While we can reject and deconstruct our assigned gender by having qualities that are in opposition to our given gender identity, we are always doomed to replace them with other ideas of gender that are within the same binary. The fact that we have a concept of gender at all means that all notions of gender, even those such as gender fluidity and gender nonconformity, come from a place of a gender binary.
To be gender fluid or gender nonconforming means to move some qualities away from one end of the binary to the other side. There is no true middle ground, because the middle ground is only a mixture of individual binary qualities. A female with short hair, beard stubble, but also a rounded jaw and long eyelashes may appear to be in this “middle” ground, but in fact just has a mixture of qualities that are on both ends of the gender binary.
These thoughts came into my head on Thursday, April 10, when my girlfriend and I attended Plymouth State University’s annual “Gay-la”, hosted by the student organization PSU Pride. The Gay-la is an inclusive, semi-formal dance that is designed with LGBTQA+ students in mind. According to The Clock’s online blog, PSU Pride Vice President Andrew Dawe said, “[The Gay-la] creates an atmosphere where people don’t have to worry about being judged for dressing how they wish to. And above all else, it’s simply an opportunity to have fun.”
Dress was certainly something that stood out to me as I watched the event’s dancing participators. Many were wearing attire that wasn’t typical for their sex. I saw people who I typically considered to be female wearing narrow blazers, black trousers, and leather oxfords. I also saw people that I would typically designate as male wearing bright lipstick and high heels.
Gender performativity was all over the place, and I felt hesitant every time I spoke to someone, fearful that I would use the wrong pronouns. I often saw people that I was certain were biologically male be referred to with female pronouns, and those who I was certain were biologically female be referred to with male pronouns. After a while, I decided that it was easier to just avoid using any gendered pronouns at all, and simply referred to everyone as “they”.
The whole shindig brought my thoughts back to Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan’s explanation of constructivist feminist theory in Literary Theory: An Anthology. This theory critiques the concept of gender as a social construct, originated to keep women subservient to patriarchy.
Gender, in constructivist theory, is not just about sex chromosomes. It is about the appearances and attitudes that are socially designated to people based off of their sex. For example, boxers, bowties, and trousers are clothes typically considered to be “men’s” clothes. In reality, however, these clothes are genderless; the “men’s” labelling is an idea that is reinforced by culture.
Clothes may be an obvious example, but the conditions of gender are broad and culturally reinforced, making them inescapable. For example, a man who has an interest in cosmetics, and shows little interest in sports will be considered by many people in American culture to be effeminate, because makeup is often considered to be something that is solely for women, and men are often expected to be competitive.
None of those things, of course, are actually inherent to a specific sex. However, because of cultural upbringings, the reinforcement of certain activities and qualities by sex creates the false idea that they are inherent to the sex. Constructivist theory argues that these things are inflicted onto a particular sex in order to create the illusion of gender normativity. Thus, we have the expectations of men and women that go beyond having XX sex chromosomes or XY sex chromosomes. This structure has created a hierarchy of gender that has historically given men power over women in society, and has often made the mixing of gendered qualities in their non-designated sex a cultural taboo.
However, because the infliction of these qualities to a sex is a social construction rather than an essential part of their biology, those who go against gender normativity aren’t doing anything “wrong”, despite what society may say. They are simply adopting what is typically assigned to a different sex. Rivkin and Ryan give an example, saying that “women can be just as ‘masculine’ as men, and biological men might be ‘masculine’ only out of obedience to cultural codes” (768). So, in the context of the Gay-la, the celebration of community members willing to openly challenge the gendered expectations of society is rightly earned, and the “judgement-free” space created for them at the dance should be extended to cover the globe.
But while constructivist feminist theory covers my observations of people dressing as the “wrong” gender at the Gay-la, it does not cover my observations of pronoun usage. If gender is truly constructed, then does that not mean that everything beyond sex chromosomes is actually genderless? So, for example, if a biological man wears a dress and red lipstick on their lips, they would be performing as female based on American gender expectations. But, since these expectations are constructs, wouldn’t we still consider this person to be a man?
Although I agree with the constructivist view of gender as a social construct, it can’t be thought of as pure imagination, because gender has real repercussions that are put into place before an individual’s birth. Because of this, there is room for the idea of friction between societal ideas of gender and biological gender. When the expectations of gender as clear and demanding as they are, the fact that gender is a construct doesn’t halt the need for an identity that can be accepted by both society and the individual.
Beginning at birth, society interpellates us based on our sex to assign us a gender. Based on whether or not we have a penis or vagina, society tells our guardians what we should look like, how we should act, and who we should aspire to be. We must always work out of this initial interpellation, because it is set into motion before we have control over what we are exposed to. Things boy and girl clothing and toy sections for children aid in this interpellation. They say, “Hey you! Were you born with XY chromosomes? This is what you’re supposed to be!” By the time we get to a point in our development where we can begin to make choices about our identities, we have already had a path laid out for us by society.
Going against the expectations assigned to us by our given gender has consequences. Not meeting the expectations of gender often leaves the individual as a target for criticism, because how they are supposed to act is already defined by the gender they are given based on sex. For example, if you are born with XY chromosomes, and have male primary and secondary sex characteristics, you will be expected to follow the qualities assigned to biological males. Failing to meet these expectations leads to the idea that you are performing your gender inadequately. This is why there are phrases like “boys don’t cry,” or, “that wasn’t very ladylike.”
What is considered masculine and feminine changes over time, but the things that we relate most to gender, such as choices in physical appearance, the emotions we express, and the opinions we hold will always be subjected to a binary idea of gender. Because of this, individuals are always vulnerable to not “lining up” with the gender they were born into based off of how they construct their internal identities. This vulnerability is inescapable, though, because gender is rooted in language and, therefore, ideology.
Gender is based off of the idea of a binary; we, as humans, always have to work off of a binary because we cannot comprehend an idea of nothingness. Even when someone “transitions” to another gender (whether it’s a physical transition, an emotional transition, or an intellectual transition), they are merely adopting other binary qualities. Like in Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist critique of language in Literary Theory: An Anthology, things only have meaning in relation to other things, and, therefore, we only know things by what they are not (206). So while what is expected of the male and female genders may change over time, and while a person may change their identity to align more closely with one gender or another, they will never truly be freed of the concept of gender as a binary of male and female. Binaries are how we understand the world.
Going off of this, it makes sense that people prefer to be regarded to with pronouns that they feel matches their own feelings of their gender identity. Gender, while fabricated, has real expectations, and real consequences for not meeting these expectations. In addition, gender is not just the “whole picture”; it is individual binary qualities that collectively build an identity. By using a pronoun that is different from biological sex, an individual can feel a compromise between their internal identity and the identity they are given by society. While performing a gender that is not the one assigned by birth will always be met with resistance, this resistance can be lessened by adopting the signifier used to describe the gender they feel most aligned to.