Social Construction of Gender and Performance


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Though gender may seem like a simple term, it is truly quite complex in nature. What is seen as acceptable, appropriate, or desireable for a specific biological sex is engrained in everyone’s subconscious. The idea of gender is different throughout many cultures, and many different parts of the world. For example, the Two Spirit tribe as well as many native Hawaiians practice gender entirely different from the United States. Both the Two Spirit Tribe and native Hawaiians believe that men and women don’t have discrete and opposite roles, and a person having traits from both genders is something to be celebrated. The idea of gender in the western world in contrast, is a human invention rather than a natural phenomenon. Gender is a classification system that reflects and reproduces the ways in which people interpret these biological distinctions. [Lecture]. Societal expectations for both men and women have changed throughout United States history, and though expectations have changed, concepts of gender have not evolved. Due to this lack of evolution, gender is seen as a structure rather than being fluid, mothers have a great financial burden, and the mass media objectifies women.

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Gender can be shown as a structured phenomenon in Barbara Riseman’s essay, “Gender as a Structure.”, many perspectives and many theories on gender are discussed. The reinforcement theory for example, says that girls grow nurturant personalities because they are given praise and attention for doing gendered actions, such as playing with dolls. While boys on the other hand, are given praise for having competitive qualities. This theory shows that the reinforcement of gender towards children, is what begins the evolution of gendered personalities. Theorists Ruddich and Atheker also have an idea of gender construction through maternal thinking, which means that the constant nature of mothering gives developing girls a psychological framework for peace. This theory however, does not apply to the young girls who do not fall in this “peaceful” category, which shows that the evolution of gender is not simply based on the idea of mothering. Deceptive distinction, also refers to the overreliance on the idea of gender as the primary explanation for stratification, which shows that the reason for stratification can oftentimes not focus on other factors. The passive and peaceful qualities that are taught to women, are not represented with women in the workforce. Women who have access to powerful mentors, and have access to upward mobility, behave like others regardless of sexual orientation. This shows that women aren’t always influenced by sex-role socialization, but instead can be seen through structural systems. These theories show that gender has not evolved much, because it is still believed by many that gender is influenced through sex role socialization. Lober’s perspective of gender states that gender establishes expectations for individuals, and social processes for daily life. Lorber argues that gender differences are a mean to justify sexual stratification. There are three levels of gender differentiation, at the individual, at the interactional level, and at the institutional level. Overall, theories and justifications of gender stratification represent the unevolved ideas of gender in westernized societies.

Gender as a structure is also discussed in Emily Kane’s essay, “No Way My Boys Are Going to Be Like That!”, where qualitative research is done on families with boys and girls of preschool age. Kane discovered that fathers play a central role in a son’s masculinity in a hegemonic way. The main characteristics of hegemonic masculinity is heterosexuality, aggression, and limited emotions. This goes to show that the idea of hegemonic masculinity, is not very evolved and is still practiced in most heterosexual families. Another factor in homes is accountability in terms of gender, where people do gender in accordance with expectations of others and resist to stray from these expectations. Families feel accountable if their children do not practice gender in a conforming way. One interesting quality that Kane noticed however, was that most mothers and fathers celebrated gender nonconformity in their daughters, while behaviors that are nonconforming in boys received a negative response. This shows that gender ideologies of men are seen as superior to women due to parents wanting both their sons and daughters to have qualities that have been constructed to be qualities of men. This represents that the gender ideologies in today’s world, still have a negative connotation when it comes to female behaviors, and being a female in its entirety. Afterall, masculinity does not exist except in contrast to femininity according to Kimmel. Overall, this essay shows that parents are aware that they are responsible for constructing the gender of their children, and do not believe that gender is purely biological. Biology versus construction can be represented in the definitions of gender essentialism, where it is believed humans are hard-wired to behave in certain gendered ways. While the social construction of gender says that social, cultural, and historical contexts shape these ideologies. [Lecture]. However, the negative responses to their sons having feminine qualities goes to show that the construction of gender have not evolved much.

The financial burden women face after having children is unfortunate, and represents how little United States policies have evolved to accommodate to motherhood. In Anne Crittenden’s essay, “The Mommy Tax”, she explains the burdens that motherhood brings for women in the workforce, and as a means of making money. Anne explains that having children is the highest tax on families, and a couple could lose $1.3 million dollars in a lifetime if they decide to have children. A reason for this loss in wealth, as well as women’s inability to make their way up the workforce is the fact that many employers fail to give mothers a paid maternity leave. Another factor that limits the benefits of women if they decide to leave after having a child, is that many lose their chances of receiving seniority benefits completely is they choose to go on maternity leave. Seniority benefits are crucial for making better wages, retirement, and many other benefits that a job offers. Mothers losing ability to get seniority and unpaid maternity leave both play a role in the family wage gap in the United States. University of Michigan also found that in the late 80’s, women’s average income was 61% that of a man’s, despite 96% of women were working. Anne also discovered that a more accurate statistic is that women make 60 cents to a man’s dollar, rather than 77 cents to a man’s dollar. This is because the old statistic only accounts for full time working women. Most mothers are not capable of working full-time the first few years of a child’s life. The policies and little benefits a woman is able to receive after having a child, represent how little the idea of gender has evolved overtime.

Another reason for this lack of evolution is because of advertisements objectifying women in the United States. In the documentary Miss Representation, the idea that women are generally the main people in advertisements, and are used to sell products in submissive and vulnerable ways is discussed. One issue with advertisements is the sexualization of random items such as food. Young women are shown in food advertisements such as Carl’s Jr., and many other companies to get the attention of the viewer by wearing little clothing, and making women talk in seductive voices. There is also the sexualization of lesbians in the notorious haagen daz commercials. In many fashion magazines such as Guess, and Vogue, women are positioned in “silly”, passive, and vulnerable poses, while men’s poses are usually uplifting and represent power. Another issue that is presented is that eurocentric ideologies are seen all around the world, such as Chinese and Japanese vogue. These near to impossible beauty standards brought upon women is having an international affect. The documentary also mentions that 91 percent of those who do cosmetic surgery are female. Advertisements also show the infantilization of young girls. Girls are shown with big eyes, a big head, and a petite body figure. Another effect to many of these problems within advertisements is that the U.S. has the highest rates of sexually transmitted infection and teen pregnancy than any other developing country, where the teen pregnancy rate rose to a shocking 72.2 percent. This goes to show little evolution that has occurred in advertisements when it comes to gender norms.

As societal norms continue to change throughout history, it is uncertain what results of gender construction will cause in the near future. However, the gender ideologies that are present today lack evolution, and have resulted in the lack of gender fluidity, mothers have a great financial burden, and advertisements show women in a powerless way, while uplifting men. All of these factors have created a society that shape gender by social cultures and ideologies, and unfortunately these factors in the United States have not changed much throughout history. Chimamanda Ngozi in We Should all be Feminists once said,”We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.”        

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