The Social Construction of Gender
In 1965, a set of identical twins were born in Winnipeg, Canada. Seven months after their birth, the boys were diagnosed with a rare disorder called phimosis (a foreskin that cannot be fully retracted). The doctor suggested they be circumcised. Tragically, one of the boys had his penis destroyed from the botched circumcision. The parents decided to consult with a doctor at Johns Hopkins University who specialized in gender reassignment in children born with ambiguous genitalia. According to Dr. John Money, a child could be raised as either gender as long as the process began before the age of two. Although his research was based entirely on children born with ambiguous genitalia, Dr. Money claimed that it could apply to normal children as well.
The parents decided to have the boy castrated and doctors performed constructive surgery to give their son a vagina. Bruce became known as Brenda. Hormone treatments were planned for when the child neared the age of puberty. However, Brenda never really wanted to do the things girls were expected to do. She did not like dressing up, wearing make-up, or cleaning house. She stomped on the dolls that were given to her as presents. She had a difficult time making friends with other girls in school, who thought she was strange. Instead, Brenda preferred to play with her brother Brian and his friends. She sat like a boy with her legs apart, urinated standing up, played army, and built forts with her brother.
By the time Brenda reached puberty, she had become suicidal. Although she had begun taking hormone treatments and had developed breasts, she still did not feel like a girl. In fact, she felt awkward and gained weight to try to conceal her breasts. At the age of 15, Brenda’s parents told her the truth about her gender reassignment. She changed her name to David and resumed the identity of a man. David had reconstructive surgery and took testosterone treatments. He later married a woman and became a stepfather to her three children. However, the anguish of his childhood and feelings of inadequacy tormented him for the rest of his life. Both David and his brother suffered from clinical depression, an illness their mother suffered from as well. In 2004, shortly after his brother died from an overdose of anti-depressants, David committed suicide.
The case of David Reimer brought attention to the long contested debate of whether nature or nurture influenced behaviors in boys and girls. Dr. Money believed that gender identity and sexual orientation were determined completely by environment. Most of his work dealt with children who were born with both sex organs or genitalia ambiguity. David was the first genetically normal child to have gender reassignment. Although Dr. Money’s assertions about David were incorrect, he never published these findings. David’s case was later uncovered by another doctor who set the record straight.
What makes men and women behave differently? Researchers have determined that chromosomally, neurologically, and hormonally, men and women are different. Patterns indicate that boys are more likely to be left-handed, use the right side of their brains, perform better at spatial tasks, and are louder and more rambunctious when they play. Females, on the other hand, use both sides of their brains, have larger vocabularies, are more sensitive to their mother’s voices, and talk sooner than males.
But not all boys are left handed and not all girls are sensitive and talk sooner than males. Nature is not perfect. Children are born with genitalia ambiguity and sometimes have confusion with gender identity. Nevertheless, society has expectations for children based on gender. As in the case with David, failure to conform to prescribed gender roles led to a life of ridicule and shame. In our society, gender is a very important social construct. We typically have a binary gender system consisting of two roles only. Either you are a girl or a boy, masculine or feminine. There is no in-between.
Although there are biological differences between men and women, socialization plays an important role in determining whether or not we will develop these abilities. Gender, like race and class, is a socially constructed category. From the time we are born, our parents begin to treat us differently based on whether we are a boy or a girl. For girls, physical appearance is very important at an early age. Boys, however, are taught to be tough and independent. Studies have shown that parents talk more to girls when they are infants and respond more quickly when they cry. Boys are often held, rocked, and kissed more as infants, but by the age of six months are encouraged to be strong and independent. They are taught that they should never behave like a girl, and so they try their best to maintain a masculine image.
In schools, gender role expectations influence students’ abilities in certain subjects. Because boys are expected to perform better in math, they are called on more often, receive more corrective feedback, and are given more encouragement from math teachers. Also in schools, boys and girls learn that men usually work in positions of authority, which reinforces the idea that boys should be leaders and that women are naturally subordinate.
Regardless of whether gender is biologically or socially determined, what we do know is that society assigns certain values to gender roles. Masculine behaviors are more often rewarded, so much so that it is usually okay if a woman does not conform completely to gender expectations. However, if a boy behaves like a girl, he is strongly encouraged to change his behavior. Tasks that are traditionally performed by women are also devalued in our society. Jobs involving caretaking, childrearing, or domestic work are the lowest paying jobs today. However, jobs dominated by men (engineer, lawyer, scientist) are usually the highest paying.