Social discourse is suffused with claims about gender. People all around the world seem to be addicted to making statements about what men and women are really like. Their gist is familiar: “men are doers/women are talkers; men are domineering/women are passive.” And the list goes on ad nauseam...What is the validity of these claims? Can we really know everything about the lived experience of gender? Can the statements cited above describe something that actually exists?

Gender allegedly governs everything we do: the way we walk, talk, and eat, how we dress, the friends we choose, our sexual partners, and our occupations. Following this logic, we can ‘know’ what all ‘men and women’ really are and we can safely predict their actions and life-choices based on gender identification. Fortunately, this insufferably totalitarian knowledge claim is untenable in light of the polymorphous democracy of lived experience.

There are over 7 billion people on this planet, thousands of different cultures and languages, and hundreds of countries and religions. When we purport to speak on behalf of ‘men’ or ‘women’, we are in fact claiming to speak for at least 4.5 billion exceptionally diverse people that we know next to nothing about. Truly ‘knowing’ someone’s gender would require knowing what they do at all times in their life (since gender allegedly governs everything we do), and since our knowledge of other people is extremely limited (nobody can really know a thousand, let alone a million or a billion people), it is empirically indefensible to claim actual knowledge of what all ‘men’ and ‘women’ really do, think, and want. We simply cannot know this information. And even if we were to do massive, ‘statistically representative’ surveys in which we asked people about their lives, this could never amount to truly ‘knowing’ others because there is much about their thoughts and behavior that people may not reveal, especially in light of the negative sanctions that almost inevitably come with breaking gender norms.

So, if the two gender categories that we use cannot really describe people’s lived realities, what is gender and how can we ‘know it’? How should it be studied, understood, and talked about?

Gender is discourse. While we cannot know gender as people live it, we can know it as an organized system of thought that exists in society and is disseminated through popular culture, conversations, family structure, folklore, art, the media, and literature. We can know the particular gender expectations that people have to live with by studying the culture that they are a part of and the discourses that they encounter in their daily lives. Gender, thus, should not be conceptualized as a grounded identity that necessarily emerges from a person’s experience. Rather, it should be viewed as an expectation and a directive that a person must live up to. Thus, knowledge claims about how men and women really are do not describe anything – rather, they exist as part of a gender discourse that sets expectations for people, telling them how they should live their lives.

The evident gap between ‘lived experience’ and discourse means that knowledge about gender is open to heavy politicization. Indeed, while popular talk about gender purports to describe, it has a primarily prescriptive function, directing people to work towards ‘the right’ kinds of gendered behaviors. Thus, it represents knowledge functioning as power; knowledge that is directed towards forming people’s identities, lives and behaviors in a particular direction. It would be wrong to interpret assertions about what men and women really are as empirically-false-but-innocuous prattle. Instead, these assertions are highly political and work carefully to define the nexus of oppressive ‘gender appropriate’ identities and behaviors that people must work so strenuously to uphold and which they are punished (both mildly and brutally) for not adhering to.

Overall, while claims about all ‘men’ and ‘women’ are obviously empirically indefensible, they exercise a hegemonic and dangerously prescriptive role. When confronted with such totalitarian knowledge claims, the most we can do is to ‘deconstruct’ them by pointing out the (endless) stream of counter-examples and by showing that generalizations about men and women have the effect of erasing, invalidating and denigrating the experiences of countless numbers of people. Yes, there are men who do interior decoration, women who fuck their husbands with strapons, and people who do not accept the gender binary. A simple, but effective, example of this method is provided in the book Deconstructing Tyrone. Its authors, Hopkinson and Moore, debunk dominant stereotypes of black men by simply providing counter-examples. This is a useful and easy way of contributing to gender-freedom and progress.

***For More Information***
Arguments about the discursive aspect of gender have become commonplace in feminist circles. For the most convincing ones, check out Gender Trouble or Undoing Gender by Judith Butler. If you would like to view the opposite argument, see Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, by ‘Doctor’ John Gray. For a direct rebuke of Gray’s arguments, have a look at Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus. But if you’re looking for an especially derisive critique, see ‘The Rebuttal from Uranus’. More on the knowledge-power nexus can be found in all the works of Michel Foucault.

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