The significance of Social conventions When understanding the construction of gender

Robert Iddiols

Throughout contemporary Western society we witness the everyday significance of sex and the cultural ideology surrounding sexual encounter. In this essay, the effects that sociological norms and conventions of sex have on gender will be dissected and analyzed with regard to Michael Kimmel’s article, Masculinity as Homophobia. Although Kimmel concludes that masculinity is a “relentless test by which we prove to other men” that we have “mastered the part”(108), others would suggest that, in fact, masculinity is the representation of our projected-self in terms of our attractiveness to our female counterparts.

In order to effectively comment on the significance of sex within gender categorizations, we must attempt to define gender as a restricted classification, which is something that Allan Johnson in his work, Privilege, Power, and Difference, claims is very difficult to do:

Our culture allows for only two genders […] and anyone who doesn’t clearly fit one or the other is instantly perceived as an outsider. (16)

As we can see, these sentiments accord with the assumptions of the popular majority, regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class, because we habitually make automatic calculations based on an individual’s appearance. Moreover, our culture asserts that we feel revolted and frightened by difference. For instance, “the strange-looking guy sitting across from us on the nearly empty train” (Johnson 13) is a source of fear because it evokes a feeling of unknowing. As a result, Western society dictates an uncompromising system of social construction and bilinear classification: male or female. Johnson goes on:

This is why babies born with a mixture of characteristics are routinely altered surgically in order to “fit” the culturally defined categories of female and male. (16-17)

Resultantly, we are left with an appearance-conscious society where difference is looked upon with caution and derision. Consequently, our actions are altered according to the social construction of what constitutes acceptable gender-orientated behavior.

Johnson’s opening argument, as outlined above, is supported by Kimmel’s introductory statement concerning fear and “masculine” behavior (paraphrasing David Leverenz):

Our real fear is not fear of women but of being ashamed or humiliated in front of other men, or being dominated by stronger men. (103)

In turn, Kimmel explains that this fear is “a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood” (103). Gender cannot, therefore, be taken to coincide with our modern cultural expectations. We would argue then, that gender is a socially constructed concept supported by group-thought and the effects of sociological privilege.

This definition of gender differs from our definition of sex, the biological compatibility of two opposing sexes, male and female. Therefore, the question must be asked regarding the significance of gender as a social construction alongside Darwinian evolution. Why is it that our contemporary thought processes appear to contradict the natural course of human biology? Kimmel argues consistently that fear drives our definition of what is, and what is not, culturally acceptable. In terms of masculinity, he claims:

Fear makes us ashamed, because the recognition of fear in ourselves is proof to ourselves that we are not as manly as we pretend. (104)

This can easily be applicable to femininity also; the norms of female behavior are adhered to by swathes of the Western female population, arguably due to media influence and patriarchal expectations. And yet, it seems obvious to the reader that these claims are undeniably true. Indeed, as Kimmel continues to explain, he cites the example of a schoolyard; when asked to a group of schoolboys, “Who’s a sissy around here?” there is inevitably an ensuing fight (104). This example encapsulates the necessity of academic and communal awareness, as it effects even the youngest of pre-adolescent children.

As we are reminded throughout Johnson’s work, we tend to follow the path of least resistance and avoid confrontation over systems of privilege and social construction because we deny the existence of noteworthy problems. However:

When you deny the reality of oppression, you also deny the reality of the privilege that underlies it. (109)

Johnson makes explicit the motives for quashing complaints over gender inequality and the damage of social expectations. As we have seen, cultural norms and expectations have a profound effect on children; even from birth, the father of a boy “evaluates the boy’s masculine performance” (103). Fear, the organizing principle of manhood incurs those silences as we hasten past women being hassled on the street, or sexist jokes told in a bar (Kimmel 103-104). This underlying crisis poisons the very core of our civilized and humane society.

Overall, we begin to understand from the evidence provided that social constructions, such as that for gender, foretell social narratives that play out over time in accordance with norms, conventions, and expectations we associate with each. However, the cause for this is debated even today. Kimmel says that our behavior is a reaction to the threat of being revealed as a fraud (103), yet Johnson claims that these traits exist and are maintained due to our willingness to ignore such problems so long as the result is a continuation of our privilege (21). However, psychoanalysts such as Freud have argued that our behavioral patterns are a demonstration of our innate desire to attract the reciprocal sex. Indeed, this seems to agree with the question of our evolutionary biology.

Kimmel bases vast portions of his work on the assumption that fear of emasculation dictates masculine social narratives, and we can see that, in some cases, this is clearly the case. Moreover, Kimmel is correct in stating that “our real fear is not of women”, but I would argue strongly that nor is our real fear of other men. In reality, from recent surveys and experiments delving into the human psyche, we clearly identify a strong correlation between the actions of heterosexual males and their desire to appeal to like-minded females.

As we have already asserted, gender is a socially constructed conduit through which privilege is derived. In this sense, heterosexual males are allowed to uphold a dominant hegemony, or patriarchy, by being in the majority. By doing so, social norms, conventions, and expectations are dictated through this reality, in turn dictated by Freudian psychology.

Noticeably, this observation retards societal harmony and indicates a lack of inter-sex progress; if males are allowed to dominate social patterns, the effect is cyclical. Coincidentally, Kimmel concedes the main argument of common feminist theory:

Feminists observe that women, as a group, do not hold power in our society. They also observe that individually, they, as women, do not feel powerful. They feel afraid, vulnerable. Their observation of the social reality and their individual experiences are therefore symmetrical. (106)

If we are to accept the notion that males dominate society, we must also accept that this presents us with a spiraling regression, whereby masculine behavior and group-thought orchestrate a damaging degeneration of cultural development.

Furthermore, Kimmel later suggests that men are haunted by fears of unmanliness, and by a deep sense of shame, so much so that women become the targets of sexual harassment in the workplace (108). I would counter this claim by pointing to the obvious conclusion derived from the suggestion that women are harassed at work; males often brim with sexual desire when confined to a routine alongside a supposedly attractive female colleague. On the one hand, this represents the cyclical degeneration of continued male ideology, yet on the other hand, this appears indicative of active sexism. As Kimmel explains, with regard to perceived sexuality:

Homophobia […] keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women. Homophobia and sexism go hand in hand. (105)

Unfortunately, this poses the ultimate result of society’s inter-gender power-play. Not only has the risk of “sissydom” (Kimmel 105) infected American schoolyards, but it has also attacked the established customs of acceptable behavior at work and throughout civilization.

As Johnson cleverly points out during his chapter devoted to the workings of privilege, the current patriarchy has affected our language to the extent where terms such as “sisterhood” and “brotherhood” have hugely different connotations: one negative, and the other positive (98). Whereas ‘sisterhood’ evokes feelings of mere companionship, ‘brotherhood’ identifies with “the belief that all people should act with warmth and equality toward one another regardless of differences in race, creed, nationality, etc.” (Johnson 98). The irony inherent within this definition may somewhat entertain the attentive reader.

Conclusively, our actions and behavioral patterns are a direct result of gender’s social construction. What’s more, the social narratives that play out from the effects of social construction intrinsically damage our collective integrity and slow our cultural advancement.

Works Cited Johnson, Allan G.. Privilege, Power, and Difference. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Kimmel, Michael S.. Masculinity as Homophobia. 1994. Leverenz, David. Manhood, humiliation and public life: Some stories. South West Review, 71. 1986, Fall.

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