Gender is not inextricably linked to sex but rather, is performative, as males and females act out their roles according to social expectations. Such is the suggestion of feminist theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 publication Gender Trouble. In it, she takes on the debate surrounding gender, and whether males and females are truly born with differing characteristics. This seems to be a fundamentally difficult question to solve as science, theory and experience all contradict themselves and each other in a variety of ways.
Take for example studies which are said to have proven males are born with an innate desire for physical affection, while females are supposedly more independent. Does this carry through to adulthood where women are depicted as persistently requiring physical affection from their friends and partners? In contrast, men are shown to shrug off such acts of affection as they conform to masculine ideals.
The use of the words male and female against men and women is deliberate too, as the former refers to sex, while the latter illustrates gender, or at least, notions of gender. We cannot alter the fact our bodies determine whether we are one sex or the other, and it begs the question – is that what shapes our gender? And if so, that only serves to suggest gender is constructed as society reacts to female bodies differently to those of males.
Take again the idea that boys are ‘needy’. This goes against the image of muscles, great sporting ability and a competitive nature. In order for males to become men, they are encouraged to suppress their desire for physical affection and embrace seemingly contradictory characteristics.
But which side of the argument does such a finding rest on? On the one hand, the desire for physical closeness is natural, yet its removal is nurtured. It also assumes that all boys are born in this way, though surely there are those who do not have an inclination for hugs and kisses.
The ultimate problem is therefore language, as we define ourselves in binaries. Those who cannot are cast to the periphery of society, such as those who identify as transgender or hermaphrodite.
Uncovering a new lexicon to define who we are is unlikely to happen in this day and age because despite our vast technological advances, it seems humans remain innately unable to better express themselves. Although we are perhaps more liberal than ever before, we persistently combat the tug towards repression, which may be no more apparent than in economic recession.
This Christmas my brother gave his one-and-a-half-year-old son a play kitchen, much to my surprise. His reason for this was simple: “All the best chefs in the world are men.” I have an inkling he may be more open minded than he realises and I was pleased to see he was not thrusting typical gender roles upon on his child. Still, the boy does like to throw the utensils across the floor with a cheeky smile. But when rebuked by his parents, he cries, shoots his hands in the air and looks for a kiss.
There is no accounting for human behaviour, so maybe we should stop referring to it as manly or girly and accept it for it what it is. Then we can begin aligning our social behaviour with our technological strengths.
And if a female wants to build roads while a boy would prefer to partake in ballet, so be it. There is nothing natural or unnatural about it. Those are merely the most basic of binaries we have. The root of strangling definitions.