Tristan Potter

Gender: Flip the script

Apr 6th, 2018

Discussions surrounding the philosophy of gender have come a long way since the days of Aristotle and St. Augustine. Although historical interpretations of gender have continued to broadly influence our culture, modern and contemporary philosophers have expanded the discipline, providing more nuanced understandings of human biology, psychology, and sociology. Looking at the works of Simone De Beauvoir, Michael Foucault, Suzanne Kessler, Wendy McKenna, and Judith Butler we will investigate:

Through our investigation, we will discover that theories of gender have been varied, and that gender is viewed as a subjective experience of identity that is created by repeated performances made by individuals.

Simone De Beauvoir – what is women?

Beauvoir challenges the ways that societies of primarily-male Western philosophers have characterized ideas of gender, specifically their restrictive definitions of femininity. These philosophers largely viewed women as imperfect versions of men, and classified men as practically divine and supremely logical beings operating beyond their mortal coils. Beauvoir criticizes these outdated theories:

“Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularizes it.”1

(De Beauvoir, The second sex, pp2014)

Beauvoir supports her claims by referencing the works of classical philosophers, demonstrating the ways that masculine superiority has impacted large schools of thought:

Beauvoir concludes that ancient philosophers have defined men as the default, and women are merely an object that is considered in relation to men; not as an individual.

“Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.”1

(De Beauvoir, The second sex, pp2014)

Recognizing that femininity has been historically defined as distinctly not masculine is important to understand the idea of femininity (and gender in general) as an identifying trait. If our definition for a gender is the lack of another identifier, we run into issues of categorization. What does it mean to be a women if womanhood is simply not-manhood? What about men who do not conform to the hegemonic ideas of masculinity? What does it mean to identify as a man, and subsequently as a non-man? These historical ideas about gender don’t help us to understand people’s experiences.

Kessler and McKenna – the subjective categorization of gender

The importance of determining another person’s gender is observed by Kessler and McKenna in their work “The Primacy of Gender Attribution.” They argue that we assign gender and make assumptions about people based off of our assignment before all other actions, and that we retroactively justify our attribution instead of making the attribution based on a defined criterion.

“Part of being a socialized member of a group is knowing the rules for giving acceptable evidence for categorization.” 2

(Kessler and McKenna, Gender: an ethnomethodological approach, pp6)

Identification of another’s gender is key for our understanding of their roles, as well as how to interact with them, what to expect from them, and how to interpret their actions. These roles and the primacy of gender attribution are taught through a variety of social institutions, including religion, school, parents, etc. and inform our actions from an early age. They note that when an individual’s gender is perceived as ambiguous, other people often showed signs of unease as they tried to place the individual into a gender category.2

“The primacy of gender attribution becomes obvious when we recognize that assignment and identity can be seen as special cases of attribution, and, even more importantly, that in order to meaningfully interpret someone’s assignment, identity, and role, and the relationship among them, one must first attribute gender.”2

(Kessler and McKenna, Gender: an ethnomethodological approach, pp17)

Many subscribe to the assumption that all things have an objective truth, including the human experience. This notion uses the gender binary as a tool to categorize within reality. However making these assumptions and attempting construct other experiences within an objective view of reality is inherently flawed, since experiences are by definition subjective and require interpretation from the perceiver.

The idea that gender is a core and stable part of someone’s identity comes from the assumption that all things have an objective truth, including the human experience. This notion uses the gender binary as a tool to categorize within reality. However, making these assumptions and attempting to construct human experience within an objective view of reality is inherently flawed, since experiences are by definition subjective and require interpretation from the perceiver.

“A defining feature of reality construction is to see our world as being the only possible one.” 2

(Kessler and McKenna, Gender: an ethnomethodological approach, pp18)

Judith Butler – Gender as a performance

Judith Butler, a Fellow of the British Academy and a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, builds off of the works of those before her. She uses previous research and conclusions to form a theory on societal experiences of gender as a repeated performance that creates our ideas of gender as a stable identity when it might be better viewed as an expression of self that changes in time.

“Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” 3

(Butler, Gender trouble: Subjects of sex/gender/desire, pp214)

In her work, Butler argues that gender is a construction that we create through time, not a fixed objective reality of our experiences. These constructions are expressed as a performance that we demonstrate for others using a politically and socially regulated medium (our bodies), signifying our position in a gender hierarchy and the roles that we take on. This performance must be repeated, and our self-surveillance and enforcement ensures its consistency and apparent naturalism.

“Gender is […] a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions— and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction “compels” our belief in its necessity and naturalness.”3

(Butler, Gender trouble: Subjects of sex/gender/desire, pp213)

The belief in the constructed story of gender that we perform, and the ways that it is naturalized and enforced have created the perception of a concrete objective reality, and as a society we enforce these ideas regularly.

“Discrete genders are part of what “humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right.” 3

(Butler, Gender trouble: Subjects of sex/gender/desire, pp213)

Michael Foucault – who decides the categories?

When discussing the power of characterization and categorization it is important to discuss the works of Michael Foucault, a French philosopher that is primarily known for his ideas around the ways humans categorize things, and how that power manifests itself in the ways people interact with each other. His work on categorization and power structures is used in many fields including psychology and sociology.

Our exploration of gender begins to concern Foucault’s when we begin to question the ways that gender is a categorization of behaviour that influences how we expect people to act and the ways that we act around others.

Without the concept of categorization, no mechanism of classification or description would be present.

“…one that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.”4

(Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, XIX)

Given the importance of categorization as a method of describing differences and communicating concepts, what does this mean for gender? Historically, Western society recognizes two genders, which are rationalized using naturalistic arguments. We can see in the historical record the factors and power dynamics that lead Western society to settle on two, and the ways naturalistic arguments were constructed to support this idea. Comparatively, modern theorists also have records of other societies that use more than two categories, providing a counter-example to any naturalistic arguments.

The way gender categories are formed in different societies is an area of particular interest. Why is it that Western society continues to frame its populations in terms of two genders, despite growing research on and support for intersex, trans*, and gender queer people who did not fit into these categories?

The story of Western gender constructs is largely informed by the power dynamics of society. The individuals in power have the power to manipulate the categorizations we use, whether they be church officials like St Thomas Aquinas, educators and popular philosophizes like Aristotle, or the people around us who may rely our actions to an authority or someone whom we respect. As we are all enforcing, attributing, and assuming each others genders, we are all partially responsible for perpetuating and normalizing the ideas of gender that are often perceived to be objective truths.

Where do we go now?

We’ve established that gender is a subjective experience that is constructed as a sustained performance, but what does this mean for contemporary society?

Revisiting our initial questions going into this exploration:

We still don’t have a concrete answer to some of these, but perhaps the answers are less relevant than we originally believed. How can we move forward where our ideas of each other are not informed by our stereotypes of a particular role, and be more intentional and thoughtful with our interactions?

Moving forward it is important to recognize that popularized ideas surrounding gender are a disservice to society. We as a global community can do better, and should work to bring an intersectional and progressive view of gender into more mainstream view.

A more important consideration is if we are even capable of fully investigating and changing the system. For those of us who live within the systems that we are aiming to critique, we come to the question how we can have the knowledge to critique it.

“What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable”5

(Lorde, Sister outsider: essays and speeches, pp25)

  1. De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Random House, 2014.  2 3 4

  2. Kessler, Suzanne J., and Wendy McKenna. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. University of Chicago Press, 1985.  2 3 4

  3. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.  2 3

  4. Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 1st American ed.-, Pantheon Books, 1970. 

  5. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, c2007.