Importance of Gender in the Construction of Identity Term Paper

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Gender and Identity

Perhaps the most important question facing any human, be they male or female, is that of the discovery of their own identity. The majority of child development theories, from Freud onward, have dealt with the way in which children must learn to disengage their own identity from that of their parents (mothers in particular) and discover who they are as adults. Yet this process is far from over when one reaches physical maturity, and one may even see many other psychological theories, from Maslow to the existentialists, as exploring the stages through which one continues to define one's true identity as distinct not only from one's parents but also from one's biological and social circumstances. It is somewhat ironic that the word identity which was originally used to note categories of same-ness and unity (Connell 2002) is now so vitally bound up with defining distinctness. At the risk of making a rather sweeping generalization, it may not be inappropriate to say that the search for individual identity is one of the hallmarks of modern Western civilization. In the quest for individual identity, which has become increasingly politicized and psychologically centralized as wider social or class-based unities have decayed, one's individual identification becomes a new basis for political and social activism. (Connell 2002)

That identity is so important to the human experience, and that it is in a constant state of development and evolution, should make apparent that it is bound to be affected by all those facts of life which act upon the experience of the individual. Hence, it is almost inevitable that the physical experience of one's biological sex should have an impact on the formation of identity. This impact is both channelled and controlled by the social meanings attached to sex -- which is to say, by one's gender. Gender is defined as "the culturally learnt [or defined] characteristics of what it means to be male or female," (Kidd 2002, 177) These cultural definitions of the meaning of one's sex may subtly or blatantly manipulate the development of identity. Once upon a time the influence of biological sex may have been unmistakable, dictating everything about one's life from career path to childhood wardrobe. In Australia in the 1950s, for example, "Little girls wore dresses, skirts, pinafores, and ribbons in their hair. Little boys wore shorts, summer, and winter..." (Richmond 1997, 253) Today, thanks to the women's liberation movements, the impact is less obvious if (perhaps) no less pervasive. Nonetheless, as Bessant and Watts point out, "Sex and Gender are central to our self understanding... prominent parts of our daily lives." (1999, 3) For this reason, entire fields of sociology and psychology have arisen to address the question of gender's impact and influence over individual identity, and how this shapes society.

Three main theories dominate the field, each with many facets and even occasionally overlapping claims: that of the existentialist who claims that biological sex contributes specific and perhaps universal elements to identity formation, that of the socializationist who claims that it is society which forces gender upon the identity of the individual, and that of the post-modernist position which --in its purest form-- denies that in the face of human freedom there can be a coherent and consistent meaning either to gender or to group identification. Each of these theories has great strengths and weaknesses for the interpretation of gender and identity -- yet the strongest theory would surely form some synthesis between them. It seems that the strongest possible theory of gender and identity would not claim a single source or truth about identity, but rather take a sensible middle ground: that biology and socialization create gendered forms around which individual identities are shaped, in a complex interplay of negation and acceptance which may not only take an infinite number of shapes, but may also warp biology and society itself so as to create myriad variations on their themes.

The Theories

Essentialism is considered to be one of the oldest of the sociological/psychological theories regarding the relationship between identity and gender. This theory suggests that humans are innately male and female not just in terms of their bodies but also in terms of their behavior, natural roles, and identity. As Bessant and Watts explain it: "Biological determinists believe that biology shapes human behavior and identity in ways that do not very and which are universal. For example, the fact that men have testicles and a penis or are muscular is used to argue that all men are strong, competitive, tough, hunter-gatherers, aggressive, intellectually rational and emotionally stupid." (1999, 3) This theory has been largely responsible both for sexist theories which proclaim men are inherently more qualified in certain areas, or that women are inherently weak physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Yet essentialism has also been used to defend the value, and even superiority, of women. For example, Wearing reports how the feminist thinker Lloyd defended essentialism by making "a case for the retention of a concept of difference based on male and female bodies." (1996, 46) Lloyd apparently claimed that essentialism was necessary to encompass the unique and life-shaping experiences of the female sex, such as menarche, childbirth, or menopause. Since truly biological men are forbidden these experiences, and since the majority of women share many of the same physical experiences (from similarities in sexual experiences to similarities in hormones and cycles), she argues that a true feminist perspective will demand recognition and honor for uniquely female experiences and viewpoints. So essentialism can be either very sexist and proclaim one gender superior to the other, or it can be more egalitarian and demand that they are separate but equal. In either case, however, essentialism makes generalizations about groups of people based on their biological sex, which may or may not be accurate. The basic claim, regarding identity, of the essentials is that however one may codify or obscure it, that part of the individual identity which is gendered has been determined at birth, and all attempts to redefine it are at least partly artificial.

Socialization, as a theory, suggests that identity is not formed by what body an individual was born into, but by what experiences that individual had as they were being raised to adulthood. Men and women are both human, the social-formist would argue, and their soul is essentially the same in either case -- the differences between them which are not obviously physical and genital are caused not by nature but by nurture. There is some evidence for this stance, as men and women in different cultures have been expected on occasion to play different roles and have risen to those opportunities in a way that did not imply some biological imperative to do otherwise. For example, "Margaret Mead's study... In three different communities demonstrated that not all men are strong, tough breadwinners; not are all women soft, caring, passive, and nurturing." (Bessant & Watts 1999, 5) However, socialization theory goes beyond the suggestion that there are exceptions to the biological rules, and rather suggests that "although male and female bodies are different, this bodily difference can be transcended by a sexless soul to which we are all aspiring." (Wearing 1996, 46) This sexless soul exists at birth, and is warped into taking on a sex role as it ages. There are a number of ways in which this warping occurs, from parental guidance or even punishment of sex-role transgression to the systematic pressures of a patriarchal society which prepare girls for poorer economic and academic outcome. As late as 1984 (one of the most recent field studies on this topic), researchers found that "the quality of girls' and boys' education still differed in terms of teachers' time. Boys got not only more time, but more resources..." (Richmond 1997, 259) Girls and boys alike are, according to this theory, trained from birth to take on traditional gender roles -- they are given gender specific messages by their entertainment, their families, their schools, and eventually their peers, lovers, and employers. Society rewards those who conform and punishes those who do not, until gender conformity is so engrained in the human nature that it is self-enforcing. In short, this socialization theory suggests that to some degree society imposes particular gender roles on people, and in this way has a hand in defining their identity.

Postmodernists, and many of those who consider themselves "postfeminist" argue against both essentialism and socialization-theory, in defense of the idea that the free will and the inconsistency of humans is such that it renders rigid, dichotomous ideas such as gender functionally obsolete. They speak of "multiple" masculinities and feminities, (Connell 2002) which are construed as a myriad of different ways in which an individual can embody their particular gender. For example, a man may be gendered as masculine by being aggressive and unemotional (as in most action movies) -- or he may be equally masculine by being extremely gentle, giving, and romantic (as in some romantic movies and dramas). Equally,…

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