Opinion: The end of enforced gender?

Disclaimer- My discussion of ‘woman’ here is related to cisgender women. This is not intended to be an exclusionary term, but I have used this language for ease of reading. I have also not gone into depth in discussions of heterosexuality and gender fluidity, which is not to deny its importance; it has only been left to help streamline and not enter the full debate, which I would encourage all to explore nonetheless.

In its common conception, gender is seen as following from the biological sex that you were assigned at birth. Despite this, the reality is that our biological sex has no intrinsic essence which assigns us into one of the two binary categories of ‘woman’ or ‘man’. We are all aware of the complications associated with individuals being placed into these categories. We live in a patriarchal structure, which means that those labelled as ‘women’ have traditionally been oppressed and sometimes made inferior by people labelled as ‘men’. The issue that has arisen from this patriarchal structure is that ‘men’ (even more narrowly white middle-class heterosexual ‘men’), despite any intrinsic essence or empirical standing, have dominated the socio-political environment. In doing so, they have used their power to take autonomy away from ‘women’. So when asked what the issue is with gender, the answer is quite clear. Gender is a social construct and from this social construct, real-world implications have followed in the oppression of ‘women’: but for what?

The argument can also be made that there is no empirical foundation to assume that those with male genitalia are ‘men’ by gender (which also applies to female genitalia and ‘women’). Biological genitalia is not to be conflated with gender; within our society, we have increasingly seen individuals identify as transgender and gender-fluid, and therefore not conforming to the binary categories of gender with their foundations resting in biological sex. A key issue with assigning gender based on biological sex is that it devolves people of their subjectivity. To define an individual based on their biological sex is to take away their right to choose an identity. Being heterosexual myself, I can only empathize with those who have had the struggle of resisting the gender category they were implicitly put in based on the arbitrariness of biological sex. Is it now time we realise and respect that every human is an individual with their own identity and that to value their autonomy is to grant them their natural right to self-expression.

The argument that gender is a social construct is echoed by many theorists. De Beauvoir, a key feminist theorist, describes that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman. This matters greatly because, according to this definition, to become a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ is to inherit certain stereotypical attributes. Examples include ‘men’ are stronger than ‘women’, or ‘women’ are irrational and more emotionally driven, among many others. These stereotypes are simply untrue and these generalizations – although they may seem harmless on paper – have had colossal implications. According to the UK FTSE 100, it stands that only six out of 100 CEOs are female. This can be partly awarded to the consequences of gender categorizations generalizing ‘men’ as rational and ‘women’ as emotionally driven. Furthermore, looking at the private sphere is another great indicator, indeed the expectations for ‘women’ to be the primary parent can arguably jeopardize their career progression. This is not to mention that ‘women’ are expected to complete the majority of housework, which is however still not deem it as ‘proper work’. Why is this infuriating? Gender has no basis and whichever biological sex a person is born, bears no implications into what rights they should or should not have. Iris Marion Young in Throwing like a girl describes how women are actually ‘physically handicapped’, which describes that attaching the label of ‘woman’ inhibits and reduces the range of opportunities and activities available to them. Gender as a social construct has structured people’s lives, hindering certain activities and distributing power unevenly, but on what basis?

How then, do we move towards a world without gender? If we take my previous arguments into consideration, it is clear that the problem needs to be handled at its root and we should tackle the issue of gender from birth. This could mean raising children gender-neutral, ranging from gender-neutral names, pronouns, clothing to toys, etc. This would be a huge shift for society and even though it would not come without resistance, we all know that no social justice comes without change. To take the issue of gender-neutral pronouns, let’s take a look at Sweden and its great success. The gender-neutral term ‘hen’ was introduced, which is used when the gender is either unknown, the individual is trans or the information is superfluous. Sweden has also enacted a law in 1998 that Swedish schools are forbidden to enforce gender stereotypes. In the documentary “raised without gender”, the host identifies the successes made with teachers referring to the children as friends and not boys and girls, as well as replacing gendered toys with more neutral alternatives like animals instead of dolls. Why is this important? We cannot simply change pronouns without having simultaneous shifts in institutions to reinforce gender neutrality. Gender structures our lives: it is present in the language we use towards our friends and families, in the clothes we wear, as well as the shows we watch. We are constantly surrounded by normalized gendered labels; if we were to end this and the oppression that they cause, it would change the world as we know it. However, is this realistic?

With gender being all around and always enforcing its stereotypes, how do we not only raise our children gender-neutral but allow them to grow up and not feel alienated? Many critics claim that we cannot shelter our children forever, because whether we like it or not society will take its toll and inform them of gender and their place in it unrelated to whether one agrees with it or not. Social injustice takes on many forms, from racism, sexism to homophobia, all of which we are currently battling with and will sadly continue to do so for many more years. However, does this justify not challenging the norm or not demanding better of those who refuse to adapt? NO. I can’t seem to find many difficulties societies would face by normalising gender-neutrality and being particularly accepting of people’s ability to decide on their own identity as well as reclaim their autonomy from the unfounded gender categories.

To those who believe there needs to be more justification that gender-creative parenting would create a positive outcome and are still not convinced by my previous arguments, I question how many positive outcomes there are to gendered parenting. I am sure many parents would agree that to live in a world without gender – where we are not scared that having a ‘daughter’ may debilitate their life ambitions nor to have a ‘son’ struggle with expressing emotion – is a very positive outcome. If we were all to raise our children in this manner, the friction we may experience in entering the gendered world of work, for example, would be substantially reduced. In time, we would not only truly be free of the labels that constrain us, but also be more open-minded and liberal, which I am convinced the world needs.

To explore further:

BBC News – “Gender specific toys: do you stereotype children?”

Time Magazine – “I Let My Child Create Their Own Gender Identity.”

VICE – “Raised Without Gender”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

Iris Marion Young, Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality, 1980

Image: Feewiki/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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