There are two main documented genders that make up the human population today: male and female. This distinction is made via the sex of the baby, but it is grounded in more abstract concepts that differentiate one from the other. These abstract ideas about what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman often root themselves into physical things, and so we have a constructed code for the gendering of inanimate objects. Blue is for boys, and pink is for girls; trucks are for boys, and dolls are for girls; sports are for boys, while girls knit and bake; and the list goes on. And while some people may say that there is nothing wrong with this binary categorization of the gender of inanimate objects, it does not leave much room for interpretation. Either a man is manly or he is gay, and either a woman is girly or she is a lesbian. And that perceived manliness or femininity is directly related to the things a person likes: what kind of hobbies they enjoy, their favorite color, and so on. And so what happens when a person likes to drive trucks, but also likes the color pink? They are misunderstood and automatically labeled as an outsider. Assumptions about the gender of inanimate objects limit an individual’s ability to fully express the many aspects of one’s true being; likewise, they limits people’s understanding of individuals who do not conform to one gender or another strictly enough for society to comprehend. While the goal of these categories is arguably to make sense of the world, these assumptions about gender have an adverse effect: instead of gendered products helping to classify and understand other people, they lead to a lack of understanding, as no one conforms to their “gender” wholeheartedly and at all times.
The Formative Years
While these gendered objects on their own are not necessarily damaging, they really become an issue when they are automatically assigned to children according to their sex. The same can be said for when an object with a prescribed gender is denied a child. While a child cannot, of course, be sexless, gendering a child does more harm than good. However, babies who have not yet even been born are defined by their gender: the newest fad for expecting mothers is to have a “gender reveal party,” where women will pay a bakery to make a cake with either blue or pink icing on the inside, which when cut into, reveals the sex of the baby (and you can guess which icing suggests either sex). While it can be exciting for expecting parents to have their child’s sex revealed this way, it creates gendered expectations for the life that child will lead. Even the name, “gender reveal party” assumes that the couple’s child will conform to the gender that coincides with the given sex of the child at birth.
Furthermore, the gender that is forced upon them is not only limiting in how they can express themselves or freely explore who they are, but it will also limit how they can interact with others. Judith Butler’s Subversion of Identity states that “As a shifting and contextual phenomenon, gender… [denotes] a relative point of convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of relations,” (15). Therefore, by assigning genders to certain inanimate objects and then only allowing babies of a certain sex to follow the rules of their prescribed gender, the way they express themselves in relation to others will be dictated before they are capable of determining their own preferences. That being said, it is hard to break free from these societal expectations, especially considering that from an early age, people are criticized and punished for not conforming to heteronormative gender roles. This is because “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being,” (Butler 43). Or, the arbitrary rules of this binary gender system is perpetuated by a repeated set of acts and defining markers on each side; people follow these rules merely because they have been followed for so long. Because of the historical background of the generational perpetuation of heteronormativity, if a child does not automatically conform, the visceral response from others is often to make assumptions about the future sexuality of that child and to try to reverse any perceived negative progress by going to extreme: for example, confiscating any “girly” clothing or toys from a little boy and overtly pushing toy trucks and superheroes on him.
This foundation for heteronormativity then bleeds into adulthood. Considering the fact that gender is a completely arbitrary construct and that over time, the binary gender system that is currently in place became a societal norm, certain inanimate things have began to be created in the image of a certain gender. As Pierre Bourdieu says in Masculine Domination, “The social world constructs the body as a sexually defined reality… This embodied social programme of perception is applied to all the things of the world,” (11). Therefore, because male and female bodies are biologically different, there is a “natural justification of the socially constructed difference between the genders, and in particular of the social division of labour,” (11). In other words, the division of the genders in such stark terms has become naturalized, as it uses biological differences to suggest that this division in itself is natural. However, divisions in realities about the sexes do not justify divisions in genders, as Bourdieu points out. At least, it does not do so well: “the social definition of the sex organs, far from being a simple recording of natural properties, directly offered to perception, is the product of a construction implying a series of oriented choices, or, more precisely, based on an accentuation of certain differences and the scotomization of certain similarities,” (14). To gender a person based off of an organ that not all people have in common is to ignore all of the other organs and body parts in which they do have in common. In fact, men and women have more body parts in common than they do not, and so to assume the gender of an individual based off of one body part, as Bourdieu argues, is to do research and ignore a large percentage of the facts. But because it is the case that these assumptions are made, certain things like clothing are tailored to suit the most desirable aspects of either sex, thus promoting not only a binary gender system, but a system that values only the most feminine or the most manly (according to deep-seeded societal standards) of either gender, respectively.
One major industry where this takes place is clothing companies. And this perpetuation of standardized male/female gender roles takes many different forms in popular retailers. Everything from advertising, pricing, inventory, and even the layout of popular clothing companies rides on the back of these normalized gender roles; playing off of these roles makes people feel forced to buy into them in order to avoid being miscategorized as something other than their assigned gender. As Bourdieu says, “in [the women’s] representation of their relation with the man to which their social identity is (or will be) attached, they take account of the representation that men and women as a whole will inevitably form of him by applying to him the schemes of perception and appreciation universally shared,” (36). This is not just the case for women, of course; men, too, seek to hypermasculinize themselves to avoid any type of misrecognition. Understanding this, large retailers divide their stores to appeal to the male gender and the female gender as two very different entities. In the men’s department of the Forever 21 where I work, there are about fifteen fixtures of relatively basic clothing, just in fifteen different colors. However, in the women’s department, there are five different sections, all appealing to different popular styles that— no surprise— all conform to some societal standard of femininity: these sections are labelled “Sexy,” “Girly Girl,” “Pastel,” and other gender attributes that lean towards the so-called feminine side. And then within these sections there are multiple different kinds of every article of clothing: there are skinny pants and flowy pants, patterned ones, black ones, short ones, long ones, pants made of every material you could think of, and the same can be said about skirts, dresses, tops, shoes, and lingerie. This kind of division of available clothing says a lot about how men and women are supposed to treat the clothing they wear. While men are supposed to stay within certain boundaries in what they wear (this is enforced by the mere lack of variety in their options), women are expected to utilize all of the different products available to them. But beyond just the clothing being sold, the stores will often design the interior to appeal to hyperfeminine and hypermasculine standards: while the women’s sections in Forever 21 often feature light pastel colors and sparkly floors, the men’s department has a black wooden floor, black walls, and a rigid, black sign that is meant to feel “manly.”
Furthermore, an extension of this division of men’s and women’s clothing is how women alone end up constricted by their clothes. Bourdieu says that short skirts, high heels, and handbags keeps women from moving around as freely as men do because they are constrained to perform certain acts that do not give them freedom to open their legs or use both hands in the way that men’s clothing allows them to do. And yet, it is extended even further when “These ways of bearing the body… cease to be imposed by clothing (like the small, quick steps of some young women wearing trousers and flat heels),” (29). These constrictions being present in so many women, even when a woman is wearing loose clothing and flat heels (and of which men never experience) is perpetuated by the constant division of men’s and women’s clothing. It is definitive proof that men’s and women’s clothing is designed to suit contrasting gender ideals.
That being said, just last week an accidental retail experiment took place when a manager of mine mistook a group of pastel men’s jackets to be women’s jackets, and they were placed on a table right in the front of the store in the women’s department. They went unsold because the women who picked the jackets up and discovered them to be men’s clothing put them back and the men who might have purchased them walked right past them on their way to the men’s section, believing them to be women’s jackets. This suggests that Bourdieu’s belief of people’s conformity to two extreme gender categories is correct: men and women alike opted out of purchasing this jacket so that they would not be misrecognized or mislabeled as something other than a cis-gendered male or female.
Oppression of Non-Heteronormative Behaviors
With an understanding of how the binary gender system works in relation to the consumption of certain products of one gender versus another, it can become more clear how the wide range of people who, in one way or another, do not conform to one set of rules are misunderstood and labeled an “outsider.” As Judith Butler argues in Undoing Gender, “The very criterion by which we judge a person to be a gendered being, a criterion that posits coherent gender as a presupposition of humanness… [is] to negotiate what may well feel like the unrecognizability of one’s gender and, hence, the unrecognizability of one’s personhood,” (58). Therefore, those who do not conform to what society has laid out as the norm in this binary system are seen not only as a person without a recognizable gender, but as something completely other than a real person. This can be said to apply to all non-cis gendered people (meaning everything from a person who does not dress firmly to their given gender’s rules to a person who is attracted to members of the same sex to a transgender person). In this way, a binary gender system is extraordinarily harmful, as it marginalizes anyone who does not wish to conform and writes them off as inhuman, when in fact, they are truer to themselves than many hypermasculine and hyperfeminine people are. Of course, this is not to say that there are not members of a given sex that really feel masculine and/or feminine, but rather to say that no one will be able to truly be themselves while there is still such a stern expectation for what type of person everyone will be according to their sex at birth.
A common argument against this school of thought is that it is harmful to group all non-cis gendered people together, as it seems to suggest that to be gay and to be transgender means the same thing. Jay Prosser argues in Queer Feminism, Transgender, and the Transubstantiation of Sex that “an alliance, unlike a corporation, suggests a provisional or strategic union between parties whose different interests ought not to be—indeed, cannot totally be—merged, sublimated for cohering—or queering—the whole,” (280). While it is true that a queer person and a transgender person have very different interests and goals, it cannot be ignored that in a system that has no room for anything that does not fit perfectly into a binary gender system (where each gender has a prescribed set of rules), transgender and queer individuals have one major thing in common: they are both seen as outsiders of the societal norm. In this way— and only in this way— it is helpful to group them together in numbers, as it reveals the massive population that does not fit into the current system in place. Only after the abolition of this system can they be free enough to stand on their own, as equals.
*this was developed by me as an academic paper for a class*