Check One: Male__ Female__

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Sex and Gender

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Check One: Male__ Female__

Kathryn Corbin

Is anyone entirely male or female? Initially, this question might appear a bit ridiculous given that science tells us people can always be put into a category of gender based solely on their sexual organs. Since gender is considered both by science and by society as the most basic way of identifying people, it always enters into the conversation, oftentimes subconsciously. Gender is a dimension of social relations that is constantly coming into focus due to its inherent importance in our world. In the most basic terms, if someone has a vagina, then they are considered female, just as someone who has a penis is considered male. Since these appear to be the only gender qualifications, then there should be no difficulty in determining gender, unless someone is a hermaphrodite. The problem arises when societal influences enter into the picture and create visual representations of how males and females should look and act. We then use said representations to either assert what we are or classify what others are. It is human nature to put people into categories because it is essential to our ability to decode our surroundings. Without categories for things, it would be impossible to describe anything and the world would be either an incredibly dull or incredibly chaotic place. However, we do possess these man-made categories and therefore innately feel that putting men and women into these black and white gender boxes will make it easier. But easier to what?

Modern society is supposedly more liberal than society that existed a hundred years ago. Women are allowed to wear pants, play sports and have shorter hair. Men can wear designer clothes, cook and shower more than twice a week. Unfortunately, however modern our society has become, we still swiftly pass judgment when these allegedly liberal lines are crossed. If someone walks in a manner that is typically associated with the opposite sex, their sexuality is questioned no matter what their true affiliation. Using homosexuality as an insult is not an uncommon occurrence. Often, straight girls who are too sporty are said to be tomboys or lesbians and straight men who are more into theatre and art are told they are "gay" or "sissies" because society equates athletic ability with strength and masculinity and creativity with femininity. Possessing qualities that should belong to the opposite gender is seen as unnatural. But according to whom? What group or group of individuals get to decide what is appropriate for women and what is appropriate for men? Society, as a whole, decides that women who cut their hair too short must be lesbians and men who move their hips when they walk must be gay. Because short hair is considered a male characteristic and more overtly sexual walking is considered a female characteristic, outdated stereotypes reinforce these gender classifications. Why is it so much of a stretch to believe that a straight woman might not want to be beauty pageant ready at any given moment? Or that a straight man might not want to shuffle when he walks? In Inside/Out, Diana Fuss examines the relationship between what is and what is not. She argues that because someone is a man, they are therefore not a woman and takes it one step further with a discussion of sexuality. She says, "Homosexuality, in a word, becomes the excluded; it stands for, paradoxically, that which stands without. But the binary structure of sexual orientation, fundamentally a structure of exclusion and exteriorization, nonetheless constructs that exclusion by prominently including the contaminated other in its oppositional logic" (235). If what is not is only not because we have created a thing or group of things that is/are, then the question is this: are certain people considered men because they have a penis or because they do not have a vagina? Or is it even deeper than a discussion of sexual organst? Should there be innate qualities that automatically equate with having testosterone or estrogen? Since women who act unfeminine are called manly and men who act unmasculine are called womanly, should they then be considered that alleged gender, even despite a lack of sex change? Going by Fuss' argument, men who do not possess the stereotypical qualities of males belong in the not male category. The opposite of man is generally considered woman (although there are varying problems with this binary as well) so it would follow that feminine men are really women. In the same vein, masculine women would really be men.

That our bodies destine us for basic gender categorization is not a fact to be ignored. Usually, it is easy to determine whether someone has a penis or a vagina (rather, whether they are male or female in the typical sense) just by looking at them. While there are those who appear androgynous at first glance, further inspection normally proves otherwise. Our innate need to categorize often overtakes us and we get so caught up in societal influences that it is difficult not to. However, if we want to define what a male is and what a female is, then it is ultimately necessary to have some solid guidelines to work with. The scientific definition of gender goes solely by what sexual organs a human being possesses, which directly conflicts with Fuss' argument of what is vs. what is not. Science goes by the most basic and therefore most culturally popular explanation, even though it is not perhaps the most logical. The societal definition is more complicated but possibly more rational in the sense that black and white categories do not and cannot always apply.

Alice Lesnick's On the job: performing gender and inequality at work, home, and school notes that "feminist inquiry...has shifted over time from a view of gender as a birth attribute of the individual to an understanding of gender as a social construction in everyday life". If the way we view gender is based more on social constructions and less on the scientific definition, then perhaps a new word should be developed for what we currently call gender so that we can follow our innate instinct to categorize. Since gender is now a combination of genetics, actions and appearances, it should then follow that no one is either entirely male or entirely female. People have the free will to act however they deem necessary and appropriate. In her essay Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? Sherry Ortner notes that human beings are given life and then it is their job to define their essence. Additionally, she says that gender roles are a strict construct of culture rather than the feedback of nature. She gives examples of "a woman's place is in the home" (31) and "men are the "natural" proprietors of religion, ritual, politics, and other realms of cultural thought and action" (33). Ortner seems surprisingly content to remain in this socially constructed world, no matter what it means for her specifically. If she is correct in her pronouncement that culture constructs specific roles/places/boxes for everyone, is it even possible to break out of them? Furthermore, if society functions in a way that is so embedded with grouping and ungrouping individuals is it really all that bad to continue with the status quo? Should we all just live with the categories that have been created for us and learn to love them?

Common wisdom would suggest that superficial characteristics such as clothing, hair style and makeup (or lack thereof) do not make a person. Nevertheless, they often provide instantaneous clues as to the way to identify someone, to put them into an acknowledged category that makes them much "easier to deal with". This idea of knowing what to do with someone based on their categorization returns back to the earlier question of what is easier about placing people in boxes. Human nature moves us to go along with people, thoughts, actions that are familiar and comfortable to us. Since the dawn of time, it has been an accepted fact that straying too far from the median is dangerous, so then it would make sense for people to conform and place everything, and thus everyone, around them in a category, or multiple categories simply as an instinct. Despite free will and the control humans have over their own minds and bodies, society has created such deeply entrenched gender roles and identities that it is nearly impossible to get away from them.

While I believe it is necessary to have categories to a certain degree, I feel that it is even more necessary to recognize times when categorizing people becomes inappropriate and even limiting. Categories exist because humans need to break things down in order to survive. Communication, safety and other basic elements of life revolve around being able to classify the like and unlike; those things that belong or do not belong with something or someone else. People can be grouped by gender, by related interests or abilities, by family, region, hair color, sexual orientation and a million other ways. And there isn't really a problem with noting these different aspects of people except when it becomes so restrictive that we are confined to certain definitions and are unable to open ourselves up to different ideas. Reverting to the original question of whether anyone is entirely male or female, a concrete answer will never be found. Depending on one's definition of gender, be it scientific or societal or some other type of construct, there are varying responses. Ultimately, a man will be a man if he has a penis no matter what his characteristics, qualities, interests, clothing choices, etc may be just as a woman will always be a woman if she has a vagina despite all of the previously mentioned types of categorization. I'm not sure what my interpretation of gender is at this point. My quandary most likely exists because the possession of sexual organs and what it means to have them has been so deeply ingrained into me and at the same time, society has surrounded me with social constructs of which characteristics are masculine and which are feminine. I am not in a position to proclaim one way or the other what makes gender and it is unlikely that this particular dichotomy between science and society will ever be solved.

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