Written by Niklas Illenseer
I grew up in the pallid, yet peaceful, German countryside. Like other boys, I joined the soccer team and spent my days playing in the dirt and chasing farm animals. Growing into my enlightening teenage years, I realized that I didn’t fit in as much as I’d thought I did. I loved cooking and baking, asked my grandmas for sewing advice, and had mostly girl friends, but no girlfriends. I joined the soccer team, but also the orchestra. I listened to rock, but also to Shakira. And I was obsessed with horses.
My difference eventually peaked with a relative slandering my parents for raising a ‘faggot’, because they let me paint and play with dolls.
Obviously, there was something intrinsically confusing about my behavior that set people off or made them wonder about me. A few years have passed, and the political landscape has progressed socially in many ways, while has also becoming even more divisive, even more divided. Various campaigns rally to rethink outdated gender structures and inequalities, while a pussy-grabbing misogynist reigns across the sea. Welcome to the gender debate.
Although this topic is ever-so divisive, opinions are strangely uninformed. There seems to be continuing confusion about simple terminology. For many, it’s the very definition of gender that causes bewilderment. I’ve learned that when thinking about biological sex we ask about our bodies; whereas when considering gender, we ask, ‘What defines a man/woman?’ and ‘How does one fit in with such characteristics?’. In highly simplified terms, sex is about what’s between your thighs; gender is about what’s between your ears. While one can potentially measure organs and hormones, one can’t do such a thing with gender. In most societies, your gender is assigned, often falsely, according to sex. If you are born with a vagina, you are a girl, and are told what it means to be one and how to behave like it. You are predestined to be caring and tidy, kind and cute. This false correlation between gender and sex is incredibly influential in our daily lives. We live with these stereotypes and keep educating categories we are not born into but are put into. Put ourselves into.
Photo by Harlie Raethel
The social construct
Two words, overheard and overused. Gender is a cognitive category, a box that helps sort things into different branches to help us understand, but the attributes are no more than commonly held assumptions we try to align with our fallacious binary understanding of sex. Yet however much we talk about social constructs, in the end, men do on average produce more testosterone and have biologically more muscle strength. Taking this as a whole explanatory argument, however, is flawed. Instead, we should treat it as the starting point.
At first glance, biological sex seems objective; gender and society does not play a role. This misleads us to believe that masculine aggression, for example, is a result of inherently higher levels of hormones such as testosterone. What is often neglected in this seemingly simple correlation is the role of our socialized behavior. Only recently has research begun to consider societal and social influences. Whereas hormones do influence our behavior, our behavior also influences our hormones. Challenging, competitive situations activate testosterone; this testosterone, in turn, amplifies such aggressive behavior, generating more testosterone, generating more such behavior – an upward spiral. Interestingly, research further suggests that testosterone alone actually does not induce aggressive behavior, but only “underlying motivations and reaction to environmental conditions”. A trigger is needed to activate the aggression. Moreover, testosterone falls when men become fathers or practice extensive childcare. From this, we can see that it is our behavior and particularly gender infused stereotypes that mobilize such hormone mechanisms.
This misleading concept of a gender-sex connection is at the core of why various attributes are almost exclusively assigned to either men or women. We keep perpetuating the belief that each of these characteristics belongs strictly to one gender. While we allow women to show weakness, it counts publicly as improper for men, and while men are naturally dominant leading figures, seeing this trait in women is less easily accepted. In many ways, society is hyper-masculine; we reward aggressive, competitive, and risky behavior more than traditionally feminine tendencies. To endure in society, one must show such characteristics eventually, and this becomes apparent looking at the market. We have to be competitive; we have to behave aggressively (to a certain degree) to succeed. While jobs in child or elderly care, typically held by women, have disproportionately lower salaries. Rewarding ‘masculine’ traits leads us to adjust our behavior accordingly. Men and women alike are pressured to behave correspondingly and perform the respective gender stereotype. Again, yes, men are born with naturally more testosterone, but gender socialization contributes to genetic differences. Although heritable hormone differences are important, they are only part of the explanation. Socialization along lines of gender is often wrongly overlooked, causing a very one-sided account. Our behavior influences our biology, and biology is no destiny.
The important point is: we are not born with either masculinity or femininity, and neither of them can be found in our genetics. This becomes painfully obvious when we look at the varying and dynamic scope of gender-appropriate behavior or characteristics across cultures. As a concept, gender and its norms continuously change with society. For instance, prior to the Second World War, and Eleanor Roosevelt rocking her tender rose dress, pink was the color for men, viewed as both strong and blunt, daring and confident. Blue, by contrast, was the suitable color for girls and women, displaying fragility and softness. If the colors that are associated with personality traits can change, then the attributes that hide behind them can as well. Just as neither blue or pink are intrinsically masculine or feminine, neither are traits such as kindness and aggression, or strength and vulnerability. Once we realize that gender is something we produce and perform, we come to understand that nothing about it is fixed. Gender as a concept is not rooted in genitalia, bodily physiques, or chromosomes. It is human-made and exists primarily in our minds. Taking this thought still further, we realize that we can and should do without such division.
Photo by Anna Sastre
The gender burden
Why should we care – what’s so wrong with it? Clear categories make our life easier, and as people we can’t help putting things in boxes to make sense of them. However, getting rid of this categorical thinking does not take away from anyone, it only gives. To everyone. Often overlooked, particularly by men, is the fact that the eroding of gender norms benefits women and men alike, even when most men have not realized that they suffer from these norms in the first place. Consider that once we loosen our mental grip on gender norms, employers will likely see the benefits of extended parental leave for both women and men. Giving both parents a free decision between family or career, and relaxing the pressure on them to work or stay home. Naturally, as long as we connect women with the ‘softer’ traits that remain unrewarded in our society, women will earn less, and will ultimately be the ones staying at home. It’s a vicious circle. Revoking gender norms lifts that wrong correlation and will be a step towards truly equal pay and equity.
The notion of supposed gender neutrality stems yet another obscured suggestion: gender-neutral means that all our features vanish into a grey blob of indefinability. That is, of course, erroneous. Such a way of thinking of gender and considering the possibility of gender neutrality does not aim to eradicate any identity affiliation one could have with one’s gender. On the contrary, it takes the hurdle and enables us to see ourselves for our qualities more than for how much we fit into a social governance. If we start thinking of us as strong instead of as masculine and consequently strong, and as kind instead of as feminine and consequently kind, we, if anything, simply take yet another impediment away from how we see and value ourselves and others. After all, norms are relational; we see something as masculine only because we know that there is a counterpart. Without femininity, there would be no masculinity. Without such dichotomous thinking, that is so fallaciously connected to the sex division, there would be no separation to begin with.
As demonstrated earlier, almost always it is our predispositions that influence our decisions. A world, that dissolves such gender-related pressures and attributes marks an incredible leap in all forms. This, by no means, is advocating to ignore and blindsight anything attributed to gender and call it gender-neutrality. Instead, we reach this by being aware of what we do, what we say, how we act and react, what we expect and give. This is not only about kids playing with dolls, it is about teenagers subconsciously choosing ‘appropriate’ classes and hobbies in school, about adults choosing ‘appropriate’ jobs, and the way politicians decide legislation. It is incremental to become aware of the fact that this gender debate is not about artificially adding gender to something; it has been there all along, only unquestioned. Much more, it is about reflecting on how we have made gender work until now.
Everyone thinks in categories, even those who retort it. Everyone thinks in defaults. I believe this is not something we can fully eradicate, most definitely not in the short-run. However, acknowledging that we might never reach the goal of default-free thinking should not keep us from trying. Accustoming ourselves to categories, taking them for granted and leaving them unquestioned is not doing us any good. A utopia would be a future that lightens the burden of gender condemnation from the shoulders of women and men alike. In the beginning, I pointed out that there was something intrinsically confusing about my behavior. I was lucky enough to grow up in a supportive home, and with a confidence to counter more than frequent comments. Not everyone has this luxury. Getting rid of the tight-knitted gender web would save everyone from experiencing scrutinization, inequality, and shame for unintentionally swimming against outdated currents.