There have been a number of ‘Skeptics on the Fringe’ talks in recent years about the science of sex differences, mostly in the vein of debunking common myths. But one of the few things that stuck in my memory from these talks was a question from a parent in the audience who had conscientiously avoided gender-specific influences, trying to impart a sceptical view of gender stereotypes – only to find that their daughter was crazy for all things pink and girly by the age of 7. Where did that come from?
Obviously, associating the colour pink with girls is cultural; it’s socialisation, not genes or hormones. And clearly, children are exposed to many influences beyond their parents. I’ve started to see many examples in my own life of my unconscious conformity to arbitrary gender norms: one trivial example is the fact that I play the acoustic guitar, and am pretty motivated to learn more techniques on it, and yet, although I love listening to electric lead guitar, I can muster no real interest at all in playing that. It’s not that it seems beyond me; more that it doesn’t feel like “me”. I cannot think of any explanation for this other than the fact that there are many female role models for me who play acoustic guitar and sing, and a complete dearth of female lead guitarists by contrast.
But the confusing thing is, we don’t all respond to the gender socialisation in the same way. On one hand, there is the 7-year-old girl who defies her parents’ stereotype-free ideals by being super girly; on the other, there are people who turn out not to have a strong gender identification either way, or who identify as the opposite gender from that assigned to them at birth. What causes these differences?
Certain sections of the feminist movement struggle to accept the existence of transgender people. I understand that for at least some of these feminists, gender is an arbitrary binary that is socially constructed around biological sex – in much the same way that tribal identities are constructed, perhaps. In its current implementation, it unfortunately privileges one group over the other. The act of changing one’s gender is seen as reinforcing this binary, or at least, is seen as a tragic symptom of it – the fact that a man with “feminine” traits feels compelled to adopt a female identity and change his body accordingly, when there would simply be no need if traits were not seen as gendered. In other words, what they seem to believe is: your gender identity is a product of the overlap between the traits, interests, and abilities that you possess, and those traits, interests, and abilities that are associated with one gender or the other. And in their ideal world, there would perhaps be no such associations with gender – and thus no real personal gender identity at all.
I can see why this anti-gender view of things (which I admit I may not have understood fully) might appeal to women who are keenly aware of their lesser privilege as females. But it seems to leave a lot of unanswered questions (not to mention unfairly discrediting the testimony of transgender people). Why is there such a large range of responses to the gender binary: what makes someone – male or female – like the colour pink, or dresses, or electric guitar, or science for that matter? Why do some men like to wear dresses but still identify strongly as male? Where does sexual orientation fit into this – is it also just an artifact of the arbitrary concept of gender, and therefore, equally arbitrary? In that case why are the vast majority of people not indifferent to gender when it comes to partners? (Nearly twice as many people in this country identify as gay compared to bisexual. I would expect more bisexuals if socialisation was a big factor, because nearly everyone has been socialised into a default assumption of straightness.)
It’s possible that some aspects of our lives pertaining to gender are truly innate and immutable, whether due to genes, hormonal environment, very early conditioning or whatever. Sexual orientation is likely one of these aspects, in my view. Another possibly innate aspect is whereabouts on the gender ‘spectrum’ (it’s not a binary!) a person will identify themselves; while the details that comprise that spectrum are to some extent cultural. I guess what I mean is that a gender spectrum could well be a natural thing that would always arise in any population, just like language – although its details, in terms of the traits and attributes associated with the genders, might differ from place to place. It could be that our gender identity is instinctual, just as we have an instinct for verbal language – but we have to learn the language of masculinity and femininity through our culture, the same way we have to learn our mother tongue. This is the way I’m inclined to think of it at the moment. I don’t think it could be easily proved one way or the other, but it just seems to answer more of the questions for me.
What does this hunch mean for my budding feminism? It doesn’t lead me to believe that patriarchy or male privilege is inevitable; I can be ‘anti’ those things. Just as we can learn a new language, we can probably rid ourselves of the problematic aspects of gender, if we want to and work hard enough. I’m not convinced by hand-waving evolutionary arguments about certain gendered traits – like “nurturing” or “competitiveness” – being biologically innate; no-one can prove they are really any more than a cultural relic of our recent history; but even if there were some truth to these arguments, we can certainly choose to structure our social world in ways that neither exaggerate these differences nor over-value and over-reward some traits compared to others. Easier said than done, of course. Plenty of work for feminism to do.