119 Chapter 4 How Do We Learn Gender?


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How Do We Learn Gender?

Gender and Socialization

What’s the very first thing you remember? How old were you and what were you doing? Can you remember what you were wearing or who you were with? Is gender an important part of your first memory? Did it matter that you were a little boy or a little girl, or do you think that, at that point, you were aware of yourself as a boy or girl—as a gendered human being? Can you remember the first time you thought of yourself as having a gender? Can you remember the first time someone treated you in a way that was obviously related to your gender? Do you remember a time when you didn’t understand what gender was and couldn’t necessarily tell the gender of the people around you? What was the gender makeup of your friends in childhood? In adolescence? Today? What kinds of games did you play on the playground, and were there gender differences in those spaces? Can you remember little boys or little girls who didn’t seem to hang out with others of the same gender or didn’t always act in ways appropriate to their gender? How did other kids and adults treat those children? Were you a “sissy” or a “tom-boy,” or did you know other kids who were? What was the gender of the adults in your life when you were younger, and how did that affect your interactions with them? What lessons did grown-ups seem to teach you about gender? What are other ways in which you learned about gender as a child? Has the shape and form that gender takes in your life changed over the course of your life? Is being masculine different when you’re 13 as compared to when you’re 22? What about when you’re 40, and then 65? Does gender become more or less important throughout the course of your own life? Is there ever a time when you get to stop being gendered?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll explore in our examination of how we learn gen­der, or what sociologists call gender socialization. Socialization is a fundamental concept for sociologists in general, and it is defined as the ways in which we learn to become a member of any group, including the very large group we call humanity. The process of socialization begins the moment we are born and continues throughout our lives to the very end, as we constantly learn how to successfully belong to new groups or adjust to changes in the groups to which we already belong. It’s not surprising given the importance of socialization to sociology as a whole that gender socialization is a good place to start in our examination of how gender matters in our everyday lives. In looking at gender


socialization, we go back to our very beginnings, to the very moment when we were born. But we also consider all the moments since then, and throughout a person’s life. There are many different theories of exactly how gender socialization occurs, each with its own unique perspective on exactly what gender socialization is and how it happens. Nonetheless, we can formulate a general definition of gender socialization as the process through which indi­viduals learn the gender norms of their society and come to develop an internal gender identity. This definition contains two other terms with which we should also become famil­iar, gender norms and gender identity. Gender norms are the sets of rules for what is appro­priate masculine and feminine behavior in a given culture. In the sex role theory we discussed in Chapter 2, collections of gender norms are what make up a sex role, a set of expectations about how someone labeled a man or someone labeled a woman should behave. The way in which being feminine or masculine, a woman or a man, becomes an internalized part of the way we think about ourselves is our gender identity. You might think of gender identity as a way of describing how gender becomes internal—something that becomes an integral part of who we are, a part that many of us would be reluctant to completely abandon. The concept of gender identity is therefore consistent with an indi­vidual approach to gender, focusing on how gender operates from the inside (gender identity) out. Gender socialization begins in all societies from the very moment we are born, but in most societies, gender socialization presumes the ability to look at a new infant and give it a sex. In contemporary Anglo-European society, this means to put an infant into one of two categories, male or female. But before we discuss different ways of thinking about gender socialization as well as explore how this process takes place throughout our lives, let’s begin with the first step of deciding who’s male, who’s female, and who’s something else entirely.


Thinking about gender socialization involves thinking about how people began to treat you as a boy or a girl from the very moment you were born. But how would people respond to a baby that is not clearly a boy or a girl? What color would parents use to decorate the baby’s room, and what name would they choose? How would they talk about such a baby when gender is built into the very structure of our language (he/she, his/her)? What kind of toys would relatives and friends give to such a baby, and what would this child do when pre­school teachers first instructed the children to form two lines, one for boys and one for girls? Even worse, which locker room would this child go to and what would happen in the already anxious and insecure world of the locker room? These may seem like hypothetical ques­tions, but they lie at the core of an ongoing controversy about the very real cases of inter-sexed children—individuals who for a variety of reasons do not fit into the contemporary Anglo-European biological sex categories of male and female. These individuals are impor­tant to our discussions of gender socialization because they provide us with insight into a very good sociological question: How can we tell if a baby is male or female? This is a good sociological question because at first glance, it seems like a pretty stupid question. Even a child knows the answer to that question, although you might get some interesting responses depending on the age and upbringing if you try asking some children how you can tell the

CHAPTER 4 How Do We Learn Gender? 121

difference between boys and girls. Still, many people would find it a stupid question because it seems to have a rather obvious answer. But sociology as a discipline is good at taking the stupid questions and making them a little bit more complicated than they first appear.

So let’s explore this stupid question that will take us into some interesting anatomical ter­ritory. When a baby is born, how do we tell if it’s male or female? Let’s start with a case from the United States. Here, with our overall affluence and the availability of the latest medical technology, we assume that many couples can tell even before a baby is born whether it’s a boy or a girl. What is it we’re looking for in the grainy picture from the ultrasound in which babies often hardly resemble a human, let alone a boy or girl? The presence or absence of a penis. This is the same thing doctors are looking for when a baby is born. If the baby has a penis, clearly he’s a boy. If the baby lacks a penis, clearly she’s a girl (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Case closed. But here’s another stupid question. How do you tell the difference between a penis, which we clearly think of as a part of male anatomy, and a clitoris, which is clearly something that only females have? You may think we’ve really gone off the deep end here, but would you be surprised to know that doctors and medical researchers have a very precise answer to that question? A baby has a penis if his genitalia are longer than 2.5 centimeters. A baby has a clitoris if her genitalia are shorter than 1.0 centimeters. Penises in males and clitorises in females develop from the same, undifferentiated organ in embryos, called a genital tubercle. So both organs have a common origin. What’s important at birth in places like the United States is the length those organs have reached, and the existence of specific criteria for doctors tells us that the difference between those two organs is not as obvious as we might have initially assumed. And if you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that there’s an ambiguous space between 1.0 and 2.5 centimeters. What happens to these infants?

External genitalia are one way we believe we can tell the difference between males and females, but when infants are born with ambiguous genitalia, doctors and other medical professionals move onto other markers of biological sex. The length of an infant’s clitoris/ penis is not the only way in which ambiguous genitalia can occur at birth. There are cases of intersexed individuals who are born with both a penis (or enlarged clitoris, depending on your point of view) and a vagina. In all these cases of ambiguous external genitalia, doctors begin to investigate other indicators of biological sex, including the presence or absence of internal sex organs. They look for testes as indicators of maleness and ovaries and a uterus as indicators of femaleness. But this too can be a problematic way of determining biological sex. Intersexed infants can have a testis (male organ) on one side of their body and an ovary (female organ) on the other side. In other cases, the ovary and testes grow together into one organ that is indistinguishable as either an ovary or a testis and is therefore called an ovo­testis (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). In these cases, internal sex organs do not provide any easier answer to the question of the infant’s biological sex than do external anatomy.

In the not so distant past, this may have been the scientific and technological limit of our ability to distinguish between males and females. But in a basic biology course at some point, you probably learned that there is also a genetic difference between males and females. Females are marked by a pair of XX chromosomes, while males are marked by XY chromosomes. Genetics, then, should surely be able to definitively solve the problem of determining biological sex. But unfortunately, even at the chromosomal level, things are not so black and white. In general, females are XX and males are XY, but some individuals can be XO, which means they lack a second chromosome (usually a second X chromo­some). In the case of Klinefelter syndrome, individuals have an extra X chromosome,


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