Sunday 5 February 2012

Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment #2: The Battle of the 'Genders'

Last month I wrote the first in a series of posts entitled Inigo Montoya Teaching Moments aimed at drawing attention to some of the English language's most chronically misused words. Today's teaching moment focuses on another pet peeve of mine - the continued misuse of the word 'gender'.

Over the past week I've been either a participant or a lurker in a number of Facebook flame-fests on the subject of feminism and 'gender'. Anti-feminist arguments, usually although not exclusively coming from men, come from a wide range of angles and perspectives but all seem to boil down to the same three basic arguments, namely:

  • Feminism, while it had a role to play from around 1918 to 1968, has "run its course" in our society and that women are now "equal" to men, meaning that it's time for women to stop casting themselves as victims and get on with their lives;

  • Women simply need to "get over it" when it comes to the pernicious effects of the absurd and ubiquitous beauty standards created by the media and realize that it's "just a fantasy" that doesn't do anyone any real harm;

  • Women are different from men.

Of these three arguments, the first two can be KO'd pretty expeditiously with the help of easy-to-find statistics from the UN or Statistics Canada or even a bit of critical thinking. As for the "women are different from men" argument, this is the old favourite of those intent on justifying the strict gender binary of toys, clothing, decor, TV shows and other cultural accoutrements. While factually and indeed tautologically true, the statement is nevertheless grounded in the incorrect and problematic notion that 'sex' and 'gender' are the same thing.

The word gender is an old word that, like most of our language, comes from French. The French word genre has itself made it into the English language as a synonym for category and thus serves to help differentiate between speed metal and Schubert art songs. The word gender appears only once in the King James Bible, to my knowledge, and refers to 'breed' - and is interestingly used as a verb, as in "Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind." (Leviticus 19:19)

Prior to the 1950s, the word 'gender' was strictly used in reference to grammatical categories. French and other Romance languages of course have a binary gender system, with languages like German have a third (neuter) gender. Many Asian languages such as Japanese and Thai have masculine and feminine modes of speech, with the Thai language featuring the masculine and feminine concluding particles khrap (ครับ) and kha (ค่ะ), which serve to denote the sex of the speaker.

The point here is that 'gender' is a cultural construct, not a biological condition. It was sexologist John Money who coined the term 'gender role' in 1955 as a means of signifying "all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman respectively, inclusive of but is not restricted to sexuality in the sense of eroticism." In other words, gender has nothing to do with your physical anatomy, but rather the accoutrements of girlhood (Barbie dolls, Disney princesses etc.) or boyhood (GI Joes, Transformers etc.).

However, since around the 1980s the word 'gender' has slowly but surely supplanted the word 'sex' in the English language in reference to the boy-girl dichotomy - probably in reaction to the hysterical frissons the latter word triggers. And today it's pretty much entrenched, with organizations like the US Food & Drug Administration now using the word gender instead of sex. This usage, however, is still incorrect. Thankfully, the UN World Health Organization not only continues to use the word sex to describe biological differences between men and women but also devotes an entire page of its website to explaining its choice of word usage. The WHO explains it thusly:

"Male" and "female" are sex categories, while "masculine" and "feminine" are gender categories.

Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.

Some examples of sex characteristics:
  • Women menstruate while men do not;
  • Men have testicles while women do not;
  • Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not;
  • Men generally have more massive bones than women.

Some examples of gender characteristics:
  • In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work;
  • In Vietnam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate;
  • In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not;
  • In most of the world, women do more housework than men.

So why make a big deal out of all this? 'Gender' is fluid, culturally determined and not strictly binary. Many human culture have had - or continue to have - more than two 'gender' categories. Since the mid-2000s, both India and Pakistan have officially recognized a third gender category after decades of lobbying by the hijra (traditional transsexual community) in both countries, and the third gender category 'two-spirit' has gained currency across a wide swath of North American Aboriginal cultures in reference to LBGT people, with cognates in Cree (ayekkwe), Ojibwe (niizh manidoowag), Navajo (nadleeh), Lakota (winkte), Arapaho (haxu’xan) and Apache (ńa-yėnnas-ganne) and Crow (bate), among many other languages.

Sex is what we're born with. Gender is what we do with it, either by choice or by cultural design. And by confounding these two terms, we're erroneously assigning modes of behaviour and cultural expression to biological determinsm, which has been shown again and again to be false. Nobody is born with an innate predisposition to play with Barbie dolls or watch UFC. That's cultural programming, pure and simple.

The sooner we can get back to the proper use of the words 'gender' and 'sex', the better chance we'll have at combatting the entrenched inequalities in all of our human societies that are rooted in traditional gender roles and applied to biology.


  1. Excellent post, Ben. As a participant in one of the aforementioned flame-wars, you make a point that was profoundly missing from the earlier discussion - namely, that the experience of gender is mutable, not fixed. This, then, leads to a broad spectrum of experiences across the sexes. Where the gentleman in our debate was suggesting women just "ignore" or "get over" the manipulated images of perfection pervasive in our culture's media, the vast majority of the other respondents (primarily women) suggested this was impossible. At no point was there a sense (on either side of the argument) that differing experience of gender could lead to different viewpoints or strategies for dealing with the issue.

    1. Thanks Marliss, much appreciated! This one has been bugging me for quite a while and after that epic thread on your hubby's FB I had to write something. I find it amazing how bent out of shape so many guys (and even some women) get when you bring this stuff up. I guess it's our job as communicators to break through people's hermetically-sealed bullshit bubbles as best we can.

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  3. Great post.

    This "hermetically sealed bullshit bubble" (as you put it) has long bugged me, as one who, for seven years, ran a women's e-zine.

    I digress perhaps, but bear with me. At one point, one of my regular contributors emailed to warn me she'd no longer submit articles if I continued to publish articles by another (a male) who posited that victims of domestic violence and incest... (Refer to crap arguments 1 and 2 in your post.) ;-)

    It's a delicate balance we editors and content curators have to strike, but it didn't take me long, either, to tire of his narcissistic pedantry. I'm not saying this because he was male -- sex (not gender) had nothing to to with it. Rather, his line of thinking and his arguments as a [self-proclaimed] subject matter expert on violence against women didn't resonate with me, my site's mandate or my audience.

    My point? A "dick"-tionary doesn't necessarily have to be male (or female, for that matter) to dispel "phallus"-y or to debunk gender myths and gender biases. Bottom line: I was grateful for someone's reminding me to be the definitions, as well as to my original mandate, when, for a brief moment, I, too, suffered from fecal myopia and used the terms interchangeably.

    1. Touche, as always. I think we're all guilty of misusing this particular word, myself included. You can barely use the word 'sex' in its originally meaning without eliciting sophomoric, Austin Powers-type responses of the "Yes please!" variety. It's completely ingrained in us anymore. I call it the Beavis-and-Butthead-ization of our culture.

    2. It just goes to show how hyper-sexualized out culture has become - we needed a more neutral word to describe male and female, because "sex" has become too loaded of a proposition.

    3. We could say 'configuration' or 'operating system'. That might solve the problem.

  4. Dear lord. Can you imagine sending out birth announcements? "Congratulations! The baby has a male configuration!"

  5. Which version? Alpha Male or Beavis and Beta? Nope. Can of worms here too, I'm afraid.

  6. As a parent of both male and female confirgured kids (!), I find it difficult to guide them through this successfully. How do I allow them to 'be themselves' in a culture that is so biased, hyper-sexualized, and consumer-driven? I 'allowed' my daughter to wear pink for a year, and she finally got sick of it (yay) but I see far deeper issues ahead, as now she has declared that math is boring! My son meanwhile has noticed that female singers often are chosen for their physical appearance and costuming over their musical talent. While I agree, I want him to respect women. It is a messy culture and the alternatives need to APPEAL to kids and adults alike, because there is a lot of media and advertising telling us all how great the status quo is. So what can you recommend?

    1. Alas, I don't have any easy answers. But I think it says something about your son (and by proxy your parenting) that he's aware of this. Most people, or more specifically most guys, just don't notice these things at all or at the very least don't question it. Patriarchy gives us dudes the luxury of not having to worry about gender-related issues, and the fact that your little guy has picked up on this discordance is a promising sign. I know it's a drop in the ocean, but all we can realistically do is try to foster awareness of these things.

      Realistically we all have to 'play gender' in this world as a matter of survival. Being able to completely flaunt it is a privilege in and of itself, as the majority of humans face social censure, financial losses and even physical violence for doing so. But a little more awareness out there always helps.