Gender: What is it good for? (Absolutely Nothing)
by Sonia Zawitkowski
Every time I see another “gender bread person” poster, or the thousandth parrot with no prior contemplation and zero actual understanding that “sex is between your legs and gender between your ears,” I become increasingly tempted to nominate inventor of gender, Dr. John Money, as the number one person I would remove from history if I had the chance. (1) Dr. Money died in 2006 but is survived by a legacy that led to the current mainstream feminist (and now even pop-cultural) obsession with gender “as a term for the social construction of masculinity and femininity, as opposed to the biological term sex.” (2) The Government of Canada describes gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people.” (3) To most people who use the term deliberately, gender refers to the “psychology of the sexes,” and differences in elements of “aptitude” and “attitude” between men and women. (4)
The widespread and uncritical acceptance of defining ourselves by this concept makes me fear for my sanity. If gender refers to the cultural roles assigned to men and women in our society, or the psychological differences between them, then I have two burning questions: (a) Why are we encouraging everyone to identify primarily with these cultural roles or by these differences? (b) What does gender as a cultural role even refer to in contemporary Western society? I will begin with outlining my issues with (a), then briefly discuss the historical and cultural implications of (b). I will conclude by begging you all to stop using this term.
I should get out of the way that I think many non-academics appear to use the term ‘gender’ in an uncomplicated way— simply as a synonym for ‘biological sex’. I suspect that clarifying this alone would do more to end the never-ending argument between the Steven Crowder-types yelling “there are only two genders” and their opponents who are incredulous that anyone could think there are only two social roles (hint for the confused members of the latter: not everyone is eyeballs-deep in queer theory). I will say that as someone new to graduate studies, it was disconcerting for me to learn that by saying I am a woman, I have actually been identifying not that I belong to a certain reproductive class (as was my intention), but that I was inadvertently signalling the “identity” or gender role that I wished to belong to.
It is not that gender cannot be a useful concept. Since there persists a loose bimodal distribution of characteristics exhibited by men and women, I understand the utility of retaining a concept to describe these differences. Indeed, feminist sociologist Ann Oakley used the concept of gender to cover “all [emphasis mine] the established differences” between men and women. (5) Some of these differences, until recently, were technically neutral, plainly observable, and could uncontroversially be attributed to biological sex, i.e. the differences between our body types and our reproductive capacities. Differences between men and women that are more psychological, like attitudes, preferences, and behaviours, were argued to be socially constructed based on their variance over time and between cultures, leading feminists to conclude that gender is independent of sex. So far, so good.
Where mainstream feminists and queer theorists totally lose me is why we should retain this concept of gender as an identity. The scientific importance that mainstream feminists imbue onto gender is bewildering, given that they also conceptualize it as springing from the ether (sometimes gender norms are traced back to “discourses,” but that’s usually about as concrete as the explanations get). I would argue that while gender is socially constructed and highly variable, it does have at its distant root material origins related to differences in physical ability and reproductive capacity between the sexes, creating a comparative advantage for one sex over the other for certain activities (the most obvious being longer-range foraging and hunting of large game for men; gathering and infant care for women). (6) If so, then gender, particularly in the form of a division of labor, once served a purpose for the benefit of human survival, the efficient allocation of energy, and group cohesion. Radical feminists believe that gender also functioned to oppress women by placing them into a subordinate role, allowing men to control their reproductive labor. In this case too, gender served some purpose, even if an ignoble one.
If gender originated from material, sexual differences, it probably survived for as long as it did because it reinforced societal cohesion and upheld a certain status quo. It was through gender that masculinity was instilled into men to foster their risk-tolerance, making them ready to defend their tribe, or later their nation-state, from external threats. It made it more likely that they would accept being carted off to war and disposed of, or willing to be absent from the home for fifteen-hour days to earn a wage and provide for their family. On the other hand, gender instilled femininity into women, so that while men were off attending to these duties, women would be willing to assume complete responsibility over the domestic sphere, and so that they would be reluctant to demand a wage or even credit for this work. This process socialized women to be agreeable, dependent, and subservient to men so that in turn, men would be satisfied with their own role even when (as it often was for lower class men) it was deeply unpleasant. It has been argued that by clinging to the concept of gender for dear life, mainstream feminists are only hanging onto these traditional expectations. I would add that regardless of their attitudes about it, more dominant sociological and economics forces, like the abandonment of compulsory military service, the surge in two-income households, and technological advances replacing the human role in much of highly gendered labor, have done more than current, mainstream feminism to make these gender expectations pointless.
Take for example the trajectory of one highly “gendered” aspect of life: the division of labour between men and women. There is much debate over how rigid the sex-segregation of labour was among pre-industrial societies, and whether sex-segregation always went hand-in-hand with a devaluing of women’s work. (7) Some trace the development of the gendered division of labor into a hierarchy, which valued men’s work over women’s, to “the onset of capitalist methods of production, marked by wage labor, the individual rather than the household wage, and the separation of home and workplace.” (8) Others argue that capitalism, in the long-term, actually expanded women’s opportunities for self-sufficiency and economic opportunity. While the impact of the capitalist transformation on gender is unsettled, what is more certain is that the shift to capitalism can be associated with an increase in individualism, which allowed for more (at the very least, superficial) gender nonconformity.
The subsequent hyper-individualism that characterizes western society is the root of many social ills, including widespread loneliness and alienation, narcissism, and the collapse of community and the social safety net. The flipside is that an ethos of individualism made it more permissible for individuals to deviate from gender norms (a trade-off that I rarely see acknowledged by mainstream feminists). One can see this difference in how much more well-defined gender roles tend to be in more collectivist societies. Take for example Samoa, (9) Northern Albania, (10) Southeast Asia, (11) and many North American Indigenous peoples. (12) In traditional Micronesian society:
There was a great divide between men’s roles and women’s roles; what work one did, the other would not do, and vice versa. If men fished, women worked on the land. If men put up the house, women might weave the thatch. Women might, in some islands, do certain kinds of fishing, but men would always refrain from doing those same kinds of fishing. Men and women never did the same thing.” (13)
Even though such an arrangement would be unnecessary and unideal to most of us living in a western industrialized, socially liberal, and egalitarian society, mainstream feminists appear to have taken it as inspiration when justifying the discourse surrounding gender and “gender variance” here in the west. This is because oftentimes, societies with well-defined gender roles will allow for the existence of additional genders, e.g. the Hijra in India, (14) the Fa’afafine in Samoa, (15) the Sworn Virgins in Albania. (16) However, the existence of these rigid gender roles (which mainstream feminists claim they want to dismantle) is what makes possible the movement between roles and the designation of additional roles for those who don’t fit neatly into their gender category. In other words, for a man who doesn’t fulfill his gender role to have his status as a man revoked and to be placed into another gender category can only occur if the conception of what a man is, is so inflexible. (17) I am baffled by feminists who sneer at discussions of differences between men and women, but who valorize these societies simply because they have more than two roles based on these differences, or there’s the possibility of switching between categories based on these differences.
It becomes clear how unrelatable this framework is to our lives in western society once we apply it directly. Imagine if, when women in the west were fighting for suffrage, or for the ability to become doctors, lawyers, and scientists, they instead demanded to be recognized as some other gender, rather than simply as women wanting access to better economic opportunity and full political equality. It makes even less sense today, where although there exists some horizontal occupational segregation, feminists would be loath to say that a man becoming a nurse was becoming more “womanly.” Should a female astrophysicist, programmer, or football player be designated a man, gender wise? The clumsy application to western culture of the various non-western approaches to gender does not take into account the different purposes that gender serves and what a disaster it would be to import these concepts without the same cultural framework to make sense of them. If gender still served some sort of purpose, and could exist today without devaluing women’s role, then perhaps the concept would be worth saving. However, capitalism has eliminated the social cohesion that could potentially justify a more rigid, non-hierarchical system of gender, while elevating a completely different, much more harmful aspect of gender for us to identify with, namely, the aesthetic one.
In the past, under a rigid gender system, even if the extent of women’s subjugation is up for debate, what is more certain is that their role was unique and “socially necessary.” (18) I’m thinking of a time where there were fewer machines to pick up the slack for domestic work, which had to be done manually. In gatherer-hunter societies, the vast majority of calories that humans ingested came from the food that women gathered. (19) And who can downplay the importance of the ability to create new life? Make no mistake, that women have access to more occupational choice now is unequivocally a good thing. I am not in any way trying to romanticize the bad old days. However, in light of the evaporation of the gendered division of labor and rigid roles that were once integral to the functioning of pre-industrial society, retention of the concept of gender leaves absolutely nothing substantive for women to hold onto as women to incorporate into their identity. What do we associate with womanhood nowadays? Women are still the only sex that can become pregnant and create life, but mainstream feminists reject such “biological essentialism.” (Men can get pregnant too, now!) (20) Furthermore, there is significant overlap between men’s and women’s work, while traditionally female work has been devalued, outsourced, and technologized. The one element that remains organically highly gendered in contemporary western society is the realm of beauty standards. All that’s left is superficial aesthetic differences, where women are strongly associated with dresses and makeup, skin care, selfies, and other such feminine beauty rituals. This behaviour is so highly gendered that male people who engage in it have recently been identifying as women (or at least out of manhood en masse. (21) Mainstream feminists have inadvertently defined womanhood solely by superficial aesthetic preferences and consumer products. I believe this could at least partly explain the startling explosion in young girls wishing to identify out of being a girl. (22) I don’t blame them for rejecting their gender if this is all that’s left of it.
Overall, western capitalism has rendered a sharp division of labor without purpose (it lingers, but I’d be hard pressed to find someone who think it’s sensible to define our genders based on the occupations we choose). Furthermore, the resulting individualism has removed the need for gender to foster group cohesion and cooperation, while industrialization and technological advances mean that we no longer rely on gender for immediate survival. Finally, our society purports to be progressive and egalitarian, meaning gender is no longer needed to oppress women. Gender — as in, the behavioural differences between men and women — is almost entirely performative and aesthetic now. To identify ourselves based primarily on this performance/aesthetic is a neoliberal nightmare come true (and exactly the type that queer theorists claim they want to avoid). It feels like Critical Theory 101 to point out that this only serves the interests of the Beauty Industrial Complex. I’m sure Sephora execs have been salivating to extend the marketing of physical insecurities to the other half of the population.
So what are the benefits of continuing to think in terms of gender rather than sex? I can think of none, besides making it easier for westerners to talk about their clothing choices, hairstyles, and social media preferences as though they were matters of social justice. It would be a vast improvement to acknowledge sex and dispose of gender, unless you’re the type of person whose ideas of sex are so inextricably tied to gender stereotypes that you assume I’m talking about the latter when I describe the former. Besides the fact that utilizing the concept of gender as an identity makes no sense, the mainstream left’s celebration of gender is strange given how uncomfortable they are about concepts that could conceivably be used by their political opponents. While any mention of biological differences makes their eyes twitch, the concept of gender, i.e. defining our entire existence by the sex stereotypes we wish to emulate, is a gift to social conservatives. Why are ovaries and vas deferens more controversial and dangerous than “gender” which has always only existed to restrict us?
As promised, I’m concluding this essay by imploring readers to stop using the term ‘gender.’ If you use it interchangeably with sex, go ahead. If you’re from a culture where gender is actually meaningful as a role, then that may be a different story. But if you live in the west like me, and you’re the type of person who thinks carefully about the language you use, because you believe it matters, then consider not encouraging others to identify with a nonsensical concept that at its most coherent simply describes the sexist expectations put upon us. Lastly, consider the message we’re sending to kids when we tell them they all have a gender identity when all that’s left of gender is a superficial appearance-focused conception that is highly marketable. Who does it benefit?
Sonia Zawitkowski has her BA in Economics and is currently a graduate student in the Applied Social Psychology program at the University of Guelph. Her interests include armchair philosophy, economics, psychology, and making mainstream feminism less shitty.
(1) Goldie, Terry, “The Man Who Invented Gender,” UBC Press, 2014, https://www.ubcpress.ca/asset/9338/1/9780774827928.pdf
(4) Delphy, Christine. “Rethinking sex and gender.” In Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 1-9. Pergamon, 1993.
(6) Bradley, Harriet. “Men’s work, women’s work: A sociological history of the sexual division of labour in employment.” (1989): 29.
(7) Ibid., p. 124.
(8) Ibid., p. 33.
(18) Bradley, Harriet. “Men’s work, women’s work: A sociological history of the sexual division of labour in employment.” (1989): 28
(19) Ibid., p. 29