Friday, November 18, 2011

Gender Is Not Merely Subjective

In class this week, I was intrigued by our discussion regarding the contrasting definitions of sex and gender; particularly Professor Johnson's question as to whether or not we should assume that this dichotomy has become so ingrained within our modern culture that we now take the distinction for granted. I pose that this is indeed the case, however, it proves a detriment to our understanding. We have grown so accustomed to separating the concepts into two distinct identities that we neglect fully comprehending their differences; if analyzed, i believe there exist certain discrepancies that would complicate a complete separation of the two concepts.
We defined sex as purely biological, consisting of physical human anatomy. This definition, in contrast to its "opposite," implies that gender does not have such an objective existence; it does not have an innate, comprehensive form, rather it consists of mere subjective expressions. In this sense, while we are objectively bound to our sex (ignoring the issue of transgenders), we are free to choose our own gender. This freedom to choose implies a conscious decision, which I found problematic during our discussion. I do not find it realistic that such an intentional consciousness is present when expressing a gender identity. If consciousness is absent, however, its lack of presence would not imply freedom, but rather a substantial innateness.
Ben provided a counterargument, suggesting that culture and society has, in a sense, stolen our subjectivity and subsequently informs our perceptions of what is considered "normal." I agree with this statement, to a degree. Modern culture, insofar as it is an extension of ourselves, informs our perspective of the world to a large degree. However, the problem with this argument, I find, is that it does not leave room for social change, which itself becomes the strongest argument for an innate gender. If society provides the definitions that we must adhere to, why would anyone instigate change? Unless people are reacting for the sole reason of rebellion (which I do not think is the case), then such desires to change the norm must stem from an innate inclination to change the standard...which would imply a certain objectivity within the definition of gender.


  1. Zach, I'm not 100% sure that I'm properly interpreting your post, so please correct me if I misconstrue it.

    I don't believe that we consciously have our gender as a project all the time; I definitely don't think about it that often. I feel that the differentiation between gender and sex comes more from who one is as a person, how he normally behaves and thinks, etc. After taking all of this into account, then one can make a judgment of gender. In this way, I believe that it is an innate trait, regardless of whether the decided gender matches with its corresponding sex. However, I also think that there are instances in which it is a conscious project. In certain company I try to behave more like the generic concept of a female: wear a nice dress, sit with my legs crossed, stop swearing and making lewd jokes. (This is also where I say that I agree with Ben in that gender has been normalized: I'm biologically female, so I should conform to the appropriate female gender stereotype.) Gender can change with mood, environment, company, and so on.

    Basically, while I think that gender is somewhat innate, it's much more a product of consciousness than most realize.

  2. I agree that gender is innate. However, I think the expression of our gender is a conscious project. I do think we are aware at all times of how we are expressing our gender. But whether our expression of gender is an accurate portrayal of our innate gender is entirely up to us.

  3. My comment will address the first part of your post. You express a thought that appears to be often raised against the existentialists: In this case, you say that the expression of gender is often NOT the result of conscious effort, which leads you to state that it comes from some "substantial innateness." There's an article titled "Existentialism" in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that addresses your criticism, and I will try to apply its insight onto this case. If I understand you correctly, oftentimes we do not choose our gender identity, meaning that there is no transcendence involved in gender construction. But perhaps choice carries with it too many assumptions than the existentialist really means. The article suggests that all the existentialist means to say is that who we are is not reducible to that which can be understood in the third-person. There's always a first-person element in gender expression that's unavailable to the third person. Though it may be inappropriate to say that we always CHOOSE our gender, I think it is another thing to say that our gender has no first-person characteristic (meaning no transcendent stance that we can take here). Hopefully we can agree that the latter proposition is false, for it seems reasonable that our gender is a matter of transcendence.

    To sum up, I don't think it follows that "If consciousness is absent, however, its lack of presence would not imply freedom, but rather a substantial innateness." Gender always requires a first person stance -- I believe it might have been stated in class that we, outsiders, cannot observe another's gender, and I believe it is for this reason that we aren't able to do so.


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