3.2 Social ConstructionThis is a featured page

There is no denying the fact that what is seen as masculine and feminine differ over time and space (Kimmel and Aronson 2008: 3). Connell’s (2005) notion of hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity supports the idea that rather than there just being one fixed type of masculinity and femininity, there are different forms, and certain ones make it to the level where they are perceived to be the most desired in society.

The most obvious way we can see that gender roles and stereotypes are culturally and socially dependent is in that “gender expectations change over time and across cultures” (Crawley et al 2008: 6). The gendered body, as Shilling (1993, in Crawley et al 2008: xiii) is a product of physiological and social processes, rather than something static. However, it is often difficult to understand the concept of gender as a social construct, because it is so heavily institutionalised into our lives.

We can see a problem when we look at sex roles and characteristics that are apparently masculine or feminine. Peter Hegarty (2002) finds this problem prominent in 2 commonly cited measures of sex roles – Lewis Terman and Catherine Miles’s 1936 M-F Test (where masculinity and femininity are assumed to be opposites), and Sandra Bem’s 1974 Sex Role Inventory. He points out that the former’s sex characteristics were based upon students ranging from junior high to college, while Bem’s is based upon a sample of only 100 Stanford University undergraduates. Hegarty notes that despite their sample size being extremely small and limited, the answers that the researchers received “became the basis of universal definitions of masculinity and femininity” (2002: 72, emphasis in the original). Even though Bem, unlike Terman and Miles, believed that androgynous individuals were increasingly seen as more socially stable, their definitions of masculinity and femininity were based upon a small group of individuals of a certain age, class and race.

Gender roles are extremely subjective, and society plays a large part in dictating gender norms. As Lester (2002) notes, “while biology may play a part in male and female behaviour, society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics” (2002: 3/4). We must be careful not to conflate the meanings of sex and gender, or assume that men own masculinity while females own femininity. Sex is biological, and is an ascribed status, while gender is a cultural, achieved status.

Social construction emphasises the idea that because gender is culturally dependent, what we define as gender nonconformant therefore depends heavily on our own culture – what is deviant in one society is not necessarily deviant in another. Additionally, because of the heavy intersections of our gender identity with our other individual identities (in terms of class, race, religion and so on), while gender scripts exist within societies, they are also dependent upon the individual. As black feminism suggests, because gender is so focused on the body, other identities must be taken into consideration – “women” or “men” cannot be treated as a homogenous block.

3.2.1 Historicity

We can see clear examples of how gender stereotypes and roles have changed over time. The definition of an atypical gender role is no longer what it used to be several centuries, or even decades ago. Most obviously, we can see how women’s roles in society have changed over time. Women can now participate in the political and economic sphere. It used to be believed in Europe that women were not capable of being educated (because of their small brain size and their delicate constitution); this is certainly not the case now.

Hare-Murstein et al (1983, in Lindsey 1994) note that women may legitimately disavow motherhood, while Knauls et al (1983, in Lindsey 1994) discovered the changing views that a woman can be complete without children or marriage.

We can also see the changing opinion of gender-typing in occupations. In the mid-20th century, clerical/secretarial work used to be carried out by men, and was well-respected work; it was when such work became associated with women that it lost its previous status.

During WWII, it was acceptable for women to abandon conventional feminine behaviours (Chadwick 2002: 156) and take on work that had been previously carried out by men, simply because of the shortage of males.

In terms of dress, we can certainly see how gender norms have changed over time. Trousers were once seen as clothing only worn by men; this view of trousers is certainly not held in most societies today.

3.2.2 Space and Place

The concepts of gender are certainly different across different cultures. What is seen as masculine in one culture may be feminine in another. The most famous example of culturally differing notions of gender is Margaret Mead’s 1935 study in New Guinea, where she found three different cultures – one where both men and women carried out Western notions of femininity, one where both carried out Western notions of masculinity, and one where men were feminine while women played the masculine role.

The notions of masculinity are different across societies – in the deep south of the USA, for example, the predominant form of accepted masculinity is likely to be a man who must be able to take care of his family and the women in his family, and men are more likely expected to look tough, large and dominant. However, the popular notion of masculinity among teenagers and young adults in East Asia is likely to be very different – emphasis is placed upon “pretty” faces and hair and delicate bodies.

Working women are almost taken for granted in contemporary Western societies, while in extremely traditional societies such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, women may be expected to remain in the domestic sphere and obey their husbands.

Basow (1992) points out that in the U.S., dentists are seen as a male profession, while it is seen as a female profession in countries such as Sweden and current day Russia.

The differences in gender can also be seen within space – for example, women may deliberately play down their femininity in the workplace, but emphasise it in bars or with her husband. Similarly, a woman is allowed to be dominant and even aggressive if she is the head of a company; as a male CEO’s secretary, she is more likely to be expected to be passive. This is not reserved only for women; males may attempt to play up their masculinity more in certain situations – for instance, in the locker room or in an all-male workplace meeting. As Goffman (1969) notes, performances (in this case, of gender) are highly dependent upon the individual, the audience, and the social context.

It is important to note that what one particular individual may define as gender nonconformity may be normal or accepted in another culture. For instance, the hijras of India or the Two-Spirit people of Native America would be seen in Western contexts as atypically gendered, whereas they would be viewed as simply another gender role in their own society. Often, what we see as masculine or feminine is influenced heavily by Western notions.

On to: 4. Socialisation into Gender Role Stereotypes

Back to: 3.1 Biological Explanation

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