Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for January 21st, 2009

This is from “Sex, Culture, and Justice: The Limits of Choice” by Clare Chambers. I think it’s a really intelligent clarification of the idea that “gender is a social construct”, a phrase oft-invoked but rarely explained:

In Masculine Domination, Bourdieu asks why gender inequality has persisted throughout history despite significant social change. In general, Bourdieu is concerned with the question of why it is that many forms of domination persist with relatively few challenges: left to themselves and in the normal course of things, individuals will not disrupt structures of domination, such as patriarchy, from which they suffer (or benefit). Even if they have read and agreed with key feminist texts, most women do not stop wearing makeup, taking on the lion’s share of the housework and childcare, wearing restrictive and uncomfortable clothes and shoes that emphasize sexual availability, or being attracted to men with characteristics of dominance such as a powerful physique or job. Even if we believe that our desires are indeed the product of the norms and expectations of a patriarchal society, still we do actually like makeup, high heels, and men whoa re tall, buffed, and wealthy.

A central reason for the success of patriarchy, Bourdieu argues, is its ability to naturalize its distinctions. At the heart of any system of hierarchy is the distinction made between those who occupy different hierarchical positions. The system of masculine domination owes its success at least in part to its provision of “natural,” biological explanations for hierarchy. This point was also made within the liberal tradition by John Stuart Mill in The Subjection of Women. In response to the claim that sexual inequality is natural, Mill asks, “Was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?…So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.

The naturalization of gender hierarchy is reinforced in several ways. Women are, according to the patriarchal story, different from men in that they have different bodies and different biological functions. They must be different from each other so as to reproduce; the differences could not be wished away, for without sex differences we would have no means of perpetuating the species. Moreover, these differences justify different positions on a hierarchy in that they dictate different behaviors for men and women regarding matters such as childcare, breadwinning, and courtship, which affect the wider social positions of the sexes. Instead, Bourdieu argues that the categories of gender are constructed and not necessary. Gender differences start with the socially constructed and thus contingent division of people into two kinds according to their bodies, and specifically their genitals. To say that this is a contingent division is to say that everyone could in theory have the same genitals, or that there is no biological difference between men and women, but it is to say that differences between genitals need not be socially significant. Christine Helliwell describes a tribe in Indonesian Borneo, the Gerai, for whom differences in work, not differences in genitals, are the determinants of a system of classification comparable to gender. Although there are people with different genitals in the Gerai tribe, this fact is not seen as particularly significant, and certainly not as the determinant of gender. While there is a correlation between different genitals and different genders for the Gerai, this correlation is contingent and not necessary. In Western societies, for example it is overwhelmingly women and not men who provide the primary care for babies in their first weeks of life. However, genitals and not childcare are the determinant of gender: a person with a penis who is the prime caregiver for a newborn baby is still a man. For the Gerai, in contrast, it is the work that is determining–a person who performs certain tasks in rice cultivation is a man, even if that person has a vulva. Helliwell herself was categorized as a man for some time after her arrival in the tribe as a result of the work she was able to do, despite the fact that everyone in the tribe frequently observed her genitals when she urinated in the stream used for that purpose. Thus, “As someone said to me at a later point, ‘Yes, I saw that you had a vulva, but I thought that Western men might be different.'”

Genital difference, then, does not necessarily signify different roles or identities. But once the difference between genitals has been instituted as socially significant, it is justified by reference to the naturalness of the distinction. In other words, in answer to the question “Why are genital differences socially significant?” the answer given would be something like “because there are differences in genitals.” Moreover, this difference is further idolized by its naturalness. If we ask, “Why are there differences in genitals?” we will receive the answer “because that is how nature is,” which is something like saying “because it couldn’t be any other way.” This circular reasoning leads, Bourdieu argues, to symmetry between the subjective and objective elements of domination. Subjectively, people believe that there are significant differences based on genital differences. Objectively, there are genital difference. The circularity comes in as follows: people believe that there are significant differences based on genitals, and people are inclined to notice and reify such differences because they believe that they exist. In sum, one of the key reasons for success of the system of male domination is its ability to make itself appear as natural–not only in the sense that differences between genitals are natural, but also in the sense that social differences based on differences between genitals appear natural.

Read Full Post »