Gender: What's Biology Got to Do With It?
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
I was listening to a podcast the other day where a relationship researcher was talking about a complimentary dynamic between people with more masculine traits and people with more feminine qualities.
At first the researcher acknowledged that all people have both “masculine” and “feminine” traits regardless of their gender, but then throughout the rest of the podcast, he proceeded to conflate masculinity with maleness and femininity with femaleness. His cis-normative non-inclusiveness of other genders besides man and woman already had me turned off but out of curiosity I continued to listen. The researcher then gave advice on how more masculine people can better relate to more feminine people and vice versa; “Women, ask your man about his accomplishments and Guys- ask your woman about her feelings,” he said. I felt a tinge of rage flush through me. I am shocked by how many people, even well-known relationship experts in the field of psychology seem to still hold this problematic ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ mentality. In studies on the natural differences between those assigned female at birth vs. those assigned male at birth, a few subtle neurological and chemical differences which are thought to influence personality and behavior have been identified. That being said, the evidence is substantial at this point that the extent to which traits and behavior are learned through and exaggerated by social constructs is far greater than many people realize. It is “nurture” rather than “nature” that accounts for the majority of common differences that are observed between the “male” vs. “female” species. Characteristically, all genders are intrinsically far more alike than they are different. We all have qualities of both masculinity and femininity irrespective of the gender we were assigned at birth because masculinity and femininity have little to do with biology. Most all of us experience the need to feel taken care of and also the desire to take care of others. Most all of us experience fear, anger, desire, sadness, frustration joy, etc. The gender-specific socially acceptable ways of managing these emotions are what is culturally determined. As the famous gender theorist Judith Butler puts it, “Gender is not something that one is. It is something that one does, an act…a doing rather than a being.”
The very definitions of masculinity and femininity were arbitrarily invented by society in the first place. Supporting this point, we can see that gender roles and what is considered masculine or feminine at any given time varies across different cultures, time periods, social classes, and contexts. There is nothing inherently feminine about the color pink or inherently masculine about the color blue. These colors represent what they represent simply because of the meaning that society has assigned to them. In fact, in the early 20th-century America, these color associations were actually reversed; the color pink was considered more suitable for boys and blue was for girls. For some, there is a false sense of freedom and security that comes with conforming. There is an appeal to having others provide a script to us on how to dress, how to behave, what to strive toward in life etc. so that we don’t have to think for ourselves. So that we don’t have to take as much responsibility for our choices. There may be a comfort in believing that others know what’s best for us, not to mention the social rewards for those who conform (acceptance, approval, and encouragement etc.), since the majority of people to a large degree do not challenge what they are taught and well, the majority rules. But like with anything else, accepting all that we are taught about gender differences, roles, expectations, etc. without questioning or examining it, runs the risk of confining us to an inauthentic mold where we miss out on the opportunity to explore and connect with all important parts of ourselves. This includes the parts that may not be as expected or accepted by society, which therefore require more courage to explore. Ascribing to gender roles based on the script written by society is nothing more than a performance; a performance that many don’t even realize they are engaging in. As RuPaul puts it, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” “I have everything that I want- why am I still unhappy?” Not an uncommon phrase for people to think or speak. My response: Probably because you have everything that you were told you should want, and you never actually took the time to determine this for yourself. This may have to do with what you were told you should want according to your gender, culture, family, religion, or any other number of things. There may be a sense of yearning or grief; a sense that something is missing; something that may not be easily identifiable.
It can be difficult to separate what we feel and want from what we think we should feel and want because the ways in which we have been socialized have been so deeply ingrained. Therapy can be a great place to tackle this work of deconstructing our beliefs about ourselves, overcoming fears, and connecting to the authentic voice within.
Returning to the advice of the cis-normative relationship researcher I referenced in the beginning, women asking men about their accomplishments and men asking women about their feelings is great advice for anyone interested in continuing to perpetuate the problematic, limiting, and damaging gender norms and gender binary invented by our society. For those interested rather in challenging and deconstructing these societal restrictions, I favor doing the opposite of the relationship researcher’s advice; ask all genders about their accomplishments and about their feelings and don’t adjust your way of relating based on the gender of the person you are relating with.