The body has had a tendency of evading the speculative gaze of Sociology - presumably, the discipline assumed that societies are somewhat disenchanted from the bodies that make them up. The field has traditionally focused on descriptive analysis of social workings and the general method of the social machine. However, to understand the evolution of gender and sexuality within sociology, we cannot simply explore the machine in itself, we need to investigate as closely as possibly the makings of the machine’s clogs, in this case the bodies, which participate in a performative world of sexuality and gender. Whilst the performance of sex and gender has been traditionally explored as something personal and therefore either psychological or medical, this essay will argue that the concepts are hugely influenced by social phenomena and environmental factors and involved in the role of the individual as a social actor (Goffman, 1959).
Gender is performative; as Simone de Beauvoir (1949) famously said “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” (or, to be precise, becomes a person and builds their framework of gender identity). Yet, the performance is still predominantly decided for the individual by their biological and anatomical belonging to a certain sex, and thus is commonly described as binary. This relationship between performative individuality and physical determination of the individual makes notions of liminality and particularly explorations of the multifaceted nature of gender, extremely difficult. Biological ideas of sex have been separated from notions of gender since the 1950’s. However, a common belief that gender is a fixed, non-changeable part of the body, expressed through the self, remains in society. What is vital for the continuation of this essay is to express that there is an inescapable difference between the concepts of gender and sexuality. An attempt to juggle both in depth for the length of this essay, would end in disaster and frail analysis. To explain why, one could ask themselves to what extent sexuality is a biological or a social construct. This question in itself is incredibly complicated, much more so than that of gender, as gender is a notion which has been discussed openly amongst academics, as well as in the public sphere since the dawn of civilisation, unlike sexuality, which except for academics, remained a taboo everyday conversation for the most part of our civilised history. Thus, meaning to do justice to the depth, with which the fascinating subject of sexuality could be discussed, and taking discourse as an analytical tool, the sexual realm will be examined as sexualised gender performance. That is, gendered and hyper-gendered expressions of sexuality, stemming from discourse-generated stereotypes, connected to sexuality (Butler, 1993). This will allow us to only focus on the entirely socially constructed notion of sexuality identity, which is divided from the biological copulative urge of sexuality and is far more intertwined with gender. Therefore, the essay will focus on gender and discuss sexuality through gender performance.
Forms of non-heterosexual ways of being will be engaged as a tool to explore the failure of femininity and masculinity (Fausto-Sterling, 2000; Hubbard and Heggarty, 2014). The ultimate gender achievement for the two normative genders is the performance of fertile sexual acts. The ideal man role, in history and in literature, involves the raising of a son, an heir; thus, failure to perform is considered to be the stemming point of homophobia (McCreary, 1994). The ideal woman role is that of the mother and carer, birthing the needed heir and performing the sexuality needed for the satisfaction of her husband, who must dominate her, thus fulfilling his role as the ruler of her body, as well as her life. We see this in a variety of classic literature, in historical events: it is the idealised form of heterosexual relationship, re-asserted even today, in the literature of sex and relationship education (Taylor, 1971), as well as in fictional literature and popular media (James, 2011). In this sense, feminist sexual liberation (the performance of sex, orgasming and sexual freedom) and the LGBTQ+ liberation (sexuality as being divergent from normative heterosexuality) are intrinsically linked (Kimmel, 2005) and have brought about a sexual revolution in the past 50 years which was and still is a struggle of marginalised social groups (King et al, 1977; Marwick, 1999; Ruspini, 2013).
Sawicki argues that pre-Foucauldian feminism looks at gender discourse as a Hegelian (dominant versus submissive) battle, society normalizing the social language of the male and dominant gender and women appropriating the linguistic ability as a method of attaining power. A possible example of this is the second feminist wave, which saw women appropriating masculine identities, particularly in business, as the persona of the “businessman” was very clearly one, inviting only to men and where those, who identified as feminine could only serve the patriarchal industry in traditionally female roles. The argument was flawed as it only subjected genders, different from male, even further to an oppressive patriarchal attack. Discourses such as the one seen in second wave feminism are dualistic, there are two genders and two voices – one, which is dominant and strong and one, which is silenced and “modest” (Lloyed, 2005). This is further taken by the famous notion of hegemonic masculinity - the concept is a binary exploration of a culture, which nurtures “the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell, 1995, p.77). This lack of dimension on the conversation is elaborately presented by Spender (1980) and summed up: “The concept of multi-dimensional reality is necessary for it allows sufficient flexibility to accommodate the concept of equality.” Sawicki argues that using Foucault in feminist analysis makes the discourse a pluralistic one – where multiple gender and sexual identities exist. Identity performance is a changing discourse, which can no longer be contained within conventional framework, in an age of liminality and a society, seeking to distort the boundaries of prescribed identity.
In order to viably continue with this argument we need to briefly explore the possibility of an essentialist, biological view of gender. Firstly, ethnographers (Halford and Leonard, 2000) have identified a zero connection between biological sex, genes and gender rituals or vocabulary. Gender is not biologically defined and we are not born with genes that make us display more feminine or more masculine behaviours. Gender erupted as a central axis for social division and form of personality classification, as a result of the central place that reproduction and power distribution have in a society based on physical ability and physically demanding work (for example, a primitive society). We no longer have a need for classification of subspecies – an argument, which is now heavily endorsed by biologists, as well as sociologists, for all species.. In a world based on social and intellectual skill, academic proficiency and scientific adequacy, we are no longer bound to our physical abilities to make our survival possible. Which, in turn, makes stereotypical connotations of femininity as weak, submissive, passive and in some cultures even inhuman, utterly arbitrary and illogical. Feminist philosopher, Judith Butler argues we need not to compare sex and gender as a method for studying the world because “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which "sexed nature" or "a natural sex" is produced and established as "prediscursive" prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts.” (1990: 7), ergo it does not lend itself to the same method of scientific study. Instead, this leads to a more discourse-based perspective, which asks more than descriptive questions and moves to post-structuralist discussions of the place of gender in social life and the importance of gender for modern identity, or rather, how that importance and how that difference is produced.
To entail in gender discourse studies, one must first define gender. For Lorber and Farrell (1991, p.7), it is “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims to membership in a sex category”. Whilst they focus still on the perceived as “normal” activities to be conducted, in order to belong to a gender, it’s very important to note that through identifying with a gender, one can claim belonging to a certain group. This leaves one with the opportunity to not belong to a group and to not identify as one of the two dominant gender groups. This is important, indeed this is fundamentally important for discussing gender today, as more and more people claim a gender identity or simply an identity, outside the comfort of “man” or “woman” (Kuper et al, 2011). Yet, how are the concepts of “man” and “woman” formed? As was mentioned before, for many people these stem from biologically determined human particulars. However, with notice to trans-men and trans-women, many transgender people, do not undergo SRS or even minor body modifications, yet their identities are clearly transformed into feminine or masculine to themselves and to society. It could be argued that this is so, as gender is performed and read without the need for a biological platform. As Edley (2001, p.191) put it: Discourse in terms of gender refers to “a whole range of different symbolic activities, including style of dress, patterns of consumption, ways of moving, as well as talking”. An excellent example provides Hall’s work (1997) in researching the lives of hijras, who compare the experience of undergoing their induction into the Hijra lifestyle to learning a second language. This metaphor and the factual research behind it has been explored by others (Coates 1996, 2003) and affirms the presentative nature of gender. Sexuality has a firm space here, as women’s sexuality is simultaneously viewed as permeating the very nature of womanhood and being the ultimate social taboo. Women are expected to be simultaneously the temptress and the virgin – they experience bashing for whichever path they choose. Indeed, sexuality is a core part of gender performance – gay men are often dictated into a feminine identity as their failure to engage in sexual domination over women is seen as a failure of masculinity. Women who are overly sexual and “promiscuous” are also read as masculine, often assumed a bisexual identity, whilst lesbian women are assigned to being masculine and indeed can experience discrimination and abuse from within the lesbian community if they do not conform to a largely ascribed stereotype of the “butch”.
Gender is mainly constructed through language and the symbolic meaning of everyday conversation; specific culturally loaded words, ways to refer to people and items, as well as the lack of speaking or, as women may know it – modesty. “Language, Gender and Childhood” (1985, p.1) edited by Steedman et al “examines both speaking and silence, what could be spoken, where and when; and how words, language and texts were formative in producing taken-for-granted conceptions of childhood, femininity and motherhood”. Whilst the book focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of women, due to the discursive themes of the time, it is most applicable to gender as a whole. Indeed, Cameron (1997, p.49) in her work on heterosexual men’s conversational patterns, does precisely that and explores how “people use linguistic resources to produce gender differentiation”. She further continues to explore that this is a dynamic process, which is reaffirmed and in many cases evolved daily in continuous interactions. An entire part of the book is devoted to the language of “gayness” and the way the word gay is used to describe femininity in men. It is crucial to note here that Steedman’s “femininity” is actually any expressions of weakness, being emotional or caring, acting in any way, divergent from the hyper-masculine identity, which is becoming more and more normalised. Through language, we ascribe the sexual identities, which are expected of us by stereotyping gender and sexuality together. An examination of the multitude of ways, in which, women are indoctrinated into specific language, pronunciation, behaviours and conversational topics and thus become women through the practice of these is compiled by Romaine (1999). She also touches on the topic of meanings and symbols, contained in this becoming – ideas about sex, appropriateness, reading situations, etc. An example, used by her and also found in the recent University of Bath research on Lad Culture, is the way, in which women who have been physically sexually harassed, will admit to the physical incident, but will not name it as assault. According to Romaine, this is due to a common notion of masculine entitlement to women’s bodies and the latter’s passive reaction to such incidents, to the extent to which they are no longer considered to be assaultive.
Miller and Swift (1977) write on the linguistic explorations of gender construction, which are even more basic and subconscious than these of ascribed sexual identities. They aim to depict how gender, regardless of its face, dominance or subordination is entirely a concept, a performance, consisting of costumes, scripts and daily rituals is an intrinsic part of our lives and constrains the way we behave through creating, more often today than ever, unrealistic norms and ideal gender identities, we, as members of a society are expected to fulfil. More and more, as was mentioned, gender is no longer confinable within “man” and “woman” and this results in gender dysphoria, depression and anxiety. A great part of the mechanism, through which gender is reconstructed is the linguistic specificity of “bigender” language forms and their effect on social attitudes and perceptions of gender roles and gender stratification. Boyadzhieva (2012) makes an excellent case of how gender is constructed in the entire language. She shows how, in most Slavic languages, gender is a part of practically every word, every noun has its own assigned gender, yet this does not necessarily conform to the natural sex of the object. For example “girl” and “boy” have a neuter sex, yet are applied to objects with a specific gender identity. In contrast, some professions, and objects traditionally attached to a feminine identity (kitchen, dinner, care) or masculine identities (saw, hammer, leader) are given gender identities. Romaine (1999a) describes a variety of words, labelling women as housewives and “loafkneaders” in Japanese and Old English, which had become everyday words in their time. This could suggest that the cultural meaning and gendering of these objects, activities etc. stems from a constructed symbolism, as opposed to their natural belonging to a certain physical sphere. In the case of stereotypically feminine and masculine objects gendered in Slavic languages, whether the language or the stereotype came first is irrelevant as what’s really of interest is the way in which these language forms make it impossible to even think in plurivocal forms or to stop the individual from perceiving them in a non-gendered manner. Boyadzhieva takes her argument further and claims that this language construction makes Slavic languages particularly sexist and reinforces gender inequality.
Gender and sexuality are two significant for the study of society concepts and it is extremely challenging to explore both of these in a short essay. In order to illustrate how intertwined their roles and their production are, however, this piece of work focused on gender and on sexuality as both a part of gender performance, and a prerequisite for a specific gender identity to be adopted, particularly in homosexual people. This essay did not aim to explore essentialist possibilities and instead discussed how discourse and language, performance, culture and media have an impact on our personal understanding of gender and sexuality, as well as on our performances. With regards to these claims, it is safe to conclude that gender and sexuality are, as a style of performance and a set of rituals, almost entirely socially constructed and dictated, regardless of the influence that biological factors have on them. By this it is meant that whilst we are born with a certain sex and, arguably, born with a certain sexual orientation, we experience these identities and perform these identities in a way, which is typically characteristic of a certain social group – economic, ethnic, and cultural. There is more to be said about the way our belonging to subgroups creates intersections of identities and how this affects our performances but one is certain – the changing and individual take every identity takes is due to the liquidity and change of socially constructed models of behaviour and our experience of the discourse attached to them.
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