Creating Gender: Tracing Beliefs About Femininity


Is gender a reflection of nature or has gender become naturalized?

In the 2010 review publication “Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences,” Rebecca M. Jordan-Young presents examples of changes in popular and scientific views about what it means to be female. Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Barnard College says that, contrary to popular belief, today’s ideas on feminine behavior are not “common sense,” and are not biological. These concepts have changed over time and across cultures; ideas about what makes “femaleness” reflect society.

A widely accepted idea of today is that men have a greater sexual drive than women. But not too long ago, in the Renaissance Era, the popular belief of the day in Western Europe was the complete opposite. Women were believed to be the sexually insatiable gender, while men were more able to control their desires. In fact, a man who slept with many women was considered effeminate. Such a man was lacking in basic “manly” self-control. The idea that the desire for many partners and sexual encounters is essential to masculine biology is anything but accurate.

On the career and education front, considerable changes have taken place in the past few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was believed that women were not “temperamentally” equipped for careers such as law, medicine, and dentistry. These careers involved a level of “systematizing” that women were not biologically suited for.

Statistics at the time reinforced popular belief — in 1960, 2 percent of all law degrees in the United States were awarded to women and only 1 percent of dental degrees were conferred to women. In about 40 years, these figures rose to 42 percent and 34 percent respectively, and are continuing to rise. To younger people this data is probably unremarkable, but less than a generation before, no one would have predicted these changes.

Gender stereotyping begins early, if “baby X studies” are any indication. “Baby X studies” refers to research that involves creatively manipulating the perceived sex of infants or toddlers to analyze how observers react to the children when they are labeled as “male” or “female”.

One of the best known studies involves the showing of a short film of a baby reacting to kinds of toys. The research found that when the baby was labeled as a “boy” viewers of the film saw his reactions as displaying pleasure or anger, where the “girl” was seen as displaying fear. The film involved only one baby and all viewers of the film saw the same clips — the only difference was that some viewers were told the baby was male and others were told the baby was female. Other baby X studies had similar findings; “girls” were believed to be expressing more fear or inhibition than “boys.”

“Brainstorm” poses an interesting question — does perceived gender influence what a person is believed to be capable of and what their personality is like? Is gender a reflection of biology or a reflection of society?

See also:

6 thoughts on “Creating Gender: Tracing Beliefs About Femininity

  1. Gender is a social construct (ha! I bet you knew I’d say this). Some of it- and we are still unsure what bit- is a reflection of biology (person’s sex). But most of it is socially constructed. There are no more doubts about it.

    You can see this in various cultural differences: men in other cultures don’t necessarily behave the way men in our culture do. However, since most of the cultures are patrilinear (and men have more power), most of the cultures have dominant males and submissive women as their ideals.

    Little boys cry as much as little girls. But even if they’re 2 or 3, they’re constantly being told to man up and stop behaving like a girl. (at least that’s how it’s in my culture). Little girls are being told how nice and pretty they are- much more than how smart they are. By the time you’re 4 or 5, you are already determined by your culture’s idea of your gender. It’s impossible to tell where nature stops and nurture begins, but I’d say it’s mostly about the nurture. I was socialized a bit differently and I don’t display many “female traits”, though I do display some. (and that’s just one example)

  2. Mira,

    “Gender is a social construct (ha! I bet you knew I’d say this).”

    Yup. 🙂

    “You can see this in various cultural differences: men in other cultures don’t necessarily behave the way men in our culture do.”

    True. The book used an example of the color pink. In the U.S. and other Western societies, the color pink is deemed a “feminine” color (although it hasn’t always been that way). Yet in many other cultures, men wear pink as often, or even more than women do.

    “By the time you’re 4 or 5, you are already determined by your culture’s idea of your gender.”

    Exactly. That’s why studies that try to figure out what is biologically “determined” in regards to gender tend to miss the mark. They test on young people, but even toddlers are already socialized in ways (given certain toys, praised/scolded for certain behaviors, etc).

  3. Yes, it’s difficult to determine those things. Even if you can do it for one year old child, it doesn’t say much, imo, about grown up people. And there’s no way you can tell which part is determined by biology.

  4. There have been a few studies on infants. There was one that tried to determine if women are biologically more people-oriented while men are more system-oriented by testing on, get this… infants who were one day old.

    The basic method they used was providing a hanging mobile and a face for the newborns to look at. If the infant looked at the face longer, they were more people-oriented. If they looked at the hanging mobile longer, they were more system-oriented. They concluded that women are naturally people-inclined, even though nearly half of the female newborns showed no preference for either the mobile or face. Lol.

  5. Interesting post. I like the part about Baby X studies. Gender is probably a balance of nature and nurture.

  6. Hi Natasha 😀

    “Gender is probably a balance of nature and nurture.”

    That’s what most of the studies seem to suggest (if not explicitly). Or at least gender, as a part from biological sex, is an influence of both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s