When we think of today’s times and all the norms that we have to adhere to, we usually end up asking ourselves what really the point of all these acts we put on and put up with is. Questions arise about the creation of those peremptory norms and their creator itself, and eventually about the culture which seems to be set into stone. Particular gender norms have been strictly associated with the binary biological sexes. They tend to be patriarchal, that is, mainly from the male point of view often to the detriment of others. As we dissect those expectations, we come to understand that gender is actually detached from our body. We are not born with a gender. Indeed, we are born with a biological sex, and it is only later, when we open ourselves to the world, that is when we find out that we are meant to behave a certain way. Rubies are meant for girls and sapphires are meant for boys. As Simone de Beauvoir rightly said, “one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.”
Body and Soul
How do we understand our bodies? They are not mere flesh, bone and blood. We could consider them as a medium carrying our soul. We all are royalty, and our bodies are the royal carriages. We all have that unique carriage; it is first constructed by the divine to be equipped with the prerequisite nervous system and limbs, and it is further decorated by us humans as we cater for our taste. Our body is the outer representation of our inner self. It then seems only logical for our bodies to be “decorated” the way we would like to. We however do not have that free choice; many of our choices are dictated by culture and society. How others would want me to behave should be utterly irrelevant, especially since it does not affect them in any way.
Gender norms are a result of historical ideas whose sole purpose is to be able to distinctly differentiate between who can bear a child and who cannot. One is meant to conform to the norms attributed to one’s sex in order to get that cultural validation from our society. Our bodies are no longer considered to be our individual and unique bodies. Conformity is required for that stamp from society. We have to trim emotions, gestures and dress codes and be no longer made of pure gold. It is more of a coercion then.
The culture and society we live in tend to strip our individuality and autonomy away from us. We have nearly become unaware of the existence of our agency, precisely because we were never allowed to own it in the first place. Right when we are born, the norms are imposed unto us. It nearly feels like we are born into an emotionlessly dramatic movie. Like Judith Butler explains in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”, we are born with a pre-written script and we are only meant to perform. It obviously sounds easy since that script does not even consider our inner self, our emotions and feelings. Being a man or a woman is defined by society; one has to fulfil a list of criteria to be able to identify as an “ideal” man or woman. These restrictions and norms are enforced in society through rewards and punishment. The most likely outcome of one changing gender acts is ostracization from society or from peer groups. One is, if not physically, mentally and emotionally coerced to be a certain way to fit in. Friendship and a sense of belonging are what we consider important for our happiness in life, as per John Finnis, who non-exhaustively listed these as part of our basic good. It would otherwise be a solitary life. Being part of a community is what allows us to be our social selves and society to function in togetherness despite differences in beliefs and fluctuations of gender.
Many social expectations, like the restriction of women in various fields and “real men” being incapable of emotion, have led to debates and fights over basic rights and emotions. It should have gone unsaid that women can simultaneously have a professional career and personal life, and that men can cry. However, campaigns had to be created to fight for these and break down these normative systems. Gender roles have been rehearsed so much than we as actors are now failing to perform at all.
Gender also has to be understood separately; it is subjective and not exactly what we can portray accurately through gender performances. It is popularly believed that men have to be fully and only masculine and women need to possess only all the feminine traits that we have come up with. That is plainly just not true. We all have different levels of masculinity and femininity. It is a blend of energies to produce that unique mix which is your inner self. Some men may be more in touch with their feminine energies while some women may be more in touch with their masculine side. Once we digest that reality, the rigidity of gender performances and expectations will loosen for the better.
Beyond the Boundaries
As the balances start to capsize, society and people who identify as perfectly masculine or feminine refuse to comprehend the gender spectrum that exists in between. It has become a lot more toxic and oppressive today. Some people who decide to break the performance boundaries are usually met with anger and disapproval. Drag performances are an excellent example. The latter aims to break apart that rigid distinction made between our outer bodies and our inner selves. They are exaggerated performances of the opposite extreme of the gender norms associated with their bodies. As a result, if a woman performs in drag, she is extending her inner masculinity to the outer exaggerated representation on her body. What this does is disrupt the social order that the public would like to maintain – an order where the man is masculine and the woman feminine.
An audience’s reaction to real-life and on-stage performances are starkly different. People may go to drag performances and complain to express their disdain. At most, they may refuse to attend a performance or boycott a film. However, in real life, if a man is seen sporting the stereotypical attributed feminine traits, for example, wearing pink and having long hair, there are more chances that he is discriminated against, and openly, if not physically, at least verbally abused. Male actors on-screen are required to wear make-up, and that usually gets extended to their real life. Today, despite the hypocrisy, whether it is for public events or to stay longer in the industry, cosmetic surgeries and make-up are the norm. However, unless one is known as a star, a man today cannot really entertain wearing make-up. After all, the only purpose of make-up is to better define one’s facial features and to feel better in one’s skin. Wearing make-up does in no way change your sex. Accessories, like jewellery and high heels, also tend to create polarising expectations. In the Elizabethan age, men were the ones who would wear heels. The latter was a symbol of status and masculinity. Similarly, jewels often denoted one’s power or were worn to one’s heart content. Today however, these are strictly reserved for women and represent female sexuality. The higher and skinnier the heel, the more feminine she is. This shift from one binary gender to the other shows the fluctuating perception of norms and mindset of the society from that age to today’s. What is striking however is that the change in allocations were readily accepted for the strengthening of an idea of masculinity and femininity.
Women are supposed to be the embodiment of femininity and be polite, docile and homemakers. On the other hand, men are expected to symbolise perfect masculinity; they are meant to not feel emotion, to react aggressively and to be strong enough to protect. Physical strength is still today only a man’s forte, and emotional strength, a woman’s. Norms also create unrealistic beauty standards; body hair is considered a disservice to femininity while being skinny is not what a macho man should be. These allocations of characteristics to the binary genders are what have led to toxic masculinity and misogyny, and thereafter a whole series of crises we are tackling right now. These norms have not come out of nowhere; it is through a consistent behaviour in a patriarchal society that these norms have been entrenched in our life education. One is born a mere human. It is this normative construction that leads us as a community to identify who is a woman and who is a man. Of course, some behaviours and choices come naturally to one. It is the imposition of norms on one just because of one’s biological sex that creates conflicts. Once one starts to interchange gender norms and decorate oneself according to one’s preferences, all that gets thrown one’s way are objectionable gazes and threats of alienation. It is only through a deconstruction of our society that we will be able to discern the preposterousness of gender norms and stereotypes.
- ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Judith Butler
- ‘Excerpt from Gender Trouble’, Judith Butler
- Why did men stop wearing high heels?’, William Kremer, BBC