Gender - Why it Should Disappear
Part 1 - What the hell is it?
Gender is a topic that I honestly lack an innate understanding of, and no matter how many articles I read, how many videos I watch, how many people I ask or how much time I devote to thinking about it, its nature continues to evade me. This post is my attempt to collect and explain my thoughts. There might be some meandering and repetition, but for the most part the length is representative of how much I think about it, and how complex I perceive it to be.
I don’t want to get into the semantics; if you believe that I use certain words incorrectly, I don’t really care, at least not enough to argue with you about it. I will define the words as I introduce them, and these definitions will be descriptive – they describe what I mean by the terms as I use them in this text, not what is “objectively true”, if such a thing even exists. I also come into this with certain starting assumptions, and if you believe they are incorrect, tough luck – they are simply what I observed in my life. They probably aren’t objective and all-encompassing, so you may as well call them personal experiences.
“Male”, “Female”, “Man” and “Woman”. I treat male and female as descriptors of biological sex. These are things like chromosomes and primary sexual characteristics. For example, if you were born with a penis, I would consider you a biological male (or Assigned Male at Birth, AMAB, as the trans community would say). Man and woman, on the other hand, are descriptors of societal gender. It’s the tendency to express oneself and behave a certain way in social situations, use a given set of pronouns, and so on. This is the distinction between sex and gender – sex is biological, gender is… a social construct.
There are two big camps of thought when it comes to what gender is (they are “gender essentialism” and “performative gender”, to use some fancy words). One states that gender is derived from biological sex. There is some merit to it; after all, the vast majority of people born male also identify as men, and the vast majority of people born as female identify as women. The other says that gender is more of a tool meant to instruct behaviour and actions. Something like girls typically having longer hair than boys; there is nothing special going on between biological sex and hair length, it’s just something lots of people have agreed upon and put into practice – a social construct. Being absolutist about which is right and which is wrong is futile in my opinion. Both camps have decent ways to justify their position, so I honestly feel like the “truth” lies somewhere in-between. I see a justification for that point of view in numerous examples of things that are both social constructs, rather than biological absolutes, yet that also have basis in biology. For example, treating men (males) as stronger than women (females) can be justified due to biological differences between the sexes, but it’s an idea enforced by societal interactions; a man getting beaten by a woman can be seen as a humorous event by some because it defies the biological assumption, without taking into account varieties in lifestyles, activities, and so on - a female wrestler will be stronger and/or more competent in a fight than the vast majority of men out there.
Furthermore, something being constructed by society would likely be perceived in different ways across different societies, whether they’re different geographically or temporally. In most industrial countries, pink nowadays is associated with girls and femininity, whereas blue is associated with boys and masculinity, yet going back around 120 years would reveal the opposite; after all, blue is a gentle colour, whereas pink is very bright and out there, and also similar to red, which reminds one of blood and bravery, along with a host of other masculine connotations. Then, geographic differences manifest themselves in, among other things, language. In English, there are of course words to denote different genders, but beyond the realm of pronouns, gender rarely comes into play. Meanwhile, Polish takes gendered language to the extreme, offering not just different pronouns, but also different forms of adjectives, verbs (if in past tense), and a host of other things. By contrast, in Japanese it is very easy to be gender neutral, as pronouns are very often derived from context rather than stated, and even when they’re present, they’re ambiguous (for example, the “female” pronoun 私 is less about “female” than it is about elegance and formality). Different societies, different constructs.
I personally veer far more towards the social construct idea (as you may have guessed from how much time I spent giving examples in favour of it), because that’s precisely how I experience gender – socially. When I sit in my room, learning, writing, reading, listening to music and so on, gender does not exist. It’s not that I think “I am X, but it doesn’t matter now”, I simply don’t think of myself as anything. It is only when I have to interact with other people (particularly in real life, where voice and appearance play a large role in the interaction) that gender appears. And even then, it was never “I am”, but rather “People perceive me as”. My gender was something entirely dependent on how others perceived me, and furthermore, was only relevant in cases where the perception of others was meaningful. Thus, it influenced the kinds of pronouns I reacted to, or the kinds of clothes I wore, but it didn’t have an effect on my interests, likes and dislikes, or thoughts on various topics.
It’s not easy to tell how much the societal construct of gender plays into people’s identity as their gender. It’s not easy, because there aren’t really any people who were able to grow up with no idea of gender. Even if you weren’t aware of it or didn’t know the term, most of us were conditioned a certain way from a young age. Let’s take the prior example of men being stronger. A newborn male and a newborn female are both pathetically weak and incapable of tending to their most basic needs – there is no gender disparity in strength here. At, say, age 15, the difference might be there, but where does it come from? Does the greater muscle mass for males come from their biology, or from their societal interactions? When girls are tasked to help with cooking and cleaning, while boys are expected to help with digging in the backyard or carrying heavy stuff, is it because their biology makes them more suited for it, or is it just that the people assigning them these jobs perceive them through the lens of societal gender, and with enough years of carrying furniture, you end up being physically stronger than those who were more often told to bake cookies? Biologically, it makes sense for males to be stronger (or at least have a predisposition for greater muscle mass), but why should it carry over to society? We live in a world where biology grows more and more distant to our everyday lives. What difference does muscle mass make when we study in school for 6 hours a day, for example? Considering the modern lifestyle in Europe, North America and Oceania, where the average person sees little mandatory physical exercise, the strength difference between males and females should diminish greatly. Are the differences we see now in things like aggression levels, strength levels, emotional capacity, etc. the true manifestations of innate biological differences, or are they simply the result of the conditioning applied to males and females by the society (or maybe a mix of both)?
Part 2 - The good [lol], the bad and the ugly
When I say that “male” and “female” describe biological sex, it gives a pretty good idea of what to look for in order to identify whether someone’s male or female. In other words, the question “What does it mean to be male/female?” has clear answers – having a given set of chromosomes, or a given kind of genitalia. Saying that “man” and “woman” are societal constructs, though, makes the answer to “What does it mean to be a man/woman?” much more ambiguous. The idea is often tied to masculinity and femininity, but it only pushes the question back at best, and creates circular reasoning at worst, where a man is someone who is masculine, and a masculine person is someone who’s a man.
If you ask a hundred different people what it means to be a man or a woman, you may very well get a hundred different answers. There will be some overlap, but in general most people have their own idea. Where it comes from, I honestly don’t know, since the thought process is alien to me. To some people, being a man means being resourceful, courageous, ready to make sacrifices. To some, being a woman means being compassionate and caring for others. For some, men are “bread givers” above all, and a woman isn’t really a woman if she cannot cook.
What’s interesting, when you think about it, is that these are not exclusive; in fact, they can be applied to the other gender just fine, but it is their lack that causes problems. Very few will scoff at the idea of a strong, resourceful and courageous individual being a woman, or of a man who’s compassionate and cares for others’ well-being. But when these traits are missing, the person’s “status” comes into question. Few would speak ill of a bodybuilder who has a softer side and likes to take pictures with his pets. But take a scrawny kid who keeps to himself instead of being out-there, loud and proud, and he’s bound to get bullied in school, called a sissy and a faggot (particularly if it’s a US public school). Even though he does not express traditionally feminine traits, it’s the lack of masculine traits that leads to insults and getting picked on.
The attributes I described above are really just inspirational jargon, the kind of stuff you get when looking up the question online. In practice, that’s not how most people treat gender. When you see someone on the street, you don’t know their interests, character traits, or anything like that. A lot of our daily interaction with gender comes down to a few things. One is the clothes one wears – if you see someone wearing a skirt and knee-high socks, you’ll likely treat that person as a woman. Second are other audiovisual characteristics, such as voice, hairstyle, cosmetics, or the way one walks. Typically, long hair and plenty of makeup is associated with women, whereas a wide gait and stiff arms sticking away from the torso are seen as masculine. Third is the people and activities one associates with in one’s free time. Many people, for whatever reason, gravitate towards other people of their gender identity in activities they engage in, and consequently assume their gender. A book or video about makeup will liberally assume that the reader/viewer is a woman. In communities built around shooter games, everyone will call you “he”, “a guy”, “dude” and so on, unless you specifically correct them.
These things are quite arbitrary, in and of themselves. Consider clothes, for one. Most people would agree that, if someone wears a skirt, they’re either a woman or a Scot. And just like with boys and blue, a skirt has nothing tying it to biological sex, but is instead all about gender; society just created the assumption that a skirt is feminine. As such, women are free to wear skirts if they feel like it, and men are discouraged from doing so. Very similar justification can be used to explain the gender association of different activities, like makeup and shooter games. What’s more, they’re self-propelling, as is well documented in the case of games, where women often experience harassment and unwanted attention from other players, discouraging them from entering such spaces. “Ways of being”, such as women being more tidy, and men being more brash, may in some minute amount derive from biological sex, but are more likely just societal, as well. Is it any wonder that men are quick to put their fists up, when fistfights during childhoods are dismissed with “boys will be boys”, a lot of masculine behaviours and activities revolve around physical strength, and the lack of said strength often leads to one being ridiculed? When knocking someone out is seen as more masculine than backing out (don’t be a pussy, you have balls or not?), when slamming the desk and cursing over a frustrating situation is seen as normal, but crying leads to condescending looks? What’s more likely, that all of these come together and make a toxic concoction that inhibits one’s logical faculty for the sake of preserving status and identity, or that testosterone is one helluva drug?
Given the way the previous paragraph turned out, let’s focus on masculinity for now. It’s quite ironic how, despite being the “stronger” sex, masculinity is incredibly fragile. In the words of George Carlin, “I have to go overseas, honey, and risk having my balls shot off, or else the rest of the boys will laugh at me and say I don’t have enough balls to go overseas and have my balls shot off”. Men-centric circles often invoke questioning of one’s masculinity to get people to do their bidding, by tying identity to what one ought to do, often in service of others. A real man supports his family financially, a real man is willing to stand for what he believes in, even if it means going to war, a real man can remain headstrong under extreme duress, a real man is handy with tools. With how much of manliness is tied to serving and protecting others, perhaps it’d explain the hostility from men aimed at people breaking out of gender norms. When one chooses to be the protected rather than the protector, they betray one half of the population by not doing their protective duty, and cause problems for the other half, who now have more work to do and less people to do it. And with how how much “being a man” is related to physical capability, is it any wonder that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of hate crimes that include battery and assault? This is why more progressive circles often talk about toxic masculinity – rather than being spread through its merits, masculinity thrives on subjugation, and when someone refuses to be subjugated, it resorts to violence.
On the other side of the pond, there is femininity. Whereas masculinity is often a gross overestimation of the influence of biology on one’s muscle and brain mass, femininity tends to focus more on a person’s role as a caretaker. A woman ought to know how to cook and clean, how to take care of the baby, how to counsel a troubled teenager, how to apply makeup and pick the right clothes. These have nothing to do with biological sex (besides some of them being very vaguely related to mammalian reproduction, i.e. babies come out of wombs), instead focusing on the job of creating, maintaining and nourishing the future generation. It may sound noble and all, but it doesn’t exactly reflect well on one’s humanity to be treated like a glorified factory, assembling humans from conception to adulthood and beyond. A lot of it is very patronizing, too, creating dependence. Cooking and cleaning will only take you so far, if you don’t have food to prepare and a house to keep up. Taking care of a baby only comes into play after someone made you pregnant, same with counselling troubled teens. It’s all about handling resources, without consideration for where and how you’ll get these resources (that’s what “the man” is for). Over the last century, the feminist movement has sought to challenge many of these concepts, and while a lot has changed, old habits die hard, and things like the wage gap and sexism in the work place make it harder for women to be independent than for men.
A good way to validate the above is with capitalism – more specifically, advertising. Consider how things get marketed, how corporations peddle their wares to encourage people to buy them. For men, it’s all about domination, strength and performance. Makita, a power tool company, has their “Rule the outdoors” slogan for lawnmowers, AMD claims their graphics cards will let you “dominate the game”, and Head and Shoulders’ men’s styling cream offers “strong performance” on hair. Such slogans are missing from products aimed at women. L’Oreal Paris, instead, has their “Women of Worth” program, and the webpage of LuLaRoe, a pyramid scheme offering primarily women’s clothes, is littered with feel-good drivel about self-worth, freedom and confidence. Rather than trying to enforce old roles, women’s advertisement tries to cash in on the trend of getting away from these roles, selling their trash on some ephemeral idea of independence.
This was a rather lengthy explanation of the way gender affects everyday life, and for the most part its influence is negative. Perhaps there are some good parts, but (other than ones that are good for some through making others miserable) I have yet to find any. Some might feel, though, that gender roles are ultimately not a social construct, but a divine construct – that its rules and consequences are derived from the heavens, and that they’re the divine being’s way of maintaining order in society. Lots of religious figures proclaim the duality of man and woman, of their innate differences and the need to supplement one another. Even if we assume this to be true, it still warrants a discussion between ingrained differences and societal exaggeration. And besides, are these figures really to be trusted and believed when they peddle organized religion, one of the most malevolent and corrupting institutions, bent on preserving the status quo by invoking the authority of the all-mighty daddy upstairs to silence opposition?
Earlier on I referred to femininity as being “on the other side of the pond” to masculinity. It was a nice way to introduce the topic, but it’s actually something I disagree with. Consider a thought experiment; imagine the epitome of masculinity, and the epitome of femininity. You can help yourself by taking existing people, for example famous actors. Then, compare them to everyday folk. Do most men look like Brad Pitt? Do most women look like Angelina Jolie? Of course not. Among both men and women there are large varieties in height, musculature, voice depth, aggression levels, and just about everything else, and there is a lot of overlap. This overlap extends to biology too, especially with modern medicine and surgery. Many things that are associated with either gender, like body fat distribution (a.k.a. hourglass figure) can be altered through simple hormone therapy, and even things like chromosomes can go beyond the classification of male and female, as is the case for intersex people. In practice, gender is not a binary, but a spectrum. There is no “man” and “woman” with a gap between them, but rather these are ideas that can be represented on a spectrum, with most people fitting somewhere between them. The distribution isn’t a nice bell curve, but rather a sort of double-hump camel curve, as being in the middle (being androgynous) is something discouraged by society.
Part 3 - The future of gender. The transgender.
But there are some people who dislike the hump they’ve found themselves in, and they’d like it to change. They’re called transgender (the T in LGBT represents them), and they have it quite hard in life. For one, many of them experience what’s called gender dysphoria – which goes beyond disliking one’s assigned gender, and is actually a major cause of depression, anxiety, social isolation, disassociation and other problems. For them, “presenting” as their true gender feels liberating and makes them happy, often inducing the opposite of dysphoria – gender euphoria. There are also people who do not feel content being in either of the two humps, and they’re called non-binary. There are many different kind, such as agender, gender-fluid, or demi-gender, but the basic principle they all share is that the traditional (binary) division of people into men and women is not good enough to explain and describe how they feel. Non-binary people are generally also included in the transgender label, but regardless of whether one seeks to move along the spectrum or get away from it altogether, they face a lot of opposition from sources that should really have no stake in the matter. Trans women, for example (people assigned male at birth, but identifying as women), face scrutiny from certain groups for misappropriating and misrepresenting femininity. These groups see trans women wear cute and frilly costumes, talk a lot about makeup and fulfil other feminine stereotypes, and they lash out in anger, saying that “that’s not what being a woman is about”. And for the most part, that’s true. As I’ve discussed earlier, putting makeup on does not make one a woman. From my experience, most trans people quite dislike gender stereotypes, in no small part because they personally experienced just how damaging they can be. However, because gender is social, they often have no choice but to indulge in stereotypical behaviour to be perceived as women. Someone who looks stereotypically male, choosing not to give in to the stereotypes, can say “I am a woman” all they like, but most people will not take them seriously unless they see some “effort” being put in, like the aforementioned makeup and pretty clothes.
Yet even if you put in effort to appear traditionally feminine (or masculine, for trans men), while at the same time not seeming like a caricature, there’s still a group who’ll get angry at you. They’re the “think of the children” folk, who see things like gay, queer and trans representation as damaging to young minds. While they may not be outright hostile towards LGBT people, they’ll often scoff and be displeased upon seeing a gay couple kiss on TV, or a trans person come on stage of a reality show (not to be made fun of). They’re closely related to people who believe in so-called trans-trenders, i.e. people who identify as transgender just because it’s “hip and cool”. If you apply even a tiny bit of critical thinking to it, you’ll see just how ridiculous this is. For every instance of LGBT representation in the media, there are hundreds that focus on cisgender, heterosexual people (meaning people who identify with their assigned gender and who are attracted to the opposite gender). If seeing one gay person can turn a straight person gay, why wouldn’t the same thing work in reverse? Why would there exist any LGBT people, if they were all assaulted with cishet normative media from the moment they were born? And even if such a thing actually happened, why should it be considered bad? For LGB, the lifestyle is just as easy to get into as it is to get out of; having any number of homosexual relations does not prevent you from deciding that it’s not your thing and sticking to heterosexual partners. As for T, people who are afraid that trans-trenders will damage their body grossly overestimate the importance of medicinal therapy, and grossly underestimate the effort needed to get it. As I’ve discussed at length, gender is expressed in many ways beyond significant bodily changes, and altering one’s body requires a lot of time and determination to get through the medical establishment, at which point the amount of people willing to go that far yet deciding to revert drops to near zero. Long story short, it is very, very unlikely for someone who isn’t really transgender, but who’s just a trans-trender (assuming they even exist) to go through changes that would significantly impact their life were they to go back. Most importantly, though, dismissing someone as following trends is really damaging. Most people do not just look at someone who’s gay and say “you know, maybe I’m also gay”. They often have a feeling of being different, and experimenting with different identities is a way of testing out the waters, of seeing how life can be to decide what works best for them. Casting such seeds of doubt can seriously damage one’s self-esteem and trust in own judgment, which in turn can have vast negative consequences in many areas of their life.
One last group I’d like to mention is somewhat more insidious, because their transphobia is hidden (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) under a guise of care, or of liberalism. The latter is often expressed with phrases like “people can wear whatever they feel like”, which sounds liberating and open-minded, but is often said with a tone and context that makes it seem like the full phrase is “people can wear whatever they feel like, because I cannot stop them from doing so”. As such, it’s a statement about legality, not about one’s own stance on the topic. It’s a transgender version of “I don’t have a problem with gay people, so long as they don’t go up to me and do it around me”. It’s clearly not a statement of approval or of active acceptance. These same people will be visibly disgusted if they see a gay couple kiss on TV. All they’re really saying is that they will not react with hostility, but that has nothing to do with acceptance. If I meet a rich person, a CEO of some large tech company, I will not react with hostility or try to assault them, but I would absolutely not be accepting of them. People who say “people can wear whatever they feel like” in discussion of transgender topics often deny trans people their identity, by treating them and their troubles as imaginary, artificial or made-up. So when they see a biological male don a dress and request she/her pronouns, they may indulge her out of politeness, but they’ll still think of her as a man. The same denial of identity causes parents to say to their trans sons “You’ll always be my little girl” and the like. As for the disguise of care, I mean by that people, often parents, who express their disapproval with lines like “I simply worry about you”, “I want the best for you”, et cetera. Perhaps they see the discomfort, or consider it imaginary, but regardless, they encourage (i.e. threaten) trans people to stay as they are by inducing fears of botched surgeries, of high suicide rates, of never fitting in.
The above paragraphs suggest that I consider support of trans people to be just and correct, while lack of support is unjust and incorrect. Some people might try to refute that by saying that gender dysphoria is a mental disorder, and should thus be treated, not normalised. However, a mental disorder requires that there is a definable mental order. If everyone in the world was transgender, some things would be different, but overall society would continue to function, the world wouldn’t turn into disrepair. Thus, while dysphoria is a disorder in the sense that it’s not the status quo, it’s not a disorder in the sense that it leads to chaos. Besides, the idea of mental disorders comes from the people in power and changes over time. Homosexuality used to be classified in the DSM as a paraphilia, disturbance and as ego-dystonic; gay conversion therapy was popular and lead to a lot of suffering. Once gay people were allowed to just exist and do their thing (i.e. homosexuality was “normalised”), it turned out that their sexual orientation does not inhibit their ability to thrive and enjoy life (big shocker, I know). Being trans, presenting a different way than your assigned gender would suggest, performing surgery to alter your body accordingly, is something that affects the individual, it doesn’t threaten other people. Gender dysphoria is a state of mind that can lead to misery, but if it can be alleviated by letting people be who they feel that they are, and there is no reason to claim that it would be detrimental or damaging to society if normalised that doesn't rely on transphobia, why should it be discouraged? It should be up to the individual to decide how they feel and what changes they’d like to make, and restricting that would be an infringement on the basic ideas of freedom. At the same time, because gender is a social construct, it does not suffice to be technically able to do something, if in practice the society makes it so that being oneself is a constant struggle. If one believes in freedom, they have an obligation to make sure that everyone is free, and in the case of transgender people (as well as gay, bisexual, and other) this includes making them feel welcome and accepted. Furthermore, as I’ve discussed at length, gender has largely negative consequences, so by encouraging people to challenge it, we help in overthrowing an unjust and arbitrary system that affects everyone, transgender or not. As justified by both philosophers and people with basic empathy, one need not be personally debilitated by something to campaign for the relief of people who do suffer from it the most. Descartes has famously said “I think, therefore I am”, but in the context of society and gender, the correct sentence is “We think, therefore I am”. It requires shared ideas, concepts and understandings, in order for identities to exist. And when we don’t think, how can I be?