Doing gender

8 August 2016

This essay is going to explain and discuss theorist’s understandings of gender as something we do rather than being a fixed part of who we are. Firstly, it is important to define the difference between sex and gender, bringing in Judith Butler’s views. Then the essay will explain and discuss Erving Goffman’s ‘dramaturgical approach’ to social interaction, and Judith Butler’s understandings of gender as performativity, using various academic sources.

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Both these two theorists view gender as a kind of performance. Performance as an explanation of the self or identity is an interactionist idea, which was first put forward by Erving Goffman (Woodward 2000). Goffman has questioned the concept of identity, the self, identity seems private, unique, and natural to the individual it was these controversial ideas of first Goffman, then Butler in specific reference to gender, who challenged these instinctive human beliefs thus theorizing gender identity.

While there are numerous theories regarding gender identity, most of them view gender as construction, a set of behaviours prescribed by society that individuals learn and become more proficient at as they mature. Gender tends to be referred to as the social characteristics associated with being male and female members of society (Woodward 2000). Gender roles are cultural and personal which are learned through many institutions in society, although they do vary among different cultures. They determine how males and females should think, speak, dress, and interact within society (no author).

However, sex is a biological distinction determined by the anatomical traits essential to reproduction such as reproductive and chromosomal attributes (Punch et al 2013). Butler argues that sex is biological given from birth, which can only be altered in extreme cases and due to certain conditions. For example, if you were born with disorders of sex development, which is a group of conditions where your reproductive organs and genitals do not develop normally, you will have a mixture of male and female sexual characteristics.

For example, you may be female but with male chromosomes and vice versa, this is gender being socially constructed (no author). Boys and girl’s sex and gender are seen as natural and unified, but contradictorily, behaviour appropriate to them must be encouraged throughout their life. Sex is an ascribed status because a person is born with it, but gender is an achieved status because it is a learnt behaviour. Butler sees gender as constructed through your own repetitive performance of gender (Butler 1990).

In other words, gender is labelled by the way you present yourself physically and the way you act through a sequence of practices and characteristics which have then overtime become labelled as masculine and feminine, a good example of this is using public toilets, as soon as a man or woman walk into the toilet, this is gender being performed. These practices that are forever repeated are solidified into what is recognised as gender (gender and popular culture). Butler suggests that gender can be performed in many different ways.

Transgendered, cross-dressing or drag are all examples of how gender is performed, in other words gender is an act, and a performance (Woodward 2002). This shows when looking at transgender as an example, because a boy you see in a supermarket because of the way you recognise them may in fact be mistaken and actually biologically be a boy. The performative nature of gender is more apparent in drag performances, because you have a chance to get up on stage and perform the gender you would like to be. Men present themselves as women by imitating femininity, for example wearing women’s clothes, make up and adopting women’s gestures.

Butler expresses drag as an important example, that all gender is a performative construct, which is not linked to sex. Butler does argue that gender performativity is not a free choice, whereby an individual can carry out as and when they like, however others socially police it (Lloyd 2007). There will be consequences if individuals stray away from the accepted behaviour, this is where butler refers to the notion that gender gives the appearance of being natural behaviour, because it is forced upon the individual from birth and is almost insisted on throughout childhood and adolescence years.

Butler suggests that the concepts of sex and gender are independent of each other, which are socially constructed and used to control people. It is widely presumed that a girl will become a woman and a boy will become a man through a process of natural development, which is based on his/her chromosomal sex, but nature will not do all the work. You do not have to be biologically male to display masculine behaviour (Woodward 2002).

Gender issues such as intersex people show that “gender is a fictive production, it is not determined by sex because it is not a fixed thing we possess, but something people do” (Milestone et al 2012: 15). Heterosexual matrix is a term used in understanding that an individual has a fixed sex from birth either male or female. Culture creates a gender, which in turn determines desires towards the opposite sex, for example males and females being attracted to their opposite sex. Heterosexuality is shown to be the norm and accepted within society, whereas homosexuality is not (Punch et al 2013).

Butler disagrees with this conception; she argues that each individual person may perform a specific identity, which may result in having some desires towards the same or opposite sex (gender trouble). Butler States that binary sex “does not follow the construction of ‘men’ will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that ‘women’ will interpret only female bodies. ” (Butler 1990: 10). A key principle in Butler’s work is the question that if gender is socially constructed then why is there only two genders, in theory there could be hundreds.

Erving Goffman whose work is linked with symbolic interactionism. “This perspective relies on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction” (Crossman), which was influenced by George Herbert Meads work. Goffman’s focus was in human interaction and the presentation of people in everyday settings, especially public places (Monnier). Goffman developed Mead’s work by still focusing on the importance of the symbolic, on the self and on the idea of roles, rather than implying the word identity as such, Goffman discusses how roles are performed (Woodward 2002: 9).

Because our social identities are shaped by our roles and interactions within society, Goffman uses the metaphor of the theatre to analyse social life as dramaturgy (Monnier). Dramaturgy is the analysis of human behaviour, where people put on a show, with the people being the actors (Abercrombie et al 2006), although the interactions are not rehearsed they are the individuality’s own expressions which can change depending on the social interaction. For Goffman ‘performing’ social roles was meant in a sense that, we as human beings incorporate our everyday lives in to an on stage performance.

He believed we use front and backstage situations to determine how we play our role and how we manage these in our ability to respond (Lawler 2008). According to Goffman the aim of our act is to create and control certain impressions that we choose to pass over to our audience, or family and friends. Goffman believed that individuals have many different roles, which involve presenting yourself differently, and negotiating different forms of social interaction, however, these can change depending on who they were with (Punch et al).

For example, this shows when playing the role of a son or daughter because it is very different compared to playing the role of a husband, wife or work colleague. Furthermore, when interacting with others, dress, language and gestures are used to influence how others see our behaviour, for example wearing a suit for a job interview, which makes you look respectable, wearing spectacles can make you look intelligent, and a solicitor carrying a briefcase can make you look professional and sophisticated.

This shows that we are all aware of how to behave depending on the type of interaction we find ourselves in. This part of the theory could be related to gender as use of props that is seen as belonging to either gender group, an example of this would be long hair is a sign of femininity, the media portrays that it is desirable for women to have longer hair than men (punch et al). Gender performativity is a big part of everyday life. Many people are always performing gender norms based on their biological sex by using cultural norms.

With reference to women, this performance starts as soon as you get up in a morning, the majority of women will go for a shower, get dressed and put on makeup for the day. Visiting beauty salons and hairdressers on a regular basis. However, not all females will follow these beauty norms, especially certain cultures and sexuality’s, but the ones that do will feel it helps with their physical persona of femaleness. People also tend to dress differently depending on the occasion, for example, attending a job interview wearing a skirt and a nice blouse would seem appropriate and smartly dressed, but on the other hand, attending the doctor’s surgery dress would be casual wear such as, jeans and a jumper. These are relevant examples of gender performativity because it shows that gender is part of every society and is based on the way we present ourselves physically not our biological makeup or sex. In conclusion, this assignment shows that Butler’s ideas are similar to Goffman’s, were both theorists believe that certain aspects of our lives are performed.

However, Goffman focused on social interactions, whereas Butler focuses on gender being performed especially by women, which she referred to as gender performativity. Both Goffman and Butler’s theories discuss gender (and identity in general) as performance. Goffman’s and Butler’s theories also indicate that while everyone does not perform gender in the same way, there are cultural expectations for what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.

These expectations interact with expectations related to individuals’ often competing multiple identities as well as their own desires, producing variations in gender performances. They both believe that the concept of the ‘self’ is not a fixed one because it could easily be changed to suit the environment and the company that the individual was in at any one particular time, for Goffman this was within social interaction and for Butler the focus was specifically on gender.

Overall, this essay highlights that by doing gender is not just about behaving in a particular way, it is also about believing certain gender norms and engaging in practices that map on to those norms. By doing gender, we reinforce the notion that there are only two mutually exclusive categories of gender. The internalised belief that men and women are essentially different is what makes men and women behave in ways that appear essentially different. Gender is maintained through socially constructed displays of gender.

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