The Nature of Gender

Anita Cocktail, Provincetown 2023. Credit Lisa Jo Rudy

Gender is, in essence, the expression of one’s sex through specific behaviors. We can point to a plethora of gender-specific behaviors in modern American life—in areas ranging from child rearing to fashion choices to career choices to recreational preferences. In fact, despite much greater tolerance for cross-gender choices, we Americans are still pretty definite about what it means to be male or female.

Are these gender-specific behaviors actually a reflection of human nature?  Times have changed dramatically, and male and female roles have become more flexible, but we are a long way from non-gendered society.

Even from their youngest days, children are indoctrinated in gendered behavior. We are still seeing boys in blue and girls in pink.  Girls are still given “make believe mommy” toys while boys are still given toy cars and pretend weaponry.  Boys are encouraged in science and math, while girls are expected to excel in creative arts and communication.

It’s still rare to see women in the American military (they make up just 16% of our armed forces).  And it’s still rare to see men in nursing (just 12% of nurses are male).

And of course, while some women do get involved with the “manly” sports of hunting, fishing, and off-roading, those activities remain staunchly masculine.  Meanwhile choral singing and reading groups are largely female activities.

The reality is that while we know which activities are preferred by males and females in the United States in the 2020’s, those preferences are by no means universal among human beings. In fact, in some cases, roles are flipped across cultures.

In the United States, for example, few men dance—and even fewer men participate in ballet, tap, or modern.  There’s an actual stigma around male dancers.  Men who dress in traditionally female clothing or makeup are highly controversial.

But there are many cultures in Africa and Asia (and even within indigenous American nations) in which dance is a highly structured activity available ONLY to men. Makeup, particularly when used as part of a performance, is expected. And of course, just a few hundred years ago, even Americans and Europeans expected men to dance, men wore powdered wigs, and good dancers were in high demand.

During the second World War, when men headed off to war, women rose to the occasion by taking on and excelling in “masculine” jobs in construction, truck driving, and more. The image of Rosie the Riveter became a reflection of the new opportunities afforded to women—at least for a short time.

Is it really possible that specific activities, colors, and careers are intrinsically attractive to only men or only women?  Is it possible that men are not “intrinsically suited” to caring careers, while women “can’t handle” physically demanding jobs?  Or are these norms, which seem to reflect human nature, merely reflections of the culture of a particular time and place?

What’s your opinion? Are gendered behaviors “baked into” human nature? Share your thoughts in the Forum!

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