Gender Trouble: Gender Construction

Mick Jagger in Drag

Mick Jagger in Drag

Now Butler has established that both sex and gender are constructed one main question arises: how is gender constructed? If gender is constructed can it be constructed differently? Is its constructedness in utter control of the agent? Or is its constructedness still contingent or imply some form social determinism or laws whereby the possibility of agency and transformation are closed off?

In some ways the theory that gender is constructed, “suggests a certain determinism of gender meanings inscribed on anatomically differentiated bodies, where those bodies are understood as passive recipients in an inexorably cultural law” (p.8) In other words, gender will vary depending on the culture it’s body is exposed to. “When the relevant ‘culture’ that ‘construct’ gender is understood in terms of such law or set of laws, then it seems that gender is as determined and fixed as it was under the biology-is-destiny formulation”(p.8) As a result, culture becomes destiny, thus gender is variant and dependant on a given culture.

Butler next examines the work of Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir suggests in The Second Sex that “one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one” For Beauvoir gender is “constructed” but in her argument implies that there is an agent, a cogito, who takes on or appropriates that gender and could, in principle, take on some other gender (p.8). And so to a certain degree a person is in control of their gender and the construction of it. Beauvoir is clear that one “becomes” a woman but always under a cultural compulsion to become one. And this compulsion does not derive from “sex”. She also doesn’t make it clear that the “one” who becomes a woman is actually a female. And so, if “the body is a situation” as Beauvoir claims there is no option for a body “that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not quality as a prediscursive anatomical facticity” (p.8). Thus sex is shown as being gender all along.

The controversy over the meaning of construction seems to founder on free will and determinism debates. If sex is gender all along and culturally constructed, the question is whether it’s construction is completely out of a person’s free will or that of a given culture. The body can either appear as a “passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed or as the instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning itself” (p.8). In either case the body is seen as a mere instrument or medium for which a set of cultural meanings can be inscribed and constructed. Exploring whether sex or gender are fixed or free seeks to determine what limits or controls sex and gender construction.

If culture sets out certain laws and a free agent chooses to follow these rules, which is really in charge on the constructing?  Should one go against the laws in order to feel they are in charge of their destiny? Or are the cultural laws and frameworks quite natural to some? Or are the cultural laws and frameworks set out force us to believe that they are natural and that we are choosing them freely?  We understand sex through gender of language and through societal expectations of male and female. Therefore, sex exists in relation to gender not outside of it. Butler suggests that the term, “woman” itself is a term in process, a becoming; a constructing that cannot rightfully be said, “to originate or end” (p.9) The view proposes that gender should be used to refer to the social and cultural constructions of masculinities and femininities, not to the state of being either male or female in it’s entirety.

Butler next examines the work of Luce Irigaray. For Beauvoir women are designated as the other, the negative of men, the lack against which masculine identity differentiates itself. Meanwhile, Irigaray argues that women constitute a paradox within the dialogue of identity. This dialectic belongs to a “masculine signifying economy” (p.12) that excludes the representation of women because it employs phallocentric (masculinist) language, thus women constitute the unrepresentable. However, as Butler notes, both Beauvoir and Irigaray assume that there exists a female self-identical being in need of representation, and their arguments hide the impossibility of “being” a gender at all.

To summarize, Beauvoir’s theory suggests that individuals become a gender because it’s a cultural compulsion to do so and that gender is created and not just the result of sex. Although, gender is usually thought of as a social/cultural construct and sex as a biological process, Butler contends that both gender and sex are cultural constructions. She argues against the traditional understanding that gender, society’s understanding of masculinity and femininity is derived from sex. Butler, argues that because gender is a cultural construct and not ‘natural’ and since we understand biological sex in terms of gender and gendered language it too is a cultural construct and sex itself is a gendered category.

The laws and frameworks within cultures and societies influence gender and the way it is constructed for Butler. As these laws can vary, a person’s gender can also vary depending on the culture it’s body is exposed to. Gender is by no means tied to material bodily facts but is solely and completely a social construction, a fiction, and one that, therefore, is open to change and contestation. Here, Butler introduces her idea of gender being performative, as this first chapter has ensued: gender is fluid, gender is culturally constructed and gender is not restricted by sex thus gender is performative and changeable.  Taking into consideration Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman combined with her belief that gender is socially/culturally constructed Butler goes onto state that, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a hugely rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (p.33).

In other words, Butler suggests that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality are culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in times such as a male with a masculine gender and heterosexual desire. Through the repetition of these stylized bodily acts establishes the appearance of an essential “core” gender. Butler is aware however, that gender construction is influenced by platonic ideals, ‘norms’ and rules formed by culture and society. But what are these rules? What is considered ‘normal’ and ‘natural’? And why should we conform to them?

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