gender binary

Trapped in binaries

How many times have you filled a form requesting you to state your sex or gender? Or sex AND gender, although you may not have encountered forms that ask for both because those who make them are ill informed that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are synonymous.

So what is sex? What is gender? Sex is science, as in purely biological. Sex plainly refers to your physiology, what do you physically have inside and outside of you: a female reproductive system or a male reproductive system. Gender, on the other hand, has little to do with the body and more to do with cultural and social factors that play into our association with either category: the male or the female sex. So, gender identity is how much we identify with being masculine or feminine. For example, if you are professionally aggressive, you maybe described as having a ‘masculine energy’ or a dancer can be described to possess a certain feminine quality. It is always easier to categorise everything in binaries – in black or white, ‘this’ or ‘not this’(in essence, that or the other). Explanations in binaries are easier to understand and hence readily accepted by people and this is why we must take such explanations with a pinch of salt and that is where gender studies steps in.

Gender Studies is a growing field of study which has etched an excellent path for understanding human behaviour and society. In 1987, Candace West and Don Zimmerman brought to light a concept of ‘doing gender’. Their thesis was that gender is not a trait or role resultant of the sex but an embodiment of social practices and behaviours that are commonly associated with masculinity and femininity. So in essence, we are performing gender on an individual, interactional and institutional level. It is not something inherent, and in doing gender, we are legitimising social structures and reinforcing the male/female binary. Not doing gender is not an option, because it is a social requirement. Our performance of our genders is held accountable by peers and society at large.

We operate in a society that places a high premium on heterosexual integrity ie. to say that those who are born with certain genetalia, form a (gender) identity specific to the genetalia and have sexual desire towards the person of the opposite sex. This is also what is known as heteronormativity: heterosexuality as the only norm or the right norm, all other sexual orientations are viewed as deviant because they don’t follow the norm. However, it is imperative to realise that often, someone who has a vagina can be identified as female but the person might not necessarily identify with the aspects of their culture that are deemed feminine.

For example think of a boy who likes to play with dolls and not cars, here playing with dolls can be identified (traditionally) as feminine and the latter as masculine. In Italy, you will often find billboards with advertising for photoepilation targeted at men for the removal of their chest hair; chest hair is usually associated with virility and thus masculinity and it is not uncommon for men to shave their underarms (a practice traditionally called as feminine).

Masculinities and femininities are thus not innate but are based on and derived from social and cultural conditions. These form elements of what can be called a ‘gender identity’ and there exist masculinities and femininities: they are plural and dynamic ie. subject to change in culture and in individuals. We can all can engage in masculinities and femininities ie. reiterating the point that having a penis does not obviously mean you are masculine or having a vagina does not automatically endow you with total femininity. While this sounds beautiful on paper, the reality is far from it. Our lived lives are often defined by representations and shaped by common perceptions of these labels and femininities are understood as low masculinities. The hierarchy where masculine is above or better feminine is grossly problematic. When you tease someone about being ‘girly’, you are saying that he is less masculine and thereby feminine and thus lesser and you are reinforcing the idea that masculinity is the ideal and everything else falls short of that ideal. In doing this, you are reproducing the idea that women and men aren’t equal.

Broadly, masculinity is understood as all those qualities that were traditionally associated with a man: strength, virility, ambition, boldness and so on and femininity is traditionally understood in terms like nurturing, fluidity and gentleness. The truth is that we all possess these qualities and that makes us part masculine and part feminine, going by pure semantics. There is no hierarchy between masculinity and femininity. We as individuals are consciously trying to shape our identity and in doing so we use and discard the elements of masculinity and femininity throughout our life and it is wrong to place value on such use; the context defines the whys and hows of engaging in masculinities and femininities.

Here is a Humans of New York picture (HONY).


“He wanted to be a princess, and I thought it was a little too early to be imposing gender.”

What do you think the mother means when she says this?





A former features writer with The Hindu, she is currently doing a Master's programme in Sociology and Social Anthropology from Central European University. She also has a degree in journalism from Madras Christian College and has obtained a post-graduate diploma in Television Journalism from Asian College of Journalism. Her academic interests lie in the sociology of the body and gender, men and masculinities, and, cinema and modernity. She can be reached at vbhandaram [at] gmail [dot] com

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