As our new season Girls & Boys approaches, we ask feminist and activist Lynne Segal what gender really means in the 21st century:
Paradoxically, gender is both the most basic and yet also the most volatile term we have to describe ourselves. Are you a boy or a girl? This is the first thing we know about ourselves. Nevertheless, that knowledge is never free from puzzles, which is hardly surprising when the norms we have for understanding gender are forever changing, always on the move.
Meanwhile, for diverse reasons, a significant minority of both girls and boys fail to feel comfortable in the gender they are given. Others, but especially boys and men, are forever finding ways to display and seek confirmation of their gender identity, their masculinity, telling us something about how strongly it is valued still, as the dominant sex.
This is why ‘gender’ is now ubiquitous as a topic for debate across the Humanities and Social Sciences, even becoming an interdisciplinary field in its own right. This is evidence of both the highly diverse and contested nature of issues it addresses, and also testament to the impact of feminist thought over almost half a century.
Gender today remains as controversial as it is inescapable: controversial because it still seems inescapable, despite all the differing attempts to displace or diversify it as a core site of identity. Furthermore, the theorizing, situating, performing, refashioning or undoing of ‘gender’, or today of ‘genders’ (embracing transsexuals, the intersexed, and more), is always shadowed by apprehensions around sexuality.
As codified by sexologists, including Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, at the close of the nineteenth century, gender is assumed to be tied to heterosexuality: a man’s presumed strong, assertive desire for a woman; her passive responsiveness to such desire.
The late nineteenth century is thus seen as the crucible for the gender patterns of Western modernity. It consolidated the idea, if never the actualities, of separate spheres for men and women, with their associated presumptive/prescriptive mentalities: man’s independence, toil and leadership outside the home establishing his authority within the family; the bourgeois wife’s gentle, nurturing, spiritual ways exemplifying woman’s estate. However, in the very moment of consolidation of sexual difference there were already rising anxieties over the place and nature of men and women.
From the late nineteenth century, the rise of first wave feminism was seen as putting ‘manhood’ in danger: the ‘masculine woman’ (those seeking education or the right to vote) undermined the ‘natural’ demarcations of sexed difference. The impact of Darwin on the medical sciences, alongside sexology, was also understood as entailing the divergent evolution of the sexes: males as active, passionate and variable; females as passive, conservative, and stable.
Furthermore, the Darwinian significance accorded sexual differentiation merged with racist views of the day to declare African, Asian and Jewish bodies less sexually segregated than that of the Aryan, and hence more degenerate. Male and female identities were one’s biological fate, as was racial hierarchy.However, no sooner were these men of science affirming the proper contrasts between men and women – physical, sexual, psychological – than sexual variations, or ‘aberrations’ leapt out at every turn.
The instability and troubles shadowing sexual difference soon proved a prominent feature in Freud’s writing, as psychoanalysis crept into Western thinking from the closing decades of the nineteenth century, alongside social Darwinism and sexology. This would lead Freud to suggest that there were no essential psychological sexual differences at birth, but that gender contrasts were installed, somewhat precariously, as a consequence of identifications with the same-sex parent, relating, in particular, to the cultural significance given to possession of the ‘phallus’.
Freud was partially anticipating trends that would re-appear (in different ways) only towards the end of the twentieth century, when first of all feminists would once more reveal the essentially cultural and linguistic basis for our understandings of gender.
Yet still today, the job of untangling the confusions surrounding what exactly gender signifies is far from concluded. For one thing, the significance of gender differences vary across a lifetime, marked clearly in those playgrounds in schoolyards, as girls hang back and boys take centre stage with their footballs. They shift again in the sexual and social diversity of domestic spaces, never more varied than in today’s households and workplaces. Then they mutate once more in old age, as new fears and anxieties associated with growing fragilities and increased isolation take a gendered form, though far from ones that can be read off from any presumed biological differences.
Lynne Segal looks at the gendered pressures of ageing in her latest book Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing (Verso).
Explore the ever changing nature of gender in our series of talks and discussions Girls & Boys or in our two short courses Art and Gender or Orlando and Everyting After.
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