What is Gender?

This is the second post in my series on gender issues, feminism and the various political difficulties that arise from them. You can find the first post here in which I introduce the topic by discussing the possible reasons for and rebuttals to changing the name of the feminist movement to egalitarianism. This is the next segment on the surprisingly complicated question: What is Gender? (approximately a 15 min read)

I am a gendered person. I identify as a woman and I make that clear enough to the people around me that, besides a few times when I was a child with a pixie-cut, no one asked me whether I am, in fact, female. I recognize my gender as part of my identity but also as different energies within myself. I feel most comfortable and creative when I am embracing both masculine and feminine energies (this theory of creativity and gender is directly inspired by Carl Jung’s anima/animus theory). I cannot quite articulate what these energies are, but I feel them. I feel them dancing together in a heteronormative salsa in my chest and stomach.

I recognize these energies within myself but I am cautious to apply my own personal conception of gender to others. I know that I am one individual and that I am limited in truly understanding the experience of diverse gender identities and gender expressions. I have not felt it all. I do not know what it is like to grow up transgendered. I do not know what it feels like to experience my body as other than who I am. I am a woman. I wear flowery dresses and high heels. I put on makeup. I watched Disney princesses growing up and I called my dresses “princess dresses” because they blew up around me like a dome when I sat on the bathroom air vent. I have the ability to have a baby in my belly, and in addition, I have wanted to be pregnant since I was a child. My desire to have a child inside me arises from my body as well as from the culturally designated mothering instinct. I adored my female form when it began to develop because I started to look like the person I saw myself as. I saw myself in the bodies of my female role models. For these reasons, and many more which I cannot articulate, I am female. I am a woman in conventional terms and I am also a woman in the contemporary sense because I identify as such.

But I don’t know if women actually exist. Have I just been convinced to feel feminine and to want to be feminine? What even is feminine and masculine? Gender falls apart under examination but we still can’t deny it exists because we feel our gender/sex (this is terminology derived from Sari van Anders’ Sexual Configurations Theory) (this idea of feeling like a woman but being unsure if women exist is also inspired by Linda Zerilli’s piece “Doing Without Knowing”).

Many different thinkers over the years have attempted to define gender. Gender, for Judith Butler, is solely culturally informed. We embody the cultural conception of womanhood or manhood because we grow up and situate ourselves amidst a heavily gendered culture. For parts of the scientific community (neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists among others), gender has roots in our biology. Men and women have lots in common, but their differences tend to emerge in similar areas. As much as we want to say that we were born androgynous blank slates upon which society acts (called social role theory, mostly attributed to Judith Butler), the facts don’t line up. (for more information, refer to “Personality and gender differences in global perspective. David P. Schmitt, Audrey E. Long, Allante McPhearson, Kirby O’Brien, Brooke Remmert, and Seema H. Shah. Department of Psychology, Bradley University, Peoria, IL, USA” and the various writings of Judith Butler).

There is tension here between where gender comes from and, subsequently, where a large part of who we are comes from. Let’s start at the basic element of ourselves: consciousness. If we consider consciousness as a consequence of biology, then we can say that who we identify as emerges from the biological structures that we map out in our body. If we say that consciousness contains something other than our biology, then consciousness is a mysterious force that, to our knowledge, could be more infinite than our bodily existence. In any case, my consciousness is within me and there is no way for me to rationally and empirically confirm that there will be something other than this body, this mind, this consciousness. All I have is this moment and this body housing my life-force.

I experience my consciousness every day and yet I do not experience it as something other than myself. I cannot rid myself of this awakeness; perhaps only in sleep am I able to move away from my body, but the lack of stability in my dreams does not enable me to find any sustainable freedom from embodiment. I am and will always be my body. My body is my vehicle in this world; my consciousness’s home is within the confines of my neurons.

Back to gender. My body may be subject to its physiology, but in no way does that complete the definition of my gender. In addition to being subject to a biological existence, my body is also historical. My body, finite and mortal, enters into a culture which has existed before me and will continue to exist after me. My body is shaped by a culture that is perhaps not infinite but is more infinite than I. I translate a piece of that infinity within myself. I reimagine culture and embody the meaning I take from it within myself. We can see that in scientific research into the brain development of children and the nurtural component of the nature/nurture debate.

Simone de Beauvoir writes a beautiful and succinct section on this question of embodying gender in The Second Sex. She writes:

But in truth a society is not a species, for it is in a society that the species attains the status of existence – transcending itself towards the world and towards the future. Its ways and customs cannot be deduced from biology, for the individuals that compose the society are never abandoned to the dictates of their nature; they are subject rather to that second nature which is custom and in which are reflected the desires and the fears that express their essential nature. It is not merely as a body, but rather as a body subject to taboos, to laws, that the subject is conscious of himself and attains fulfilment – it is with reference to certain values that he evaluates himself. (Beauvoir, “The Data of Biology”, The Second Sex, 36)

Gender, for Simone de Beauvoir, is not starkly divided between biology and culture. Rather, woman is distinguishable from man by her functional development, and so it is not sufficient to define a woman as a woman or a man as a man based on genitalia or hormonal formulations. Functional development, in Simone de Beauvoir’s sense, covers cultural influence and includes the physiological functioning of the person. The body, she says, “is not a thing, it is a situation… it is the instrument of our grasp upon the world, a limiting factor for our projects” (Beauvoir 34). The body is not inevitable biological destiny but is a situation that is constantly in conversation with itself, its environment and its history. In perceiving and evaluating ourselves, others and our environment, we do so with reference to our body’s social and cultural situation. We cannot get rid of our context.

Regardless of which gender we are talking about, we can fairly say that everyone becomes who they are over a length of time and in connection with their environment, others and themselves. We are who we are within the context of our biology and our embodied situation. We may not have chosen what body we were born into, but we can say that we translated our body into expression through our existence as a person within a situation. This situation includes the placement of the body in relation to others, for, without other people, I exist in no one’s world but my own. I have no other self-conscious being in whom to confirm my existence, my uniqueness and my validity. Therefore, in terms of gender expression and gender identity, who we are is shaped by ourselves and by others. Through how we see other people, we situate our bodies and translate our identities using language and expressive behaviour that differentiates us and unites us. Culture shapes us; we shape ourselves; we translate our biology into expression; we identify with our neurons and our perception of ourselves in relation to our community.

Where does that leave us? Perhaps nowhere. I have no clear answers because my gender identity and gender expression is a mystery to myself. We don’t know enough to be sure. Clearly, gender is more complicated than social role theorists contend, and I am not in a position to understand gender in all of its multifaceted ways. But I do know that women exist, for I know I am one. And I know that I am not a woman because of a vagina, or hormones or any other physical feature. I feel my gender. Being a woman is part of who I am, but when I ask myself what that means, I often come up short. I think we all do.

Photo of unknown dancer in Havana, Cuba





  1. I read about 60 blogs, cycling through them roughly once ever three to four days, and I always look forward to yours because of the sensitivity, intelligence, and honesty, among other things, that you bring to your essays. The current article is no exception. Thank you for it!

    We’re in agreement that social role theory is a bit superficial. It seems to me to have produced a great many insights but it also seems to me that it is borderline absurd in these days of the neurosciences, behavioral genetics, etc to insist that any aspect of human behavior lacks a significant genetic component. In general, though, gender is something I’m not all that clear about either. Sex I can understand in a purely biological sense easily enough. But gender is a ball of strings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul!! Thank you!! I completely agree with you. To recognize its importance in our development of thought is vital, but to cling to it even when the evidence points that there is more to the story?… well, I think that is close-minded thinking. The most interesting thing about the sex/gender distinction is that although it is full of a muddy grey area, there is scientific evidence to support that sex and gender are distinct. I find this distinction helpful. 1) Sex is related to biological sex differences. 2) Gender is related to how our society interprets those differences and enforces those differences (for example: a gender binary) 3) Gender/sex is the whole body experience of embodying both a biological body and a social body. It is how the individual interprets and embodies the biological and social context they are situated in. If you want a really good and up-to-date paper on it, check out Sari van Anders’s Sexual Configuration Theory or some of her lectures that are posted on YouTube. I am also thinking of making a post specifically about her theory next.
      As always, I love hearing from you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sexual Configuration Theory sounds fascinating on the face of it. I hope you do write about it.

        I’m glad (and somewhat relieved) to hear there’s scientific evidence supporting the sex and gender distinction. That makes sense of my intuitive views on the matter.

        I’m off to see what I can find out about Sexual Configuration Theory!

        Liked by 1 person

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