Our society is built on categories; nice, neat little columns that allow us to divide people into certain groups so we can enjoy organization and structure. Race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status… all of these identities allow society to label individuals in a way that’s comfortable. Over time, these categories have become de facto beliefs. Our brains rely on them to help us make sense of the world.
Structure seems conducive to a prospering society; however, it often ignores the idea that many of these identities are not strict binaries, but, in fact, fluid spectrums. The construct of gender is one such identity. Created as another way of categorizing humans, gender differs from biological sex. From a feminist perspective, gender is viewed as the role we play based on the socially constructed expectations, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for males and females. Gender, this supposed binary between male and female, has nothing to do with our biological makeup, but rather how we navigate societal expectations. Despite this understanding, many in our society continue to believe that gender is a binary and strictly aligns with a person’s assigned sex.
Shifting society’s perspective about gender will no doubt be an arduous process. But little steps can make a big change over time. For starters, think about the part of your day when you decide what you’re going to wear. You could choose jeans and a sweatshirt, or maybe you feel like wearing a dress. Whether you realize it or not, you’re making decisions that are gender-coded. The dress, a traditionally female garment, will allow you to play into your more feminine-presenting identity. The jeans and sweatshirt are a little less femme, and possibly edging on a masculine-presenting identity. It’s doubtful you think about this every morning because our society has advanced to the point where dresses and jeans are both acceptable clothing choices for a female individual. But gender roles and expectations are undoubtedly being taken into consideration. Do you put on makeup or go bare faced? Do you make a traditionally feminine choice or go against it?
This isn’t to say that these traditionally feminine choices should remain traditionally feminine. Why is it that makeup is only acceptable for women? And why should a woman be questioned if she never wants to wear a skirt? Gender roles are ultimately arbitrary. There’s no reason any one of us should subscribe to such beliefs. Viewing gender a spectrum allows one to understand that while society believes certain choices are either female or male, you don’t have to resign yourself to playing a single role every single day.
Finally, the understanding that gender is a construct for societal organization should not scare you from continuing to play into traditional gender roles. There is nothing wrong with following the gender expectations assigned to your biological sex. But the opposite side must also be true. There’s nothing wrong with going against those expectations as well. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with existing in between.