This is the second post in a series responding, albeit very belatedly, to reactions to this previous post about trans issues and so-called ‘gender critical feminism’. That was a fairly sharp critique of GCF, in particular its crude and often hypocritical treatment of gender, and one reaction I got was ‘so what’s your account of gender?’ The quick response is that you don’t need to know the right theory of something to reject bad and bigoted theories of it, but the longer response is given in this series.
I’ve structured each post around a tension that might seem to exist between two ideas I’m committed to: the post is my explanation of how I resolve that tension and reconcile the two ideas. The first post, yesterday, was on reconciling social constructionism (gender is invented by society) with first-person authority (individuals know their own gender). My basic response was to distinguish between the meaning of a gender term and the criteria for its application: different people can use the same term (e.g. ‘man’) with the same meaning but with different criteria. What they have in common is that they use this word to assign people to the same social category (the male gender), but they do so for different reasons – one might do so based on what chromosomes they think people have, another on what category people assign themselves to, and another on some other basis. The category is a social construct, and does not in itself dictate its own membership criteria.
In this post I’ll be returning to an idea I criticised a lot in my original post, namely that gender transition ‘reinforces’ the social system of gender. It might seem that social constructionism about gender implies some such idea, because if genders are socially constructed then, it might seem, an individual ‘identifying with’ a gender must amount to a kind of ‘acceptance’ or ‘obedience’ to what society is telling them, in short a form of conformity.
But actually, individual gender identity is a distinct thing from gender conformity or nonconformity: someone can feel strongly that they are a man while also violating many or most of society’s expectations about men. In that post I tried to emphasise that this is more or less a pre-theoretical datum: whatever the reasons for it, I said, we need to recognise and take seriously this fact and not rush to slot it into our favoured theory. In this post, with its different aims, I am going to be a little more theoretical – not to try and say once and for all what is going on here, but to illustrate one way of combining constructionism about gender with a recognition of the subversive potential of individual gender identities.
This is going to connect with the last post’s claim that ‘seeing-as-a-woman’ and ‘seeing-as-a-man’ are more basic phenomena than actually being a woman or man: we say ‘he’s a man’ to express a certain way of seeing him, a psychological state of ours. We only indirectly convey factual information, insofar as the listener knows our criteria for seeing-as-a-man.
But, as I admitted, the psychological structure of this gender-perception thing is not something simple and easy to state. But here is one observation: at least as a first working approximation, we might think of someone’s ‘gender identity’ as a self-directed instance of this kind of gender-perception. If someone’s gender identity is ‘man’, they ‘see-as-a-man’ themselves, i.e. their sense of their own body and mind and social persona is in terms of the ‘man’ gender-category. And the important datum that I was talking about just now could then be put as: some people cannot help but gender-perceive themselves in a certain way, even if it conflicts with how others perceive them, or how the criteria in place in their society say to perceive them. This robust, defiant, self-gender-perception seems to make a lot of people very unhappy when others gender-perceive them in a conflicting way, or when they themselves are subject to bottom-up influences, like seeing their own body parts, which make them gender-perceive themselves in a conflicting way. Other people aren’t distressed when they experience this kind of conflict, but do feel happier or more at home with themselves when this gender-self-perception is reinforced consistently by others and by their own body.
This still doesn’t say much about the actual content, structure, and origin of this gender-perception thing. So far, I’ve just tried to sketch out a certain way of framing the observable facts. In particular, on this framing, even though I think we should gender people based on their gender identity, we shouldn’t identify gender with gender identity, because they’re not the same thing. Roughly, by saying ‘gender’ we’re referring to a social system with certain social categories, and someone’s ‘gender identity’ is their individual relationship to those categories.
(One possible implication: there might be more gender identities than genders? Like, if being ‘genderfluid’ is about alternating between man and woman, that’s a distinct gender identity but still defined in relation to two genders, not a third gender? But things might be more complicated than that. In practice of course ‘genders’ and ‘gender identities’ are often interchangeable. The bigot who says ‘there are only two genders’ will not be appeased by saying ‘well yes, but there are as many equally valid ways of relating to them – as many ‘gender identities’ – as people can come up with!’)
This framing also brings out that there might be some slippage in the meaning of the term ‘gender identity’. I said above that the data seems clear that some people have a robust, seemingly fixed, way that they gender-self-perceive: whatever ‘seeing as a woman/man’ is, they can’t help but see themselves that way. But does everyone have this? It’s not clear. The best way to tell that someone has one is if it conflicts with their assigned gender and they transition as a result – which only a small minority of people do (though that number might be different if transitioning were not so socially costly).
Among cis people there do seem to be people for whom being a man/woman is a deep-seated, load-bearing, part of their self-conception, and others for whom it feels fairly inconsequential. In this discussion here the phrase ‘cis by default’ is suggested for people who don’t have a fixed, robust, powerful, sense of being one gender or the other, and go along with the way they’re gendered in society just because it feels easiest. Of course, there is always the possibility that lots of cis people are just bad at introspection and don’t notice their fixed gender-self-perception because it never becomes salient.
If it were true that many people don’t have the kind of fixed, strong, gender-self-perception that motivates transition when it’s discordant from assigned gender, then it might make sense to say ‘many people don’t have a gender identity’. But I think there’s a standard practice of using the term ‘gender identity’ for anyone’s self-defined relationship to gender, such that it’s roughly equivalent to ‘gender identification’. To put it crudely, we might say that whatever you sincerely and consistently say when asked ‘what gender are you?’, that’s your gender identity. But this is a subtly different way of using the term from the one discussed in the last paragraph, where it’s a fairly specific sort of psychological trait. To put it crudely, ‘gender identity’ in one sense is how you answer ‘what gender are you?’, and ‘gender identity’ in the other sense is something about some people’s psychology that drives them to answer in a certain way. While everyone has a ‘gender identity’ in the first sense, it’s an open empirical question how many people have one in the second sense.
I think this kind of slippage is understandable, since our only real access to the underlying psychology is by asking people. In practice, any engagement with people’s ‘gender identity’ in the deep-seated psychological sense is by means of what they say when asked, i.e. by means of their ‘gender identity’ in the ‘how people identify themselves’ sense. Nevertheless, slipping back and forth between the two senses could be a source of confusion, so it’s at least worth (I hope) noting this difference.
All of this still leaves the original question though: what is gender-perception, such that it can be a product of society and yet not reinforcing of society?
One initial thing that’s useful to remember is the breadth of things that are ‘socially constructed’ in some sense. In particular, I think the terms ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘gender roles’ are both a little bit unhelpful in this context, because the former pushes us towards looking for false factual beliefs (e.g. ‘women are bad at driving’) and the latter pushes us towards looking for bad ethical imperatives (e.g. ‘women shouldn’t drive’). I think it’s more useful to think of gender-perception, not primarily in terms of beliefs or imperatives, but in terms of aesthetic judgements and feelings.
I think this more-aesthetic-than-ethical view works well for lots of social constructs. Most obviously, it applies to the construction of clothing norms, of beauty, of what sorts of decor and hairstyles and word choices look or sound good, cool, interesting. And those domains being socially constructed obviously doesn’t conflict with them valuing, even hunting for, novelty and individual innovation. (Even rules of grammar and language, I think, are better seen in aesthetic terms than in terms of imperatives: they say which ways of speaking will ‘sound right’, ‘sound cool’, ‘sound natural’, and which the opposite.)
Like, consider socks with sandals. The fact that ‘socks and sandals don’t go together’, that they are ‘a bad look’ and ‘unfashionable’, is very clearly socially constructed (I hope I won’t have to argue with anyone in the comments about that?). But it would be unhelpful to describe this in terms of a ‘stereotype’ – it’s not primarily that people hold some sort of belief, that people who wear socks with sandals have some obnoxious personal trait. It’s also unhelpful to talk about ‘roles’ here, to say that sandals, or wearing sandals, or sandals-wearers, are assigned a ‘role’ that says it’s wrong for them to wear socks, or anything like that. It’s just that they ‘don’t go’: they aren’t compatible, within the sartorial universe of our society.
This is much more an aesthetic matter than a factual or ethical one. There’s no sense in which the socks-with-sandals norm could be true or false, right or wrong, in itself, and it would be weird for someone to feel like because they are a true individual and ‘think for themselves’, that therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ see socks with sandals as naff and unstylish: whether or not you have that aesthetic reaction says nothing about your autonomy, conformism, or how free-thinking you are.
Of course, someone might challenge or change the norm – might even deliberately set out to do so, to ‘rehabilitate’ socks-with-sandals – but this wouldn’t usefully be pursued in the same way as fighting stereotypes or imperatives. The way to rehabilitate socks-with-sandals wouldn’t be to offer good arguments for them, but to wear socks with sandals and somehow manage to ‘pull it off’, and to persuade others, especially fashionable others, to do so. It would involve ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, because you’d be trying to expose people’s senses to the right kinds of images, and get them to see and feel those images in the right kind of way, rather than trying to persuade them of something.
Obviously there are gender stereotypes and gender roles out there in society. And fighting them is good and important! But it seems likely that a major part of the social construction of gender – perhaps even the most essential part – is aesthetic. Socks and sandals don’t ‘go’ together; likewise, according to our society, beards and breasts don’t ‘go’ together, and neither do beards and dresses. More broadly, our society has constructed two huge edifices of things that feel like they ‘go’ together, the ‘man’ things and the ‘woman’ things. This isn’t really an opinion, a belief, an imperative, that we can persuade people to abandon: it’s a matter of how we’ve been taught to see and feel and react to other people’s appearances.
Insofar as we want to challenge these aesthetic gender norms, doing so is less about argument and persuasion and more about showing people violations, so that those violations can become more familiar and more normal. It’s a matter of getting ourselves and others to see people as, e.g., looking like a woman while wearing a beard, looking like a man while showing cleavage, or as just looking really good without looking like either a man or a woman. And the main way to effect that change in perception is for people like that to be visible, and visibly accepted, and visibly treated as normal and potentially attractive by others.
I don’t want this to sound trivialising. Obviously ‘don’t wear socks with sandals’ is a fairly minor and inconsequential part of our social system, both in that it doesn’t particularly constrain our life choices and in that the penalties for violating it are not very severe. I picked it precisely because it’s a minor, inconsequential thing, and because it is very tricky to discuss and describe aesthetic norms without inadvertently seeming to reinforce them (I don’t want to be out here saying ‘consider for example the way that we all consider X to be ugly and gross…’). I wanted to zoom in on the aesthetic character of some social norms, and how they differ from other sorts. The same character can, I think, be present in much more significant norms. Feeling ugly can be a very big deal; an inescapable sense of one’s own body as ‘looking wrong’ and unloveable could be debilitating.
When I get dressed, I am obviously engaging with and working within my society’s clothing system, but that isn’t some sort of socially regressive obedience and conformity. Indeed, I’m still engaging with my society’s clothing system when I actively set out to defy and subvert it, e.g. by combining elements that are regarded as incompatible. Likewise, in choosing how to present myself I engage and work with my society’s gender system, both to try and influence how others see me and feel about me, and to influence how I see and feel about myself. That doesn’t automatically mean I’m ‘reinforcing’ this system, or even conforming to it; even when I defy or subvert it, it’s equally true that I’m engaging with that system to influence how others see me and how I see myself.
Let me go back, for a moment, to the phrase ‘gender identity’. I think it’s appropriate at this stage to be very agnostic about the empirical question of where it comes from. Maybe it has a genetic or prenatal basis, maybe it’s determined by early childhood experiences, maybe it has different origins for different people. An objector might object here, as follows:
‘How can you allow for gender identity to (sometimes, possibly) be innate, and yet also think that gender categories themselves are social constructs, when gender identity is usually defined in terms of gender categories?’
It’s a fair question. If ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are contingent constructions of a certain sort of society, how can it be innate in someone at birth that they will identify as a woman or a man? It looks like if I really want to stick to my social construction guns, I have to rule out anyone’s gender identity being innate, which might seem to go beyond what’s empirically warranted and perhaps beyond what’s compatible with respecting people’s testimony.
But I think actually this tension too is resolvable. A lot of discussions of gender identity I’ve read say that ultimately, the author’s access to their gender identity comes through their access to feelings of dysphoria and euphoria, fit and ill-fit, about various bodily, sartorial, social, linguistic, etc. aspects of gender categories.
That is, the statement ‘my gender identity is ‘woman’’ may primarily be a way of expressing that some or all of the components of the ‘woman’ social category ‘feel right’, and some or all the components of the ‘man’ social category ‘feel wrong’, in some inchoate way. If gender identities are ultimately patterns of gender-feelings, that would explain why some people’s gender identities aren’t readily expressable in words like ‘man’ or ‘woman’, because the things that ‘feel wrong’ or ‘feel right’ to them in these ways don’t fit neatly with any socially provided category.
Suppose that’s a reasonable way to think of gender identities, as patterns of certain sorts of feelings directed at certain sorts of bodily, sartorial, social, etc. features. The disposition to have those feelings might be innate, even if the ways that those features are grouped into categories is socially constructed. Then (some people’s) gender identity might be innate, but would be best communicated in very different words depending on the categories prevalent in society.
If I can throw out an analogy that’s been helpful to me but might not be to others: imagine you can only find out about your body’s shape and size by trying on different garments and noticing the feelings of fit and ill-fit that they produce. Those feelings are the joint product of what garment you’re trying on (which is clearly about what other people have made and offered you) and what your body is like (which is clearly not, in the same way, a product of society, and may to a significant extent be genetically determined). Your body’s size and shape has nothing in itself to do with clothes, but if your only access to it is by trying on different clothes, you might naturally think of it and communicate it in terms taken from the available clothing – ‘I’m a US size 14’, ‘I’m a shoe size 5’, etc. It would be a mistake for someone to infer that your body, in and of itself, was produced or defined by the social conventions about clothing categories. Anyway, as I say, if this analogy isn’t helpful, don’t worry about it.