New Worlds: Sex and Gender – What Is Gender?

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Last week we looked at the sex half of the cultural can of worms that is sex and gender. This week we turn to gender — and, to repeat my disclaimer from before, this is a very complex topic I can only address in brief. If you want to know more, there is an entire academic field out there with books for you to read!

With that out of the way . . . gender — how does it even work?

Gender is simultaneously an incredibly old and a surprisingly new concept. It’s old in the sense that, to the best of my knowledge, it’s found in every human society as far back as we can track. I don’t know of a single group that has ever operated without some idea of gender — though, as we’ll see later this month, the ways in which those ideas of gender operate have varied more than you might think.

But I’m pulling a bit of linguistic trickery when I say that. (And here I should pause to note that by necessity, I’m coming at this from an English-language framework; I’m not fluent enough in any other language to know whether matters were different elsewhere. So far as I’m aware, though, the underlying point I’m about to make applies, even if the actual literal words vary from place to place.)

You see, the idea of gender in the sense that we mean it is less than a hundred years old. (Prior to that, “gender” was a grammatical concept only.) The roots of our current idea lie back in the 1940s, and started gaining traction in the ’70s. So, fifty, maybe eighty years since we began thinking in these terms — since we began noticing and talking about the fact that there was something riding shotgun with sex.

That “something” is the cultural expectations we assign to sex. When I say every society I know of has had a concept of gender, what I mean is that every society has assumed certain things about people based on their sex. Assumed and enforced; when women are barred from holding particular jobs, or men can be divorced for wearing excessively effeminate clothing, that’s society making sure people stay in their boxes. And that’s why, although there’s a degree of cultural decision-making going into our ideas of sex, gender is a cultural thing right down to the foundation.

What kinds of things do we gender? It might be faster to list the ones we don’t. We gender names, clothing, jewelry, makeup, colors, food, music, literature, art, games, hobbies, sports, jobs, domestic chores, sexual behavior, religious rituals, spiritual potential, speech patterns, personalities — you name it, some culture somewhere in the world has probably gendered it. Theorists talk about gender in terms of performance: not in the formal sense of getting up on a stage for an audience, but in the constant, everyday sense of enacting certain appearances and behaviors for everyone around you, and even for yourself. When a woman softens her assertions with disclaimers and modesty, when a man holds in tears rather than letting them spill, they’re performing the expectations of their gender.

These things can be profoundly arbitrary. I’ll get into that more next week when we unpack what gets assigned to “masculine” and “feminine” categories, but for a representative example, think about the pink vs. blue dichotomy so prevalent today. It only really got rolling in the 1950s — and it could easily have gone the other way! Some people felt that pink should definitely be the masculine color, because it’s strong and vibrant, while blue, so much more delicate, was ideal for girls. Yet now, thanks to incessant marketing, it’s incredibly difficult for us to see a man in pink and not get effeminate vibes off it.

Gender doesn’t have to be binary, though. I don’t just mean that in the context of modern developments; I mean that there’s a laundry list of cultures with long-standing concepts of alternative genders. But historically, these tend to share with binary gender the characteristic of having defined expectations: it’s less about slipping free of the gender net entirely, more about stepping into a different performance role.

Our current situation is interesting because in many cases the non-binary side isn’t about defined categories and the expectations we as a society have, much less enforce, of the people who sort into those categories. Many people now talk about masculine-to-feminine as a spectrum, with individuals falling at many points along it, and even shifting along it at different points in time — while others step off that line entirely, looking for spaces that do slip free of that pervasive gendering I described above. More on all of this at the end of the month.

But it means that we’ve got a trend now that challenges the very concept of what gender is. We haven’t merely decoupled gender from the sex of the body; we’re talking about it in terms of personal identity, an expression of the self-image and desired behaviors of the individual, not of the society. A psychologically-driven phenomenon, rather than a culturally-created one. In light of that, it’s no wonder we have a ferment of different terms and behaviors flying around! It’s a ground-breaking shift, every bit as much of an upheaval as the idea that maybe there can be a difference between what your body looks like and what role you occupy in society.

To illustrate the role psychology plays right now: I myself am not a stereotypically feminine woman. I rarely wear dresses or makeup; I have a black belt in karate; I’ll often choose an action movie over a romcom. Despite this, I feel fine identifying myself as a cis woman. Meanwhile, I have friends whose behavior and personalities are similar to mine, yet they identify as one form or another of genderqueer, agender, etc. For them, the label “female” just doesn’t fit, due to all the baggage it carries; for me, I reject the idea that “female” has to be so narrowly defined that it doesn’t include me.

And that makes me think of the Japanese women’s national soccer team. Their nickname is Nadeshiko Japan, alluding to the phrase Yamato nadeshiko. In the latter, “Yamato” is an old name for Japan, and nadeshiko is a frilled type of carnation; the phrase itself evokes idealized Japanese femininity. (Think of the analogous term “English rose.”) So when the team took on that nickname, they were making a statement, asserting that Japanese femininity could also encompass powerful athleticism.

Gender is culturally defined — which means we can change its definition. Maybe even break and discard the concept entirely, as a thing which has outlived its usefulness; who knows? It’s fertile territory for speculative fiction to play with. In the end, I arrive back where I started:

Gender — how does it even work?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


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