My key theorist is Judith Butler. In Gender Trouble she states that “… the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the casual result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex.”(Butler, 1990, p. 8), which means that gender is not something that happens by chance unlike the sex you are assigned to at birth. No one can control what sex you are born into, gender however is something that can be controlled because it is constructed. Butler uses this quote by Simone de Beauvoir in one of her essays, “one is not born, but, rather, become a woman”(Butler, 1988, p. 519) and Butler says that, “…gender is instituted through the stylization of the body, and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self”(Butler, 1988, p. 519) therefore, “if the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style”(Butler, 1988, p. 520). Like I said earlier on in this research paper as a decoder one can only break the rules one knows.
Once we unpack what it means to be woman we realize “but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman’, to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project”(Butler, 1988, p. 522). As a ‘woman’ you have to abide by laws of genders put in place years before you were even born because, “discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished”(Butler, 1998, p. 522). Like the young girl who had an issue with body odour and was teased for not smelling ‘like a girl’, if one does not perform one’s gender right in one’s society there are consequences. Butler also says that “because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis”(Butler, 1988, p. 522). If we wanted to we could get rid of gender but “the authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness”(Butler, 1988, p. 522). Judith Lorber says something along the same lines by stating that “most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and recreated out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of that social life”(Lorber, 1994, p. 111-112) and that “gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes…yet gender, like culture, is a human production that depends on everyone constantly ‘doing gender'”(Lorber, 1994, p. 111-112). For example, the congregation members who were constantly trying to tell me and my parents how to dress me according to my gender is one way of ensuring that people ‘do gender’ properly, it is a cycle that needs to be repeated to survive. Lorber says that “gender is such a familiar part of daily life that it usually takes a deliberate disruption of our expectations of how women and men are supposed to act to pay attention to how it is produced”(Lorber, 1994, 112). It is so easy to be unaware of the construction of gender until someone does something that is out of the ordinary, like a man wearing a skirt , that makes you question gender and how we construct it. According to Lorber “for the individual, gender construction starts with assignments to a sex category on the basis of what the genitalia look like at birth… a sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender markers”(Lorber, 1994, p. 112). We are responsible for gender roles and construction thereof because “in social interaction, throughout their lives, individuals learn what is expected, see what is expected, act and react in expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order”(Lorber, 1994, p. 114) and that “in almost every encounter, human beings produce gender, behaving in the ways they learned were appropriate for their gender status, or resisting or rebelling against these norms” (Lorber, 1994, p. 114). Every single time we interact with another human being we are performing our genders whether we realize it or not.
The danger thereof however is that “when gender is a major component of structured inequality, the devalued genders have less power, prestige, and economic rewards than the valued genders”(Lorber, 1994, p. 116) and even “in countries that discourage gender discrimination, many major roles are still gendered, women still do most the domestic labour and child rearing, even while doing full-time paid work: women and men are segregated on the job and each does work considered ‘appropriate’; women’s work is usually paid less than men’s work. Men dominate the positions of authority and leadership in government, the military, and the law; cultural productions, religions, and sports reflect men’s interest”(Lorber, 1994, p. 116). Here in South Africa most (if not all) of the domestic workers are women and most(if not all) of the gardeners are men. Majority of the nannies are women and majority of the mechanics are men. Women can work in corporate environments but there are more women in secretarial jobs than men and more men in managerial positions than women. Lorber also says that “gender inequality- the devaluation of ‘women’ and the social domination of ‘men’- has social functions and social history. It is not the result of sex, procreation, physiology, anatomy, hormones, or genetic predispositions. It is produced and maintained by identifiable social processes and built into the general social structure and individual identities deliberately and purposefully”(Lorber, 1994, p. 116). I have seen a few men who were better at nurturing babies than some women so why do we not see more male nannies? I have also seen many women who can lift heavy objects better than some men yet men are still considered the ‘stronger’ sex/gender.
Women being seen as ‘inferior’ to men did not happen by accident, it was an idea created and recreated over time the same way gender is. I end off my section on Lorber with this quote, “the paradox of human nature is that it is always a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships, and power politics: ‘not biology, but culture, becomes destiny'”(Lorber, 1994, p. 116). Gender is constructed through the construction of culture. For example, in most African cultures the women’s place is considered to be in the kitchen. Therefore, over time, for generations women have been passing the skills of cooking down to their daughters and their daughters pass it on their daughters until it becomes so ‘natural’ that it is assumed that all women should know how to cook.
As a young woman of colour I will be using Black Feminist writer Patricia H, Collins to articulate the concerns of black women in our gendered society. Not only are women of colour ‘inferior’ because of our gender but also because of our skin colour. This adds another dimension to the articulation of what it means to be a woman and how it is constructed.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. Routledge.
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Construction: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.
Lorber, J. (1994). The Social Construction of Gender.
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