Gender and Sex

GLS 410
June 6, 2010

          The debate between nature versus culture in the development of masculinity and femininity continues even as globalization exposes different cultures to each other.  In Western societies, masculinity and femininity are often believed to be directly linked to one’s sex (male or female).  Based on one’s sex, they are expected to behave in predictable ways, perform certain tasks and participate in specific rituals.  However, there is evidence masculine and feminine traits found in Western cultures are not the same as those found in other cultures around the world.  This leads researchers to question whether masculinity and femininity are naturally occurring or is a product of social conditioning.  Caroline Brettell and Carolyn Sargent (2009), authors of “Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective” begin their analysis of gender distinctions by explaining how infants are neither masculine nor feminine:
          A significant body of research, much of it conducted by psychologists, suggests that male and female infants 
          cannot be significantly distinguished by their degree of dependence on parents, their visual and verbal abilities,
          or their aggression as measured by activity level.  These characteristics tend to emerge later in the
          development process, indicating the importance of environment. (p. 1)
If a person’s sex determines their gender, then researchers would be able to see a distinction in infants.  That is not the case; babies don’t seem to know whether they should be masculine or feminine and there is no biological reason why they should. 
          Western society tends to use sex and gender interchangeably even though there are clear distinctions between the two.  One’s sex is based on their “biological classification,” while one’s gender “is a set of learned social roles” (Brettell & Sargent, 2009, p. 192).  It is important to understand the difference between them because it makes evaluating what is natural versus cultural easier to see.  Brettell and Sargent (2009) describe “the cultural construction of gender in a particular society involves definitions of what it means to be masculine or feminine” (p. 192).  Gender is a product of culture not of nature. 
          In the United States, it has long been assumed that men were masculine and women were feminine.  That is how society categorized people.  It was believed that women needed to be protected by men (Peach, 2009, p.23).  Lucinda J. Peach (2009) discusses this theory in her article “Gender and War: Are Women Tough Enough for Military Combat?”   A common argument for keeping women out of combat and as subordinates to men is that they are assumed to be the weaker sex and the sources of human reproduction; so, they must be protected by the stronger sex, men.  Kenneth Karst continues this argument in “The Pursuit of Manhood and the Desegregation of the Armed Forces (as cited in Peach, 2009), that there is “a special regard for women who must be protected as the symbolic vessel of femininity and motherhood.”  Women are expected to naturally be the nurturer of children, caretakers of the home and subordinate to her husband (or father if not married).  While this may have been the norm in past generations, scholars argue against its validity.  Anne Murcott (2009) addresses women’s domestic roles in the traditional Western style family in her article “‘It’s a Pleasure to Cook for Him’: Food, Mealtimes, and Gender in Some South Wales Households.”  Murcott (2009) examines the division of labor, more specifically cooking, as traditionally a feminine task and therefore has been assigned to women (p. 102).  After interviewing various women, Murcott (2009) concludes that women are “brought up to cook…and men are brought up to be breadwinners” (p. 103).  It seems that these distinctions for roles like cooking are not naturally occurring but a product of society.  In American society, men on the other hand are thought to be “rational and linear, tough minded and analytical, and individualized and subjective” (Imms, 2000).  Men are viewed as superior to women both physically and in intelligence.  They are not supposed to be as active as women are in domestic work like child rearing (Townsend, 2009, p. 109); men have different roles in parenting than do women (Townsend, 2009, 109).  The division of labor for men and women are traditionally divided between domestic work and paid work.  Women are assumed to be the domestic laborer while men are expected to provide for the family through paid labor outside the home.  The roles that are associated with these distinctions help to define the gender roles regardless of the current state of employment outside the home by men and women today.  
          There have been many studies on aggression that try to explain gender roles for men and women as natural behaviors.  In the argument Peach (2009) discusses in her article “Gender and War: Are Women Tough Enough for Military Combat,” she explains the three main reasons people cite as to why women are not suited for combat (p. 23).  First, women don’t have the “physical and psychological strength” for combat (Peach, 2009, p. 23).  Second, “their capacity for pregnancy and childbearing makes them inappropriate” for combat (Peach, 2009, p. 23).  Third, women in combat units would “[disrupt] male bonding” and increase the chances of sexual relationships between males and females in combat areas (Peach, 2009, p. 23).  What is interesting about the debate to keep women out of combat is there is no data to support the above mentioned claims.  Since, the United States still prohibits women from combat positions, there is no hard evidence to support these claims (Peach, 2009, p. 25, 29).  Peach (2009) argues against each of the three main reasons women shouldn’t be allowed in combat.  She addresses the issue on aggression and how it is believed that women are not capable of performing required duties of combat (peach, 2009).  She points out studies done on male aggression where the subjects were non-human primates, not humans (Peach, 2009, p. 26).  “But even assuming that women are less aggressive than men, there is still no evidence that it stems from biological causes rather than culture and socialization” Peach (2009, p. 26).  The notion that women lack the desired amount of aggression seems to be an excuse used by the military and society as a whole to keep women and men in distinct roles. 
          Interestingly, if men are truly much more aggressive than women, can they be good fathers?  There are many examples of cultures whose men take a very active and nurturing role in child rearing.  For example, Aka fathers in southern Central African Republic and northern Congo-Brazzaville live in a hunter-gatherer society.  The men are active participants in their infant’s lives (Hewlett, 2009, p. 43); this is probably because  of the dynamics of their societal structure.  Men and women work closely to provide for the community which means fathers are never very far from their infants (Hewlett, 2009, p. 43).  This means that fathers have more time to bond with their children than most men in Western societies.  M. E. Lamb (1981) in The Role of the Father in Child Development (as cited in Hewlett, 2009, p. 40) shows “numerous psychological studies now indicate that infants are attached to their fathers” and this happens at the same age as it does for their attachment to their mothers. So, it’s not that men can’t be nurtures and take responsibility for child rearing, it’s the cultural pressures that lead men to think they naturally don’t have the ability to do so.  
          Aggression and masculinity are often linked in Western cultures; this association is often what makes people assume that men are naturally more aggressive than women.  However, it’s likely that what a society deems acceptable aggression for men is mistaken for natural behavior.  Cultures define acceptable aggression differently.  Males and females are taught to behave in socially acceptable ways.  In schools, girls are encouraged to take home economics courses while boys take auto shop or focus on sports.  Authority figures in schools teach boys what it means to be masculine by directing their behavior and images of themselves.  Imms (2009) describes the use of specific phrases like “no sissy stuff” to embarrass boys into being tough.  Not only do these statements teach boys to be tougher than girls, but they also re-enforce the notion that males protect females and are stronger and superior.  Of course, socialization such as this can perpetuate ideas like women shouldn’t be in combat.  If boys grow up believing they are superior in all aspects over women, they will act upon those expectations when they are men.  A society is truly responsible for how its citizens view each other and their assigned roles.  With each generation who teaches their boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine the cycle becomes stronger and the notion that sex is directly related to gender, the harder it will be to change the established stereotypes. 
          Along with stereotypes about male and female roles, there are also stereotypes and ideals placed on what each sex’s body should look like.  It is no accident that American women spend hours upon hours ever week exercising, going to a beauty salon and worrying about their appearances.  There is a striking difference between what society deems beautiful for women and handsome for men.  Jacqueline Urla and Alan Swedlund (2009) discuss the unrealistic body images women in America are conditioned to believe is ideal.  Society places guidelines on what is feminine and what is masculine.  Women’s bodies were always considered a deviation from the original perfect male body (Urla & Swedlund, 2009, p. 287).  Often, the feminine ideals are a “paradox – …female bodies are never feminine enough, that they require deliberate and oftentimes painful refashioning to be what “nature” intended” (Urla & Swedlund, 2009, p. 283).  Urla and Swedlund are making reference to the idea that bigger breasts are better; a smaller waist is better.  No matter what a woman is born with, they can always exaggerate the proportions to be more attractive.  They use the Barbie® doll by Mattel to illustrate how young girls are socialized into thinking that the body of Barbie® is what they should strive for.  Beauty and the perfect body is what will bring them happiness.  However, this notion can give girls (and eventually women) a distorted self image.   In contrast, it’s not just women who are bombarded with unrealistic body images.  Men are affected as well.  Urla and Swedlund’s (2009) article looks at the muscularity of male dolls as well as the unrealistic proportions of Barbie® dolls.  While the proportions of the male dolls were not as extreme as those of Barbie®, the male dolls were taller and more slender than the average U.S. Army male (Urla and Swedlund , 2009, p. 290).  So, it’s not just women who are socialized into a body type, men are targets as well.  The ideal male and female bodies are very different.  This may cause issues for people who don’t fit into traditional masculine or feminine rolls. 
          American society has developed masculine roles for men and feminine roles for women.  However, gender classification may not be so easy for gay men and lesbians.  It is clear that gender is not necessarily tied to one’s sex even though American society tries to force a connection.  In Martin Manalansan’s (1995) article “In The shadows of Stonewall” he speaks with gay Filipino men in New York.  What he finds is that being gay or lesbian may blur the line between traditional masculine and feminine roles.  For example, a male dressing in drag may play a feminine role.  Or, there may even be stereotypes that all gay Filipino men are “screaming queens” that make a scene in public (Manalansan, 1995).  However, it is obvious that not all gay Filipino men behave that way.  Many gay men in cultures around the world hold high ranking positions and their sexual preference in publically known but not announced (Manalansan, 1995).  The point is that being a gay man or lesbian can make it more difficult for American society to but people in neat categories.  There are lesbians who dress and act like men, and gay men who dress and act like women.  The fact that there is a group of people who don’t follow the prescribed social roles may upset some people and lead them to believe that that group is mentally sick.  This idea is unfounded and illogical.  Perhaps the fact that there is a group that doesn’t fit the norm means that their really can’t be clear cut distinctions for people.  
          Gender is not determined by biology; it’s a cultural phenomenon.  The roles place upon American men and women have wrongfully been assumed to be naturally assigned based on sex.  It is, however, clear that cultural conditioning molds people into what society expects them to be.  Masculinity and femininity is determined by the culture for which one is a part.  No more than the color of one’s eyes determines their personally does biology determine one’s gender, aggressiveness or how they nurturer.  It is society that trains, grooms and molds its citizens into what the group has deemed appropriate.  From one culture to the next,  it is clear that gender roles have evolved to meet the needs and traditions of the specific group.  From tribes in Africa who share roles considered masculine and feminine by American standards to strict gender roles of 1950s America, gender roles change and shift over time and are a product of society not biology.

Brettell, C., & Sargent, C. (2009).  Gender in Cross-Culture Perspective.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson
          Prentice Hall.
Hewlett, B. S. (2009). The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding.  In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.),
          Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective (39-50). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Imms, W. D. (2000). Multiple masculinities and the schooling of boys.  Canada Journal of Education, 25(2), 152.
Manalansan, M. F. (1995).  In The Shadows of Stonewall: Examining Gay Transnational Politics and the Diasporic
          Dilemma.  GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 2(4), 425-438.
Murcott, A. (2009). “It’s a Pleasure to cook for Him”: Food, Mealtimes, and Gender in Some South Wales
          Households.  In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective (21-32). Upper
          Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Peach, L. J. (2009). Gender and War: Are women Tough Enough for Military Combat?  In C. B. Brettell & C. F.
          Sargent (Eds.), Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective (21-32). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Townsend, N. W. (2009). Fatherhood and the Mediating Role of Women.  In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), 
          Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective (109-123). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Urla, J., Swedlund, A. C. (2009). Measuring Up to Barbie: Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture.   In C. B.    
          Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective (282-295). Upper Saddle River, NJ:
          Pearson Prentice Hall.

© Copyright 2010. Alyssa Burley.