Modern Morality: Gender


Photo by Kristine Cho

Kristine Cho

In today’s politically contentious world, it almost seems like everything is a political issue now, but in the case of feminism, discussion in this country surrounding rights and disenfranchisement date back to it’s very founding.
The second First Lady, Abigail Adams, is noted to have written her husband to “remember the ladies” when he attended the formative constitutional conventions. This centuries-long struggle is one that is rooted in some of the most fundamental of ideas that have shaped societies all around the globe: gender. Many prominent names in philosophy, like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir have tackled the issue of how our conceptions of gender came to be, how it impacts our lives and what that means for politics and power.
Judith Butler famously pioneered the idea of gender performativity, an account of gender that focuses on the actions we take in order to be understood and humanized within the confines of what is expected of us. This has made its way into queer issues, as according to Butler, women are expected (by current power structures) to be feminine people with an attraction to men, while men are to be vice versa. When a person’s actions, or “performance”, strays outside those lines, they take on an “unintelligible” gender, a presentation of identity that is so outside common or normative expectations that it becomes dehumanized.
As such, when a person expresses attraction for someone of the same gender, or they express that they are transgender, their existence becomes, in essence, unintelligible. From this, Butler says, is where societal coercion of traditional roles originates.
This is seen in different policies like “religious freedom” bills that legalize the discrimination of same-sex couples or the increasingly common “bathroom” bills that prevent transgender peoples from using facilities that align with the gender they identify with.
In many ways, as Butler points out, gender is so much more than what is “in someone’s pants.” It’s the way we dress, speak, walk, carry ourselves and the way we interact. Even within the act of challenging gender roles, there’s a performative aspect that still maintains the declaration of “I am a woman” or “I am a man.” The social constructs that exist around identities are practically inescapable, but recognizing them is the first step to reaching discourse about this elemental aspect of our world.