What Are Femininity & Masculinity?

Skye83 expresses frustration as a genderless person in the trans* community, which is often dominated by trans men and women. (The way they explain this might be bothersome for some trans folks.) They also describe themself as nonbeliever in gender who would like to see gender eradicated. They ask,

What do femininity and masculinity mean? I wish someone would give me an answer to that question… but no one does!!

I have actually said this myself, numerous times, verbatim. Reading it in skye83’s words made me realize I now have an answer. Below is an improved and expanded version of the answer I gave in the linked thread.

Femininity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with women in a given cultural and historical context. Masculinity is the set of behaviors and attributes associated with men in a given cultural and historical context. Androgyny refers to a blending of these culturally specific feminine and masculine behaviors and attributes. It is also possible for behaviors and attributes to be neutral or associated with some other gender.

Masculinity and femininity are social constructs that vary across place and time. The categories of “men” and “women”–and any other genders recognized in a given society–are also social constructs that vary a great deal. Looking at the historical and anthropological records, I notice that the vast majority of human communities (all, as far as I know) make use of these constructs in some way.

The content of the constructs varies widely. What is considered “feminine” or “masculine” may be very different, even opposite, from one society to another. We can also see changes in gender norms and roles in the same society across generations.

What doesn’t vary so much is that gender exists in some form. People make meanings from the human body, sexuality, personality, reproduction, work, and related social roles. I would call this combination gender.

I see gender as similar to language. It’s a tool for meaning, communication and social organization that is part of the expressive repertoire of our species. Just like languages vary tremendously among groups, so does gender. People from different communities may be as confused by one another’s gender norms as they are by one another’s speech. Nonetheless, each is likely to have and use an idiom. Perhaps we are born prepared to learn gender norms, just like we’re born prepared to acquire language. The fact that it is so widespread suggest that, like language, gender is probably doing something pretty important for us. People seem to have strong intrinsic inclinations that pull them toward particular ways of being in the world, which they express through these culturally specific channels.

This view of gender has several implications. One is that gender is probably not going anywhere. Another is that, while we may be stuck with gender, we’re not stuck with the status quo. It follows that we are obliged to seek a gender system that is as egalitarian and nonviolent as possible.

If gender is part of how we communicate as humans, I think this suggests that everyone has a right to use this language. Therefore, we should seek a gender system that maximizes expressive opportunity. A good gender system doesn’t just avoid singling out some people for oppression, marginalization and punishment. Violence is a huge, terrifying problem with most gender systems, and it’s still the most pressing issue we face. But it’s not the only one. A good gender system gives as many people as possible the chance to truly express ourselves–to inhabit our bodies, relationships, and communities in an authentic way, to live in alignment with our deepest selves.

What do femininity and masculinity mean to you?

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7 comments

    • rimonim

      Fair enough!

      You said you wished someone would answer your question–this is my best shot. Any thoughts on this as an account of femininity & masculinity in general?

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  3. skye83

    I had forgotten about this particular post. I think that, after reading this 9 months later, my intolerance for gender is not something I should be shoving down people’s throats. Certainly, I want the freedom to opt out of the gender system, but it was wrong of me to rant all over the world wide web about people who choose to opt into the gender system. I don’t wanna punish people anymore for seeing gender as something important… I wouldn’t want anyone punishing me for seeing gender as something NOT important!

    • rimonim

      Thanks for this comment–I really appreciate it. Likewise, I respect that gender is not important to you, and I believe you should be free to opt out. I try to engage with gender in a way that meets my own needs, without stepping on anyone else’s toes (though I’m far from perfect at this).

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