Gender is socially constructed and can be shaped and altered in various ways. With examples, explain the consequences for our view of men and women’s identities.
This essay will be exploring the creation of the male and female identity created through a social construction. It will begin with a brief look at a theory that opposes the social constructivist approach. The essay will then go onto explain the two main perceptions of a male and females’ identity and will then highlight the consequences of this perceived identity in society.
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In order to understand the social construction of gender we have to look at why some sociologists disagree with this statement and believe that gender is biological. One of the most influential approaches has been functionalism. Giddens (2013 p.652) argues that ‘they see society as a system of interlinked parts which when in balance, there can be social solidarity’. This means that society runs smoother if there is a division of labour between both genders. Giddens argues that ‘women and men perform those tasks for which they are biologically suited’. This shows a strong position towards an essentialist approach- where human nature is fixed and men and women are controlled by their biology (Giddens,2013, p.633)
One big contributor to the nuclear family style family type was Talcott Parsons. He believed in the ‘clear-cut sexual division of labour in which females act in expressive roles (providing care and security to children and emotional support) whereas the men should perform instrumental roles (being the breadwinner in the family)’ (Giddens,2013, p.652). Overall these divisions would evoke social solidarity of the family. Feminists have criticised Functionalists as they claim, ‘there is nothing natural or inevitable about the allocation of tasks in society’ (Giddens,2013, p.652).
As above has explained about the biological argument of gender, some sociologists have further called for gender to be a social construction which is a group of cultural behaviours which are created from social interactions and thus can vary from your location and time (Giddens and Sutton,2013, p.634). This means that many sociologists believe that gender is not a fixed entity, but it is a moving concept that adapts through time. The masculine and feminine idea below is explained through a social constructivist approach rather than biological.
Stereotypically within society, men are portrayed to be big and strong who don’t falter to pain and emotion. Connell (2005, p. 829-859) coins the term hegemonic masculinity which is the dominance of men in society through their behaviour and is characterised by excessive heterosexuality and being in a marriage. Many examples of men who empower a hegemonic masculinity would be Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All three of these men according to Connell exhibit a high sense of ‘dominance, brute strength and work for their pay’ which are the norms of being the ideal man in society. As a result, these types of portrayals of men are shown to be an extreme perception of men. Also, this is shown to be social construction as men are conforming to the norms of the ideal men in society
In contrast to men, women in society are shown to be in a lower status to men as Connell describes them as having emphasised femininity. It is characterised by having an ‘accommodation to the interests and desires of men and they are shown to be highly compliant and show empathy’ (Giddens,2013, p.641). Many examples of this would be famous celebrity such as Pamela Anderson and Kim Kardashian. Beauty pageants are also a very good example as it is a competition to emphasise each other’s beauty and femininity.
The social construction of the male and female identity is created from the norms and values taught by the different agencies of socialisation. This can occur through gender socialisation – ‘learning of gender roles from the help of the agencies of socialisation such as the family, education system and media’ (Giddens, 2013, p.636). Giddens argues that the family reinforce male stereotypes on the boys by sanctioning them positively (What a brave good boy) and sanctioning them negatively (boys don’t cry!). As a result, this type of language being used in the family makes boys feel as if they cannot show any emotion and or no pain and thus makes them look up to this idealised version of an alpha man.
Likewise, with the emphasised femininity idea, it has been created due to the agencies of socialisation. The family would usually purchase very female orientated toys e.g. Barbie dolls and they would purchase clothing that is high in the colour pink. This reproduces the gender stereotype and thus it carries on to the next generation. Also, the media portray women in a sexualised way. Giddens (2013, p.637) states that ‘unrealistic body proportions were much more likely to be found in animated female characters in television programmes. The American Psychological Association 2010 (cited by Giddens,2013, p. 638) found that many females would be dissatisfied with their own body due to them ‘comparing themselves with the airbrushed, perfected female role models which predominate in magazines’.
The transmission of these gender norms has caused there to be significant patriarchy in society and has ultimately had severe drawbacks on women in society. This is because men are shown to be more dominant and hence women are therefore shown to have an inferior status, and this creates hegemony in society. Connell (cited by Giddens, 2013, p. 641) argues that this gender divide and those that benefit from this division are termed ‘complicit masculinity’.
Having egalitarian views (men and women are equal) or having traditional views (men and women are not equal) are both social constructs and whichever one is used has significant consequences on the relationship of the family. Davis and Greenstein (2009) in their article has highlighted major consequences of having traditional views of gender ideology.
Stewart 2003 (cited by Davis and Greenstein,2009, p. 96) found that ‘traditional ideology has led to a lower age of motherhood’ but ‘egalitarian gender ideology positively affected the months of independent living and delayed timing of martial birth’ (Cunningham et al. 2005 cited by Davis and Greenstein, 2009, p.96). Christie-Mizell and colleagues (2007, cited by Davis and Greenstein,2009,p.98) found that ‘mothers with a traditional gender ideology were more susceptible to having lower earnings’ and Corrigall and Konrad 2007, Cunnigham et al, 2005 (cited by Davis and Greenstein,2009,p.98) found that ‘ gender ideology influences paid work hours, months of your full time employment and a women’s hourly earnings but not for men.’
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Furthermore, a significant element of hegemonic masculinity is being the breadwinner and so Davis and Greenstein (2009, p.98) states that ‘perhaps for some traditional men, having their breadwinner status being challenged is more than they can handle’. This leads to the perception of men stereotypically being the one to execute domestic violence in relationships. Totten 2003 (cited by Davis and Greenstein,2009, p.98) stated that ‘traditional beliefs about gender roles became the justification for relationship conflict and violence as boys said that girls need to learn their place in the world. This therefore shows that violence was a way of ensuring that girls would stick to their stereotype and not jeopardise their manhood.
Emphasised femininity has led to the emergence of the wave of feminism to allow their women to be of equal status as men. First wave feminism ‘sought equal access to political power as men’ (Giddens,2013, p.664). Second wave feminism was much broader and included black people’s movement, and any other minority groups (Valk 2008, cited by Giddens,2013, p.664). The last wave of feminism known as ‘third wave feminism’ was concerned by “local, national and international activism and looked in areas of violence against women, human trafficking and ‘pornification’ of the media” (Kroløkke and Sørensen,2006, p.17). As a result, these feminist movements are a precursor to patriarchy and look to allow women to not feel oppressed.
Alternatively, Catherine Hakim (2010) introduced the concept of erotic capital. Bourdieu argues that the middle-class men and women primarily have ‘cultural capital (information that is socially valued such as knowledge), social capital (all of the network groups and relationships you make) and economic capital (the resources and assets that can be used to have a financial gain) (cited by Hakim,2010). However, Hakim introduced the notion of erotic capital which consists of various characteristics such as beauty, sexual attractiveness and social skills in interaction. This type of capital is beneficial in both the marriage life and as well in the labour market. “Women are shown to have more erotic capital than men because they work harder at it” (Hakim,2013, p.499). This does mean that women have an advantage in the work place as they excel at their job and thus earn money and gain promotions. However, ‘Female social scientists dismiss the idea that physical attractiveness and sexuality are powerful assets for women’ (Hakim,2010, p.511). They argue that women can’t attain a job through their hard work and determination and job prospects but rather attain them through there ‘emphasised femininity which showcases a patriarchal viewpoint in society.
In conclusion, the question ‘Gender is socially constructed and be shaped and altered in various ways’ is very relevant in today’s society. There have been countless examples of gender socialisation from the agencies of socialisation which has created the hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity. These identities have shown to have significant consequences on later aspects of life such as marriage life and the workplace and have led to stereotyping of gender roles and has caused a great degree of patriarchy in society. Ultimately, as these identities are socially constructed, ultimately society can construct an identity which is much more egalitarian to fight off patriarchy and have a greater sense of equality in society.
- Connell, R. and Messerschmidt, J. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity. Gender & Society, 19(6), pp.829-859.
- Davis, S. and Greenstein, T. (2009). Gender Ideology: Components, Predictors, and Consequences. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(1), pp.87-105.
- Giddens, A. and Sutton, P. (2013). Sociology, 7th Edition. 7th ed. Malden: John Wiley & Sons, p.624-670.
- Hakim, C. (2010). Erotic Capital. European Sociological Review, 26(5), pp.499-518.
- Kroløkke, C. & Sørenson, A.scott, 2005. Three Waves of Feminism: From Suffragettes to Grrls. Gender Communication Theories & Analyses: From Silence to Performance Gender communication theories & analyses: From silence to performance, pp.1–24.
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