dresses for girls. As generalized and simple as this may seem, it varies greatly culturally and sometimes religiously. The exception in this case are androgynous individuals. These are people who do not exhibit predominant masculine or feminine traits. In other words, they are gender neutral. Many at times these assigned gender roles and stereotypes give rise to gender bias and oppression. For this reason, it is pivotal to recognize the difference between gender and sex and the complexities involved.
I was born and raised in a fairly orthodox South Indian family; my grandfather took great pride in being a Brahmin. In my teen years, I started to realize that some liberties that the male members shared in my family, I was denied of. I grew up seeing my mother being the sole income earner of the family. She would come back from work and make dinner. She would then wake up at 4am the next day and make breakfast, lunch and head to work. And repeat. There were times I have been told by her that as a woman, that’s how life will be, that’s what you ought to do and there is a certain way you are expected to behave. Sometimes the values you grow up with, become such an integral part of your personality that it is hard to disconnect even if they oppress you and hold you back from being the best version of yourself.
The negative gender stereotypes I grew up around drove me to address these gender issues. I would think repeatedly, why was mom expected to cook 3 meals a day? Why were my male friends allowed to stay out late while I had a strict curfew? Why was I questioned about my decision to pursue a master’s degree and then subsequently a PhD? Currently, I am doing a research on Indian immigrant women in New Zealand and their experiences with domestic violence. Identifying and challenging gender stereotypes maybe a difficult task for many of us as we could be viewed as a minority but has the potential to make a difference in many people’s lives. Media is filled with negative gender stereotypes. Healthy discussions on how you feel about these issues may help spread awareness in your friends circle and maybe even family. Respecting individuals for who they choose to be regardless of their gender and sex may serve as a key starting point. This could be in the form of pointing out sexist comments and jokes casually made by people you know. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is one of the philosophies I try to live by. Be comfortable under your skin; if you feel like expressing yourself not normally associated with your gender, think about whether or not it is safe to do so. If it is safe, give it a shot. You might be helping other people who are going through similar issues; people will learn from your example.
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”
― Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden