The Problem With Masculinity And Femininity

Is the ‘or’ we put between them and the strangle hold we’ve given them on our sense of personal identity.

We all have both masculine and feminine traits within us at all times, to varying degrees and at certain times some will be more prevalent than others. As in Taoist philosophy Yin and Yang may be opposites but they are always present and necessary for health, harmony, and balance and each contains an element of the other uniting them rather than dividing them. What is causing all the harm in our culture is the exclusionary wall we have placed between the two making them not just opposite but antithetical. People feel they do not belong in one or the other because we have falsely restricted our existence to only one of the two and then given one far more privilege than the other.

Culturally we are entangled in conversations, debates, explorations, and reinventions around issues of sex and gender. At first glance, and under old paradigms, the concepts of male and female may seem simple but they are not. As with aspects of all living things there is variance, diversity, norms, and exceptions. As sentient social animals we have evolved our perceptions of biological sex into the concept of gender making it integral to our sense of identity which further complicates things and also massively raises the stakes.

Whichever layer of this onion we try to peel back we find deeply personal and emotionally charged repercussions. How we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others has enormous impact, positive or negative, on how we experience our lives. Thus our traditionally familiar ways of quantifying ourselves and each other hold intensely important value. Anything which seems to shake or threaten those metrics can cause a sense of visceral terror.

But what of those who don’t fit into the existing traditional paradigms? Whatever the metric there will always be those who don’t fit neatly within it, every bell curve always has its outliers. While we can’t predict and declare for every possible permutation, especially when dealing with creatures as diverse and complex as people, it is possible to allow room for outliers by acknowledging they are not only possible but inevitable.

When it comes to issues of sex and gender there are staggering amounts of conceptual architecture to try and unpack. Can we separate sex and gender? Should we? Do we need to? Can we make room for more than binary categories of gender? Can we do the same with biological sex? Each of these questions is complicated, extensive, an important topic in and of themselves but to horrendously oversimplify for the sake of brevity…

Can we separate sex and gender? On a purely theoretical level, yes. Sex refers to biological components of the organism. Gender refers to behavioral traits of the individual. On a practical level, however, they are overwhelmingly entangled in each other as our cultural perceptions of them. To say nothing of the whole other set of debates trying to separate behavior from biology brings into the mix.

Should we separate them, do we need to? The most important answer to this question is another question. Why? Before we engage in that kind of messy and potentially painful undertaking it is crucial we first understand why we are doing it in the first place. Are we seeking to more fully understand each in their own right? Or are we making the dangerous, and mostly false, assumption that answers we might find in one will automatically apply to the other? No question, there is a great deal to be learned and explored here but the problem isn’t with sex or gender as entities but in how we are viewing them at a cultural level.

Can we make room for more than simply binary categories of gender or sex? Absolutely. The work towards trying to expand and diversify our concepts and practices around gender is embattled but slowly progressing, vitally important work necessary to both free and protect from prejudice and harm those who don’t fit the traditional paradigms. The conundrum is if the restrictions and limitations of categorization are the problem will further categorizing actually help us achieve our ultimate goal of universal safety and inclusion? Will more ‘or’s be as helpful as we may hope?

Diversifying our systems of classification is a crucial step in the process but it isn’t the only step. As a society we have a dangerous tendency for taking the first steps towards a larger goal only to then either declare the problem already solved or to view the eventual outcome we desire as now being somehow obligated to us, both of which make any resistance or difficulties feel like unjust attacks against something already decided.

Issues of gender and sex are so entwined in our cultural practices and histories there are countless different ‘rabbit holes’ even the most well intentioned advocates can end up falling into. There is absolutely no denying the tragic and horrendous history of abuses committed as the result of prejudicial attitudes around gender, sex, and societal roles. Litigating those atrocities can be an important part of the healing process but it is never as effective an engine of genuine lasting change as we would like it to be.

Before we can address, or shift, how society treats and prioritizes one gender or another we need to examine, and shift, how we actually construct our views in first place. The fact we have categories for things is not inherently harmful, though how we treat members of those categories certainly can be. If we want to make transformative change around our categories then we need to start with how we determine membership in those categories are in the first place. Dealing with gender identity brings us back to our good old friends masculine and feminine.

On its face there is nothing wrong with listing behavioral traits under two different headings, in this case masculine and feminine. There is a bit of ‘bias at birth’ issue linking the categories directly to physical sex given the lists were originally compiled based on which behaviors were most commonly displayed by one or the other of the perceived sexes but that isn’t where the serious problem started. The real trouble began when we then declared the two categories of behavior to be mutually exclusive and then retroactively determinative.

Rather than acknowledge the infinitely varied spectrum of human behavior we ‘simplified’ the categories by branding them as ‘either-or’. And we then created a snake-eating-its-own-tail situation by viewing the behaviors as somehow defining the sexual categories we had based the lists on in the first place.

Socrates might have liked the intellectual roundabout of it all but for us it not only locks us into horrifically oversimplified categories then forces us to double down on our portrayal of categorical expectations in order to validate our membership in the category. The whole thing is already so much of a mess no small wonder people can get resistant to the idea of any further complications.

But then the question returns, what about those who don’t fit into a simple two-box paradigm? For outliers every day is a ceaseless struggle with the proverbial ‘square peg, round hole’ dilemma. Creating more possible boxes can ease the struggle somewhat, and is an important first step, but given the infinite variety of human beings we will then eventually need infinite boxes.

The real source of the trouble is the impassable walls we are putting between the boxes, regardless how many boxes there are. So to try and soften, and eventually abolish, those walls here are some key things we need to remember about our core metrics of masculine and feminine.

They Are Descriptors Not Definitions

Masculine and feminine are categories of behavioral descriptors. They are not definitions of being, that is something we have falsely burdened them with. Describing someone as aggressive does not mean they are an aggression, nor does describing someone as permissive mean they are a permit. Behavioral descriptors do no define who a person is they merely offer us a predictive understanding of how our interactions with them will most likely unfold in a given circumstance.

To use a less polarizing example, being extroverted or introverted does not mean one is automatically more or less suited to be a leader. Both extroverts and introverts can be excellent leaders they will just be demonstrably different in their affects and approaches. The descriptor is not definitive, simply descriptive.

Branding behaviors as masculine or feminine is not inherently harmful, even given that the moniker originated from an association with a perceived physical sex. It is our cultural practice of treating one gender identity as being more valuable than others which does that.

No One Is 100% Anything

No one person is ever solely in one category in all aspects of their lives. Despite the divisive ‘Hatfields and McCoys’ binary ideologies all too present in our media and politics these days we human beings are always spectrums more than we are diametric categories. Even within ourselves there are always bell curves with their ever present outliers.

We have become infested with the cultural idea that outlying tendencies are aberrations, inconsistencies which need to be smoothed out and eradicated. It isn’t the outlying traits which damage us but rather that cultural misconception which then turns us against ourselves by pushing us to purge any differences or unique quirks. And then, far worse, doubles down on that damage by encouraging us to feel entitled to purge perceived differences out of other people as well, for their own good.

Behavior Does Not Define Biology

Behaving as if we are tall does not in fact make us any taller and yet we seem to have become convinced it proves true with issues of gender and sex. We hear all too often that behaving in a more masculine way makes one more of a man and that feminine behavior makes one more of a woman but this reveals a massive flaw right at the root of our definitions and thus all the arguments which get hurled at outliers.

If masculine behavior is what makes one a man then anatomical components should have little to no bearing on the matter. By that definition someone with entirely female anatomy could still be defined as a man if their behavior were masculine enough. And if anatomical configuration is the sole determinant then someone with the necessary penis and testicles would be defined as a man whether or not their behavior was almost exclusively feminine.

Groups wanting to retain their oppressive stature will always try to have it both ways to ensure those they wish to subjugate will always be wrong no matter which way they try to approach things.

Biology Does Not Determine Behavior

The reason there is, and always will be, a healthy nature vs. nurture debate is because both factors have powerful influence in the forming of human behavior. There is no denying biology establishes differing capacities within us on countless different levels. From height and strength to addictive vulnerabilities from the genetic level on up our biology ‘sets the table’ but our environment starts shaping our experiences and choices from before we even leave the womb.

Testosterone and estrogen have different impacts on physiology and emotion but are boy children automatically more aggressive because of their hormonal influences or because their bodies develop greater muscular strength thus making that kind of solution to challenges more effective or because our treatment of infants, even simply in tone of voice, is markedly different from our earliest interactions depending on our perceived gender of the child?

Behaviors are built, learned, and developed. We are not born with set and predetermined natures simply because of our biological make-up. It has an influence but so do countless other factors. Biological determinism can seem like an irrefutable vindication but one person’s “There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m born this way” can all too easily be turned to another person’s “It’s a condition which can be cured”.

Behaviors Are Not Fixed

Everything about us is constantly changing from the moment we are born to the moment we die. The music we like to listen to when we are young might hold a nostalgic place in our hearts but is not necessarily the same music we are going to enjoy even a few months down the line. The foods we like, the fashions we prefer, the figures we idolize, the ideologies we identify with, pick any example from the infinite aspects a person and you can track changes from minor to exponential over the course of their lives.

And yet when it comes to behaviors associated with gender identity not only do we want to limit them into oversimplified categories we also want to see them as permanently set for life. The toxic fear-based ‘or’ not only limits and blocks us in the current moment it allows no room for growth or change at any point in our lives.

As human beings we are compilations of countless layers, qualities, traits, aspects, and characteristics. No one single aspect defines the whole. We are not what we do, what we wear, how we walk, what we listen to, who we love, what we like to eat…and being one thing never means we cannot ever be another. We can be both short and tall, it simply depends on who we’re standing next to.

However we wish to categorize or list our descriptors the variety of human nature is anathema to ‘or’. The moment we bring ‘or’ into the scenario we are making it about something else, something other than that which the descriptors describe. The ‘or’ placed between masculine and feminine has nothing to do with any inexorable opposing difference between them and everything to do with cultural attitudes and pressures to place one category person in a position of power over another.

Our best weapon against divisive tyranny?

Refuse the ‘or’.

Written by

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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