The Social Construction Of Gender and Struggling With Gender Identity

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The innate human need to differentiate has led to the social construction of a classification system, known as gender. Though its roles have evolved and changed over time, for countless generations, gender has been played out in society. Therefore, gender, which has a foundation that is both biological and cultural, can be considered a socially constructed tool used for human classification.

Two fundamental reasons behind why gender has been socially constructed include the facts that humans are extremely relational and that the majority of our behaviors are learned (Lorber 1993). Gender persists in society because it is planted at birth and then carefully nurtured until the individual accepts this notion that, fundamentally, their genitalia affects who they are which eventually becomes a major defining aspect of their personal identity. Judith Lorber argues that gender develops in a gradual yet linear manner. Children are assigned to a sex category, either male or female, based off of the genitalia present at birth. Next, the parents plant the seed by dressing their child in ways that promote, stereotypically, that child’s respective gender (1993). Parents then teach their children how someone of their gender should act, think, and operate ‘normally’ in society. By teaching their child what it means, socially, to be a man or woman, parents are participating in the construction of gender, just as their parents did. Because humans are so relational, by the time an individual reaches adulthood, the idea that they belong to a specific gender category is ingrained and often determines who they are, therefore leading individuals to project their gender on those around them, effectively repeating the cycle and ‘doing gender’ effectively (Lorber 1993).

A well-known case that supports these notions is the John/Joan case in which a circumcision was botched, and the child’s parents were advised to raise him as female. For many years, John ‘did gender’ as a female, because his parents groomed him to act in ways that are considered ‘normal’ for a woman (Fausto-Sterling 2000). However, it became obvious that despite the fact that he was told to act in a ‘feminine’ manner, John knew internally that he was not a female which shows that gender is a sociological notion, an act, not something deeply rooted within each of us.

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Not only does this idea of gender influence people in society, but it also influences science. Socially constructed gender stereotypes known to be associated with both the male and female genders influence the ways in which scientists describe and depict cellular reproductive interactions (Martin 1991). It is arguable that for the majority of individuals, scientific discoveries and explanations are the source of facts found to be most easily accepted, which often equate to the ‘truth’. Learners are taught from a young age that what is written textbooks is strict fact, and that to question a scientific finding is to deem those qualified scientists less knowledgeable than the challenger, a taboo of sorts.

On a ‘biocultural’ level, gender is further solidified as a social and cultural construction through the usage of phrases and action words that further perpetuate gender stereotypes. Stereotypically, a man is strong, protective, valiant, and makes a woman their conquest. As Emily Martin argues, this type of behavior is validated in the words and phrases used to describe how sperm and eggs interact (1991). This shows that even in Western educational systems, gender is being constructed, but in a manner that is so disguised, it is hardly recognizable.

Humans have an innate nature to organize and categorize, especially when it comes to other people. Markers such as dress, mannerisms, secondary sex characteristics, and job types can be used to help others not only determine differences between one another, but also determine similarities to themselves so that they can self-assign to a category (Lorber 1993). These types of markers and other experiences regarding social environments attribute to the willingness of self-placement into a specific gender category and the will to express that category as a personal identity (Fausto-Sterling 2000). The fact that humans want to nurture feelings of belonging is no secret, and this naturally sought-after opportunity to obtain obvious membership of a group for the entirety of one’s life is crucial in understanding how gender is socially constructed.

Because this notion of gender is so deeply rooted in the belief system of Western civilization, it will be extremely difficult to completely obliterate the idea that simply because a child has a vagina, they must use the pronoun ‘she,’ favor the color pink, and want to be a stay at home mom. Challenging typical gender roles is a start to the war against the social construction of gender. However, in order to propel the progress forward, the public must be educated on these deeply rooted notions and light must be shed on the hidden ways that gender is constructed both scientifically and in the ways people go about everyday life. Until these things happen, Western civilization will continue to ‘do gender’ by categorizing and organizing people into perfectly shaped boxes, which in reality, is impossible.

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