Across all cultures, gender identity is a fundamental aspect of social life. There are different roles and expectations placed upon people in terms of what their gender identity is. Let’s be clear here, and define the difference between gender and sex.
- Gender (noun): the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).
- Sex (noun): either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.
So, Gender: Social and Sex: Biological.
Humans are different from other mammals in that we use cultural values to tell us how males and females are supposed to behave. At the age of about 2, children are able to determine their own gender identity based on social cues. At about age 3-4, children then begin to associate various objects, colors, and even jobs as being male or female, something known as gender socialization. Western cultures in general are very strict in their perceptions of gender identity. For example, it is often seen as wrong for boys to be overly emotional or for girls to play rough.
I have always thought that I was very open to the idea of gender fluidity. For instance, I was one of those “tomboy” girls who loved to play outside with boys my age. I enjoyed being rough and tough, getting dirty, and I was never very into things considered to be “girly”. I had a few Barbies, but I rarely played with them. I had short hair and dressed in more athletic clothes than dresses. I was adamant on the idea that I could be able to dress that way and play that way as a child, yet still remain a female.
I’ve also never had an issue with the use of unisex names. I think that a baby should be dressed in whatever color, no matter the sex. I don’t see a problem with buying children toys that are supposedly only for the opposite gender. I think children should have the freedom to actively play and engage with a variety of objects. And I certainly believe that one gender should not be limited in their occupational search. Or, so I thought…
In chapter 6 of the Pearson text, there is a riddle given:
“A little boy and his father were in a terrible automobile accident. The father died, but the boy was rushed to the hospital. As the boy was rushed into surgery, the doctor looked down at him and said, ‘I cannot operate on this boy-he is my son!'”
Instead of simply going on to find out what the answer was, I really thought about it. I was stumped. I really had no clue. (Side note: I had heard this riddle before but I couldn’t remember the answer, which frustrated me even further). I finally decided to give up and read the answer. The doctor was his mother. I was embarrassed. How did I not think of that? Considering that I had already been presented with the riddle previously, I felt so ashamed. Apparently my mind couldn’t imagine the thought of the doctor being a woman, even though I know there are numerous female doctors. I was so focused on the boy and the father that I had completely forgotten about the possibility of the mother being the solution to the question.
I was therefore very intrigued by this idea of gender identity and gender socialization. I consider myself someone who supports equality and fluidity of all genders, yet I couldn’t even correctly answer a simple riddle based on the topics. It just shows that even with the advancements we have made in terms of acceptance of others, our social and cultural contexts are still a huge factor of life. Somehow, gender roles and expectations still find their way inside our minds.
Because gender identity is based on social and cultural values, they are not the exact same across nations. For instance, the Bugis people of Indonesia divide their society into five separate genders rather than two, which is common in Western societies like the United States. We generally have male or female identities (although I recognize more are emerging). The Bugis have cisgender men (oroané), cisgender women (makkunrai), transgender women (calabai), transgender men (calalai), and bissu which is a combination of all aspects genders. In their culture, all of these genders coexist peacefully, something that I don’t think can always be said about genders in other cultures including our own.