From birth, humans learn, act out and experience their gendered identities. The society's concepts of femininity and masculinity form a person's relationship to his/her body and the bodies of other individuals. The issue of gender is also an aspect of prevailing norms of inequality and oppression. Discrimination based on appearances continues to be a common occurrence.
For example, feminists and philosophers, such as Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex question, "what is a woman?" (in Ashton-Jones101). She dislikes the traditional explanation of "woman is a womb," but recognizes that throughout history woman has been defined as "the Other" of man: "Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him." (in Ashton-Jones 102). In other words, man is the absolute being and woman takes on all of the negative bodily, mortal and irrational aspects that he prefers not to find in himself.
As an existentialist, Beauvoir theorized that there is no pre-given human nature nor, more specifically, innate female nature. Women must advance from their societal designated roles as "women," not just for the benefit of themselves, but also for the betterment of all society. As long as males and females are given different roles and there is a clear distinction between men and women values, everyone becomes ensnared by gender roles. Such thoughts as those by de Beauvoir's opened up the door to further debate and questioning.
Feminist author and theorist Judith Butler notes that:
as much as the radical distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the de Beauvorian version of feminism, it has come under criticism in more recent years for degrading the natural as that which is 'before' intelligibility, in need of the mark, if not the mark, of the social to signify, to be known, to acquire value.
This, Butler adds, misses the point that nature has more than a social history and that sex is positioned ambiguously relative to this concept and its history (In Ashton-Jones 533).
Like de Beauvoir, Butler says that woman is much more than "womb." Women should not be identified in terms of their sex. If, for instance, one defines females as only those who are capable of giving birth, what about the large number of women who are incapable or do not desire to have children?
She instead argues that images of the body, sex and gender are culturally constructed phenomena instead of a matter of anatomy, physiology or biochemistry. She questions the consideration that certain gendered behaviors are natural, demonstrating the ways that an individual's learned performance of gendered behavior, or that which is usually associated with the feminine and masculine, is a performance placed upon males and females by heterosexuality norms. She criticizes conventional feminists for continuing to exist within the structure of a male/female system of duality or binaries and attests that gender must be thought of as a fluid identity. The reality is never specifically male or female. Instead, it is in a state of movement and transition, with identity always socially defined and context based.
Butler forces readers to question the either/or dichotomy between material and discursive/constructive accounts of the body and its sex. She asks if language can simply refer to materiality, or is it also the very condition under which materiality may be said to appear?" She further states that materiality designates a certain effect of power or, rather, is power in its formative or constitutive effects. In other words, Butler's main idea is that gender is a social deception. The concept of what women and men actually are reflects nothing that subsists perpetually in nature. Instead they derive from customs that embed social relations of power.
This idea is similar to one much earlier by John Stuart Mill in Subjection of Women who noted " ... Whatever gratification of pride there is in the possession of power, and whatever personal interest in its exercise, is in this case not confined to a limited class, but common to the whole male sex" (In Ashton-Jones 199). He notes that ideas about the nature of women come from and build up hierarchies of power. Womanliness is developed to be whatever serves the cause of keeping women in subjection, or, to enslave their minds. With the family as with feudalism, the rhetoric of nature itself serves the cause of slavery. "The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.... But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?"
Boys are born and raised to believe, says Mill, that they are different and better than the female equivalent:
Think what it is to be a boy, to grow up to manhood in the belief that without any merit or any exertion of his own, though he may be the most frivolous and empty or the most ignorant and stolid of mankind, by the mere fact of being born a male he is by right the superior of all and every one of an entire half of the human race ... " (Ashton-Jones 207).
So what can be done about such one-sided notions about women? Butler argues that perceptions about gender roles must be changed in order to eliminate sexual inequality. She believes if society deconstructs the way it perceives gender roles, this perhaps may lead to transformations in political culture and better the situation for women. That is, if traditional roles and responsibilities no longer exist for males or females, it would become typical for a woman to be in a position of power at her place of employment and for a man to remain at home and assume responsibility for the children and household. Eventually, perhaps, the conventional patriarchal society that has always existed would change to one that is indeed on par for everyone. There would be no clear distinctions, but rather a spectrum.
Indeed, in this 21st century, there is supposed to be more liberal ideas and women are to be seen equally on par as a gender. Is this the case? Has the separation between men and women become less? Are women more able to be themselves and happy with their body as it is? Not if one considers what is happening in "the social skin."
For example, Carla Rice and Vanessa Russell in their book Embodying Equity discuss body image as an equity issue. They say that in Western society, the growing disparity between actual body sizes and the cultural standard leads many women to feel they have failed. Such feelings of failure lead to being dissatisfied and having a preoccupation with their weight and dieting. This has brought about an increasing prevalence of anorexia and bulimia (17), which was virtually unknown until the last three decades. Children, especially girls, learn very early that fat is bad. Girls bodies are supposed to be beautiful, while boys' bodies are to be developed and strong (20).
Meanwhile, adds Susan Bordo, in "Material Girl," (In Lancaster 335), "cultural plastic" is now permeating society. "In place of God the watchmaker, we now have ourselves, the master sculptors of that plastic." Medial science has formed a new category of "polysurgical addicts" or "scalpel slaves," who have operation after operation for the search of the perfect body. Tanning, cosmetics, hair dye, tattoos, all are believed to help transform the body into what it should appear to be. Further, the Anglo-look continues to be revered, despite the fact that magazines such as Essence for black women hope to promote the opposite. The magazine fights an uphill battle against the advertisers who continually perpetuate racial stereotypes, with white culture still winning the prizes.
However, in the chapter, "Selling Hot Pussy," bell hooks is more optimistic about the black woman's image. Despite numerous characterizations and stereotypes of black women in earlier and modern-day films and literature, the authors report there are some recent movies that explore issues of black female sexuality to disrupt conventional misrepresentations. The short film Dreaming Rivers by the British black film group Sankofa highlights the autonomous sexual identity of a mature black woman that exists apart from her role as mother and caregiver.
Passion of Remembrance also includes new representations as two black Lesbians dance erotically and see each other with delight and pleasure. Similarly, films by black women directors such as Losing Ground portray female sexuality in a fresh and exciting way. The camera focuses on the two black women's skin texture, body shapes and erotic energy that is powerful in its full spectrum of sexuality (75-75).
What will the future bring, then, with gender and body? It is the hope of feminist writers such as Bordo that the consequences of such plastic culture eventually be seen as negative societal influences. As Bordo concludes, "What the body does is immaterial, so long as the imagination is free. This abstract, unsituated, disembodied freedom ... glorifies itself only through the effacement of the material praxis of people's…