In my previous post, I outlined the notion that gender is not a fixed identity that each individual possesses; it does not represent some inner, knowable essence of all men and women. Rather, it is a social discourse that sets expectations for people’s lives, without necessarily forming their identities or gaining their allegiance. What implications does this view have for the study of gender? How should it affect gender-progressive activism?

Discourse’ is a relatively contentious term. Nevertheless, for our purposes, the following definition should be sufficient: a relatively organized set of propositions about a particular object that has claims to representing the authoritative truth about that object. For example, the discursive formation on men would trigger the following train of propositions and assumptions: “men have penises, they don’t have breasts, they are sex-maniacs and interested in women of a particular type, they don’t quite have the same connection with their children as mothers do, they like cars and sports.” This discourse constructs identities and sets expectations for behavior, while at the same time, coloring people’s analyses of a particular person (as ‘manly’ or ‘not manly’ etc…).

There are generally two types of discourses about gender: the discourse about the content of gender and discourse about gender itself. The former refers to the various non-physical attributes of men and women, and the list of acceptable behaviors for each gender. This discourse is flexible, changeable, up-for-debate, and (re)constructed on a more-or-less daily basis. For instance, while the social discourse on the content of gender emphasizes that men like sports and fast cars, in recent years, normative masculinity has appropriated many so-called ‘feminine’ practices as well, such as grooming, manicures, pedicures, waxing, and applying skincare products. This is indicative of how malleable the discourse on the content of gender is. It is very much up for debate and flexible: the list of acceptable behaviors for men and women can change often.

The discourse of gender itself, however, displays the opposite attributes. I would characterize it (at least within the context of Euro-U.S. culture) as ‘hard’, inflexible, and exceptionally difficult to change. It so often goes unquestioned that it has an existence independent of the mass of individuals that put it into practice. What are the main postulates of this discourse about gender? (1) There are two and only two genders; (2) Gender characteristics follow ‘naturally’ from ‘biological’ sex traits; (3) There must at all times be a difference between the two genders. So, just as we noted above that men could appropriate certain ‘feminine’ practices, we should also note that, in the process of that appropriation, the difference between men and women had to be upheld. There is never any question of men becoming women or being like women. Rather, in appropriating ‘feminine’ beautification and grooming practices, they had to be translated into a masculine context, renamed and reinterpreted so as to fit the changed content of masculinity. Thus, manicures become ‘hand-fixes’, skincare and grooming products begin to wear the label ‘For Men’, and a new masculine identity (metrosexuality) is created in order to make sense of the changes. Despite the appropriation of ‘feminine’ beauty practices, a difference between genders has been maintained: men are still men and women are still women. At least in Euro-American. culture, gender flexibility seems to stop at the point at which the two-gender model and the assumption of essential difference between men and women are challenged.

Nevertheless, the inflexible and ‘hard’ nature of this discourse does not mean that it is not possible to change it. The very existence of people who do not accept the two-gender system, whose gender characteristics follow different paths than their ‘biology’ would normatively lead one to believe, and who are not obsessed with always producing a difference between men and women, is profoundly destabilizing. Simply confronting people with the fact that the above assumptions do not apply for everybody, that there are people whose experiences differ vastly from what the discourse of gender itself postulates, should be enough to destabilize it. Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the Gender Binary is an amazing book edited by Joan Nestle and Riki Wilchins that does just this. It features stories from genderqueer, intersex, agender, and Third Gender people that, just by their very existence put the discourse of gender itself to shame. Spreading these stories is definitely the way forward to chipping away at this seemingly hard and intractable discourse.

***For More Information***
Once again, I have no choice but to recommend anything by Judith Butler for more on the discursive aspect of gender. Also, Judith Lorber’s essay “Night to His Day” outlines the imperative of difference (how the semblance of difference must be maintained at all costs) between men and women very well.

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