New Worlds: Male and Female

Next week we’ll talk about traditional third genders and the modern array of alternative genders, but first we should look at the most common components of a gender system: the ideas of male and female.

Because they’re cultural construct, these ideas aren’t inherent in us when we’re born. They have to be applied, regularly and consistently, with people performing toward us in ways appropriate to our gender, and teaching us how to perform our own responses. Over time, the drip-drip-drip of reinforcement dyes the fabric of our lives.

Interestingly, though, this process doesn’t always start at birth. Although people have certainly recognized that infants have a particular sex (and sometimes make decisions or take action to settle on one if the evidence was ambiguous), in English we’ve commonly referred to babies using the gender-neutral pronoun “it” — even now, at a time when gender does get inculcated from the start. And historically, very young children were all dressed in the same type of clothing, regardless of sex. Consider this photo:

That’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty-second president of the United States, when he was about two and a half years old. In the 1880s, this was completely normal. But these days, every aspect of his appearance, from his hair down to his shoes, says “little girl.”

And that’s the second thing to remember about our assumptions of gender: they can change over time. Makeup used to be more a marker of class than anything else, advertising that you had money to blow on painting yourself up to look your best. Somewhere along the line, though, men of even the highest classes began to eschew it, relegating it to the sphere of femininity. Crying hasn’t always been associated with female sentimentality; on the contrary, tears could signal the powerful emotions of a manly heart. But on the far side of those shifts, it’s hard for us to un-see the implications those behaviors have now, because of that drip-drip-drip of reinforcement.

The language I’ve used to talk about these changes gives away another aspect. Because most societies have been patriarchal in structure, when things shift away from being masculine or ungendered, I talk about them being relegated to the feminine side. They get devalued and therefore become associated with women, or they get associated with women and therefore devalued. There’s evidence showing that as women become more common in scientific fields like biology, those fields start being spoken of as “softer” and less prestigious than, say, physics, where women are still infrequent. When the shift goes the other way, it’s the masculine sphere claiming that behavior for itself, or some other term that asserts power. And things do sometimes move in that direction, usually when broader cultural shifts make a hitherto disregarded field prestigious: both cooking and sewing are traditionally feminine activities, but among famous chefs and clothing designers, you tend to find a lot more men.

As I’ve said before, gender is a thing we enforce. It’s not the only aspect of our society to get that treatment; past New Worlds volumes have talked about things like sumptuary laws that restrict particular types of clothing or house architecture to the elite classes, and there have been related laws and customs that strip an elite individual of their status if they engage in a prohibited behavior. Our modern, Western, egalitarian ideal has largely removed those barriers (though not class differentiation itself), but we’ve been slower in phasing out gender enforcement.

That enforcement can take many forms. In the West, the legal barriers are mostly gone at this point; women can do things like vote and own property, and men aren’t jailed anymore for having sex with other men. But behaviors that violate gender norms still frequently elicit a negative response — sometimes even a violent one, as far too many transgender individuals know first-hand. A man who cries and talks freely about his feelings risks losing face, not only among men, but among women as well. Even if he isn’t openly mocked for it, people will perceive him as weaker than his more stoic peers. The phrase “toxic masculinity” was coined to draw attention to the ways our culture hurts not just women but men, by encouraging men towards dysfunctional behaviors (e.g. getting into fights) and forbidding them the natural expression of their vulnerability.

This prejudice is changing, slowly — but it doesn’t change equally in all directions at once. Successive waves of feminism have by stages pushed the boundary of what’s acceptable for women, such that nobody bats an eyelash now to see a woman in trousers, much less stones her or puts her on trial. And while it’s still difficult for women to gain access to many fields and forms of authority (witness the dismal percentage of female CEOs, senators, and surgeons), there’s little to no loss of status associated with occupying such a position. But a man in a skirt? Or staying at home to raise children? He’s going to face a vastly different reaction. Because again, patriarchy: female-gendered things are treated as being inherently lower-status. Women entering a previously male-only domain are gaining power; men entering a previously female-only domain are losing it. When I was writing my college thesis on Viking Age Scandinavia, one of the articles I read argued that the gender system of that culture was less a matter of two boxes and more a matter of a spectrum. One end of that spectrum was admired, the other not; women defaulted to the lower end, but they could situationally rise, and men could situationally fall. We haven’t managed to shed that value judgment yet.

Some groups try to counter this with a theologically-based view of gender known as complementarianism. Under this philosophy, men and women are fundamentally different — but this is a good thing, and the world needs the kinds of work both of them provide. Unfortunately, complementarianism is not only essentialist (it frowns on people stepping out of their assigned boxes), but it invariably asserts that men are naturally supposed to lead and women are supposed to follow. So however much it claims to valorize women’s contributions, the practical reality is that those contributions aren’t valued on par with those of men, and women are deprived of the power to protect themselves against abuse. It turns out that “separate but equal” is no better a system for gender than it is for race.

That’s only scratching the surface of how we construct male and female gender, but again, there are whole oceans of books out there on this topic. So for now, we’ll leave it at that — and next week we’ll look at some other options!



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.


New Worlds: Male and Female — 4 Comments

  1. The word “girl” used to apply to boys and girls. And the name “Shirley” was common for boys until Shirley Temple.

    • I feel like I might have heard that about “girl” before, but I’d forgotten!

      Names are definitely a place where gender slippage happens. The modern American (Western?) thing of boys’ names being used for girls is hardly specific to this time and place; apparently Japanese geisha also frequently took masculine-sounding names. I can’t think of any instances where a distinctly feminine name has started being used for boys, though.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Male and Female - Swan Tower

  3. Surnames — especially Mother’s maiden name — were given to 19th and 20th century children of either sex.

    One thing about small children’s clothes: look for little boys in pleats and little girls in gathers. FDR’s skirt is pleated.

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