The Significance of Gender as it Relates to the “Human Experience”

Written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The significance and relevance of gender today, along with ‘biological’ sex, is hotly contested in progressive gender theorist circles. The impact of transgender and intersex people and their own lived experiences on the discourse around gender has meant that the various constructions of gender is now significantly more obvious, and the discourse in some spheres is becoming more critical.

Specifically, the significance in using gender to relate some overall “human experience” is doubted. Do women have all that many shared experiences with men? How about people who exist outside the gender binary, do they really use their gender to relate to others within the binary? Instead, gender’s significance relies on shared experiences within shared gender – women both cis and trans can relate to each other via the shared experiences that come with being a woman.  For some this becomes somewhat of a loop – the affirmation shared experiences bring to one’s gender identity further shapes and socialises that identity, which may then lead to further shared experiences.

These shared experiences manage to highlight the construction of gendered identity when we look at toddlers. Before a certain age, and before the part of Western gender that segregates boys and girls is socialised into our young, infant children are happy to play with each other regardless of gender. But the more salient interaction our children have with the outside world, with their parents (who more often than not will reinforce rather than challenge constructed norms), and with other children, the more this constructed identity forms according to the way our binary world works, and they will no longer be as willing to play with other genders – as exemplified in Michael Messner’s “Barbie Girls and Sea Monsters”.[1]

Gender is also useful in relating to those who have perhaps similar but not shared experiences, and understanding different cultures, ways of life, and of doing gender. For example, Susanna Trinka’s lecture on women in Morocco and the Czech Republic exemplified ways in which women in other parts of the world have different attitudes towards womanhood and what “liberation” is – the women of Morocco follow what we would view in Western feminist theory as liberation, that is: women moving from private space into public space, and occupying typically masculine spaces. However, the women in the Czech spoke highly of domestic space and found being in that space liberating after being workers under communism – an ideal that is contentious within Western feminist theory.[2] However at no point is our understanding of these women as women challenged, and both examples are relatively easily understood – we use our experiences as women in the West (ie typically regarded as domestic, idealised as either the mother, the virgin, or the whore, et cetera) to understand similar but different experiences in Morocco (previously regarded as domestic, but being encouraged by the government to become more public, more educated, become workers) and the Czech Republic (valued as nominally equal to men, value placed on work over domestic life).

These similar but not shared experiences are also the basis of many communities of transgender people – trans women, trans men, and other nonbinary identities, while not sharing gendered experiences, do share experiences related to how the norm of Western gender erases them. It is around the understanding of these experiences – things like the feeling of dysphoria, dealing with the medical system, operating within a system of gender that often does not want to accept them in the same way it accepts cisgender people – that community is formed.

It is in these ways that gender is significant – not in forming some common identity or understanding relevant to an overarching “human experience,” but in connecting with those who are in some way alike, regardless of how they may be different in other ways.

 

[1] Michael A. Messner, “Barbie Girls and Sea Monsters”, Gender and Society 14, no. 6 (2000): 767-769

[2] Susanna Trinka, “Gender and the Politics of Space”, (lecture, WOMEN 101, University of Auckland, August 5, 2014)

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