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Femininity and masculinity are acquired social identities: as individuals become socialized they develop a gender identity, an understanding of what it means to be a ”man” or a ”woman.” How individuals develop an understanding of their gender identity, including whether or not they fit into these prescribed gender roles, depends upon the context within which they are socialized and how they view themselves in relation to societal gender norms. Class, racial, ethnic, sexual, and national factors play heavily into how individuals construct their gender identities and how they are perceived externally. Gender identities are often naturalized; that is, they rely on a notion of biological difference, ”so that ‘natural’ femininity [in a white, European, middle-class context] encompasses, for example, motherhood, being nurturing, a desire for pretty clothes and the exhibition of emotions” (Laurie et al. 1999: 3). ”Natural” masculinity, in contrast, may encompass fatherhood, acting ”tough,” a desire for sports and competition, and hiding emotions. In both cases, these constructions of gender identity are based on stereotypes that fall within the range of normative femininities and masculinities. Yet, as many sociologists have pointed out, not all individuals fit within these prescribed norms and as such, masculinities and femininities must be recognized as socially constituted, fluid, wide-ranging, and historically and geographically differentiated.
Feminist scholars have long addressed the social construction of femininities, particularly in the context of gender inequality and power. Early feminist scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir (1980) argued that women’s subordinated status in western societies was due to socialization rather than to any essential biological gender difference, as evidenced in her often-cited phrase, ”One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Since the 1980s, at least three areas of research on gender identity have helped shift the debate on femininities and masculinities: (1) masculinity studies, which emerged primarily in the 1980s and 1990s; (2) queer studies and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies; and (3) gender, race, ethnic, and postcolonial studies.
In contrast to feminist scholarship that focused primarily on women’s experiences with femininity, Connell’s (1987) research on ”hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity” was among the first to systematically analyze both sets of constructions as they contribute to global gender inequality. Connell argues that ”hegemonic masculinity,” a type of masculinity oriented toward accommodating the interests and desires of men, forms the basis of patriarchal social orders. Similarly, ”emphasized femininity,” a hegemonic form of femininity, is ”defined around compliance with [female] subordination and is oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men” (23). He argues that hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women. Thus, for example, non-European, poor, non-white, and/or gay men tend to experience subordinated masculinities, whereas men of middle-class European, white, and/or heterosexual backgrounds tend to benefit from the privileges of hegemonic masculinity.
Judith Butler’s research on gender performativity has opened space for discussion about the naturalized linking of gender identity, the body, and sexual desire. Butler (1990) argues feminism has made a mistake by trying to assert that ”women” are a group with common characteristics and interests. Like sociobiologists, feminists who rely exclusively on a sociocultural explanation of gender identity construction also fall prey to essentialism. Many individuals, especially those who define as ”queer” or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, do not experience gender identity, embodiment, and sexual desire through the dominant norms of gender and heterosexuality. Like Connell, Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold. She calls for subversive action in the present: ”gender trouble,” the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders, and therefore identity. This idea of identity as free-floating and not connected to an ”essence” is one of the key ideas expressed in queer theory.
Similarly, Halberstam’s (1998) research addresses constructions of ”female masculinity” and argues that scholars must separate discussions of gender identity (e.g., masculinities, femininities) from discussions of the body. Women can ”act masculine” just as men can ”act feminine”; how individuals identify in terms of their gender is not and should not be linked to their biological anatomies, however defined. Other scholars have examined how medical and scientific institutions have managed normative gender (and sexual) identities through psychological protocols and surgical intervention. This type of research points toward a broader understanding of gender that places dualistic conceptions of ”masculine” vs. ”feminine” and ”male” vs. ”female” into question.
Scholars of race, ethnic, and postcolonial studies have addressed how normative femininities and masculinities, which tend to benefit those with racial/ethnic privilege, help reinforce a racialized social order in which subordinated groups are demasculinized or feminized in ways that maintain their racial/ethnic subordination in society. One example involves the stereotyping of African American men as unruly and hypersexual. Similarly, postcolonial studies scholars have demonstrated how poor women in developing regions (particularly non-white women) have been simultaneously sexualized and exoticized, and also seen as passive, all notions based on stereotypes.
Critics have defended normative femininity and masculinity on religious, moral, and/or biological grounds. Some, for example, have argued that these social norms are ”naturally” aligned with men’s and women’s assumed biological roles in reproduction and/or with their assumed heterosexual desire. Some women have joined feminist movements and challenged traditional notions of femininity; whereas other women have joined right-wing women’s movements that embrace traditional gender roles and identities (e.g., Concerned Women for America). Men have formed feminist men’s movements, as well as movements to embrace traditional notions of fatherhood, as in the divergent examples of the Christian-based (and largely white, middle-class) Promise Keepers and the Million Man Marches, part of a movement to reclaim black masculinity.
- Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York.
- Connell, R. W. (1987) Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA.
- de Beauvoir, S. (1980)  The Second Sex. Random House/Alfred Knopf, New York.
- Halberstam, (1998) Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
- Laurie, N., Dwyer, C., Holloway, S., & Smith, F. (1999) Geographies of New Femininities. Longman, London.
- Davis, A. (2001) Rape, racism and the myth of the black rapist. In: Bhavnani, K.-K. (ed.), Feminism and “Race.” Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 50—64.
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