Lecture 2: Social Construction of Gender


  • Review of the key concepts: Hegemonic and subordinate masculinity and femininity
  • A Social Constructionist Perspective: Difference, power, and the social institutions
  • Varieties of feminisms

Hegemonic Masculinity

  • More of relational terms, instead of being fixed. These masculinities are plural, within different types of masculinity IN RELATION TO ONE ANOTHER. One masculinity is hierarchy of another
  • Masculinity is not fixed, but instead created by society based on standards
  • A particular form of masculinity that is the most honored and highly recognized in society and one that becomes the gold standard for other types of masculinities and femininities
  • Tom Brady for example, not only embodies hegemonic masculinity because he is an athlete, but also because he is married to a Victoria Secret Model, which portrays him as ‘real man’. Her femininity boosts his masculinity (hence, hegemonic masculinity needs emphasized femininity)

Emphasized Femininity

  • An exaggerated form of femininity; women confronting to the needs and desires of men (Ex. The movie Mean Girls. The two main girls, Regina and Cady fight over winning the affection of a male named Aaron. Their roles in the movie are to play as the sex objects in high school, the girls that every wants to be with and every girl wants to look like. Cady is intelligent but throughout the movie feels the pressure to degrade her intelligence in order for her to get attention from the desired male, Aaron)
  • This structure is made in the male dominant society. Emphasized femininity comes in to play
  • Emphasized femininity in the Lord of the Rings: There are many characters (hobbits, humans) portrayed as men. Some are more hegemonic than others. However, there is only one type of femininity presented, which is the female character (the Elf). She becomes the partner of the male protagonist. We take for granted the fact that there is only one character portraying emphasized femininity

The World of Suits

  • Louis Litt is an example of subordinated masculinity, which supports the hegemonic masculinity in the show (Harvey). He wants to be like him, and be recognized on the same level. This reinforces Harvey’s character as being the ideal lawyer (Ex. Emphasized femininity of Mike Ross’s secretary when speaking with Harvey, it displays how Mike’s masculinity was boosted through the use of his secretary)

Sociology: Critique of Biological Determinism

  • We speak about gender not completely fixed by biology (male and female)
  • Biology tends to matter in difference scenarios
  • Biology is NOT destiny: They give foundation to people to build upon it. Gender difference is enforced based on socialization and behaviour: Boys and girls are taught different by the society: Big strong boy, Little cute girl (Ex. Lego marketing: 1981 vs. Present: The advertisement has changed. Same toys are marketed in different ways based on stereotypes)

Beyond Sex Role Theory and Gender Socialization

  • Minimizing the importance of gender, especially the multiple levels of social structures and institutions
  • Provides singular (not multiple) definitions of masculinity and femininity. Meanings of masculinity and femininity vary across cultures, over historical time, among men within any one culture, and over the life course
  • Role is too fixed: Ignored the relational & situational character of gender. Has an immobile nature to it because it’s more complex. Role depends on institution and atmosphere which determines the roles male and female play. People are socialized into these roles, but it does not provide a good explanation of how these roles have changed
  • The Sex Role Theory believes in two separate spheres, as a way of sorting sex differentiation into two categories (Ex. Boys get placed into the masculine group, girls into feminine). This suggests that the two groups are static and have nothing to do with each other, leading to contradiction
  • Gender socialization placed more emphasis on how parents socialized with boys and girls differently. However, this did not focus on the institution level
  • Sex theory ignores the fact that because gender is plural and relational, it is also situational. What it means to be a man or woman varies in different contexts. Those different institutional contexts product different forms of masculinity and femininity. Gender is therefore not a property of individuals, but rather a set of specific behaviours produced in specific social situations. Gender changes as the situation changes
  • Most importantly, sex role theory makes gender a set of individual qualities and not an aspect of social structure. This way, the notion of “role” focuses attention more on individuals than on social structure (Ex. “The female role” and “the male role” are separate or different, but equal)
  • Neglects the power relations with gender, making gender a set of individuals attributes and not social structure
  • Sex Role theory cannot explain the dynamics of change
  • Social constructionists identify six related problems with sex role theory, which minimizes the importance of gender, understands singular definitions of masculinity and femininity, ignored the relational dimension of gender, rejects the situational quality of gendered interactions, depoliticizes by making it an individual quality instead of societal, cannot explain dynamics of change

The Importance of Everyday Interactions: Doing Gender

  • Doing gender is looking beyond the Sex Role Theory. Doing gender means that gender is not something we HAVE naturally, but something we DO in interaction with others in everyday life. Gender is a routine accomplishment embedded everyday interaction (Ex. Front stage, back stage roles: When we do gender, we are seen and judged by others. In other words, we are accountable for our gender performance)
  • Ex. Applebee commercial: Group of guys sitting among each other. They are all ordering 500 calories meal. But when one individual orders a less than 500 calories meal, his friend questions him
  • Gender therefore seems stable, not easily changeable. We feel that it is engraved into us
  • Non-participation in usual ways of masculinity and femininity, doing gender differently has social costs (People tend to judge others) (Ex. Bronies and It Gets Better Project: Men playing with ponies, who are going against the established order. This is an example that when gender is done differently, we tend to be judged) (Ex. People might make fun of these guys playing with ponies)
  • However, doing gender in proper way provides benefits    
  • When certain norms are broken, the consequences might be harassment, abuse, violence, lose of respect and status in communities. Major consequences can also lead to suicide of individuals. The cost varies
  • Gender is distinguished in our everyday lives (Ex. Men and women having different perfume. In fact the word itself is different for both genders. Cologne is referred for male, whereas for female it is perfume)
  • However, gender has far more to do with other important structures than external genitals.  Instead, gender is a performance, through certain props, behaviours, emotions and symbols we attempt to convince others of our masculinity or femininity. People therefore construct gender, not genitals


  • The goal of sociology is to locate an individual in both time and space and understand the contexts in which a person constructs his or her identity
  • Individuals shape their lives within both historical and social contexts. We do not simply act in a certain way because we are biologically programmed to do so. Instead, we respond to the world we encounter. We shape, modify, and create our identities through encounters with other people and within social institutions
  • Gender is socially constructed: Our identities are assembled of the meanings and behaviours that we construct from the values, images and prescriptions we find in the world around us
  • Biology provides raw materials, whereas society and history provide the context, the instruction manual that we follow to construct our identities

Four Elements of a Social Constructionist Perspective

  • First: Definitions of masculinity and femininity vary from culture to culture
  • Second: Definitions of masculinity and femininity vary in any one culture over historical time
  • Third: Gender definitions also vary over the course of a person’s life (Ex. The issued women face when they are younger including workplace and intimate relationship, will be different from the issues they face at retirement) (Ex. Men often tend to ‘soften’ when they become grandfathers, developing great interest in care giving and nurturing than when they became fathers)
  • Fourth: Definitions of masculinity and femininity will vary within any one culture at any one time, by race, class, ethnicity, age, sexuality, education, region of the country etc
  • Social Constructionism: Adds specific dimensions to the exploration of gender. Constructionism contributes the elements of difference, power, and the institutional dimensions of gender

A Note about Power

  • Gender is about the power that men as a group have over woman as a group, and it is also about the power that some men have over other men (or that some women have over other women). However, to say that gender is a power relation, it is a controversial argument of the social constructionist perspective
  • Power produces gender differences in the first place
  • Like gender, power is not the property of individuals, a possession that one has or does not have. Instead, it is a PROPERTY OF GROUP LIFE, OF SOCIAL LIFE. Power remains in existence as long as the group keeps together. The moment the group which holds power disappears, the power also vanishes

Gender through the Life Courses

  • Sociologists used to think that the three primary institutions of socialization were the family, school, and church. The three primary bearers of their socializing message were parents, teachers, and religious figures. However, this model has proved to be inaccurate
  • First, this model assumed that socialization is a smooth process that is accomplished by the end of childhood, when family, school, and church have moved away in significance in a person’s life
  • Secondly, it views the socialization process from the point of view of the socializer, not the socialized
  • However, kids know better. They also know that a primary agent of their socialization is their peer group. Other boys and girls, and later men and women with whom they interact
  • Media and peer groups also provide messages for individuals and tell them about what men and women are suppose to do, look and act like
  • Gender socialization continues throughout the life course. The process is neither smooth nor finite. It’s bumpy and uneven and continues all our lives (Ex. What masculinity or femininity might mean to us in our 20s, will change largely by our 40s or our 60s)
  • Mid-Life Crisis: Refers to middle-aged men that go through a developmental ‘crisis’ because they are pressured to make changes in their work, relationships, and leisure (Ex. A man who spent the year after his forty-fifth birthday getting a divorce, dating a 22-year old, buying a sports car, and taking up skydiving)
  • Confirmation Bias: Refers to a single case or few cases of an expected behaviour to confirm a belief, especially when the behaviour is attention-getting or widely reported
  • Narrative Coherence: How people come to understand and handle the negative or stressful events in their lives
  • Clearly, gender is a lifelong project, and the life course itself is gendered (Ex. As people age in the contemporary West, men receive less stigmatization than women. It’s not uncommon for a man to marry someone younger. But it is considered wrong when a woman marries a younger man)

Gender as an Institution

  • Institutions are themselves gendered. Institutions created gendered normative standards, express a gendered institutional logic, and are major factors in the reproduction of gender inequality
  • The gendered identity of individuals shapes those gendered institutions, and the gendered institutions express and reproduce the inequalities that create gender identity
  • Gender revolves around three themes: Identity, interaction, institution in the production of gender difference and the reproduction of gender inequality
  • Identity: gender as an identity is not a thing that one possesses, but rather a set of activities that one does. When we do gender, we do it in front of other people; it is legitimized by the evaluation and validation of others. Gender is less a property of the individual than it is a product of our interactions with others
  • Institution: We do gender in every interaction, in every situation, in every institution in which we find ourselves. It is as much an aspect of interaction as it is of identity
  • Institution: gender is done in gender institutions. Our social world is built on systemic, structural inequality based on gender; social life reproduces both gender differences and gender inequality
  • Public institutions produce gender differences (Ex. Though men and women are somewhat similar in question of waste products, in public, men and women use sex-segregated washrooms, clearly marked gentlemen and ladies. However, in the privacy of our own homes, we use the same bathrooms and feel no need for separate space). Therefore public spaces create gender differences
  • Five ways institutions create gender difference and reproduce gender order
  • The production of gender divisions: In organization of work, gender divisions are produced and reinforced, and hierarchies are maintained. This is done through practices producing the gender patterning of jobs, wags, and hierarchies, power and subordination
  • Gender images: images and symbols in advertisements that express and reinforce gender divisions (Ex. An image of a successful manager or business executive is always an image of a well-dress, powerful man)
  • The interactions between individuals. Women and men, women and women, men and men. In all the forms and patterns, that express dominance and submission
  • The internal mental work of individuals: Individuals mental understanding for gender-appropriate behaviours and attitudes in the organization. This might include patterns of dress, speech, and general presentation of self
  • The ongoing logic of organizations themselves: Organizational dynamics, bureaucracy, and organizational criteria are much gendered criteria

Organizational Gender Neutrality: The vehicle by which gender order is reproduced. The practice of gender neutrality covers the underlying gender structure in an organization, allowing practices that maintain it to continue at the same time efforts to reduce gender inequality are also under way. In these gendered institutions, they reproduce gender order by which men are privileged over women and by which some men are privileged over other men.

Different Kinds of Feminism

  • First-wave feminism: Early 20th century to late 19th century. Issues regarding women unable to vote and not able to participate in political scenarios
  • During this time, women and children (and men) were exploited in employment, where women enjoyed no legal protection from abuse, property rights within marriage, or parental rights
  • Suffrage was granted mainly in the 20th century (women able to vote)
  • Second- Wave Feminism: World War 1 & 2 (massive human casualties). Brought changes to how society was organized. Society was in a crisis mode. Men were away from home countries and at the warfront. Women were asked to step-up and produce products for the warfare. They became bread-winners in the labour market (public sphere). After the war when men came back, women were sent back home to become housewives. This is when second wave feminism issue started. Women were not blocked from the labor market. Reproductive system debate also arose (who is in control of child birth, regarding abortion). These issues became the forefront for the feminist movement
  • Like first-wave feminists, they attempted to increase women’s legal rights and combat inequalities between the sexes
  • Consciousness-Raising: Women gathered in small groups to discuss every aspect of their lives. It allowed women to perceive the experiences and thoughts they had felt to be theirs alone were the result of gender construction, shared widely with other women
  • Second-wave feminists also protested beauty pageants, created shelters for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse

Different Types of Feminisms: Feminism is Not One Thing

Liberal feminism: We are all equal under law and should be treated the same. Focuses on women’s integration into pre-existing institutions (military, schools, and politics), overcoming differences and exclusion, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination policies. Everyone needs to be given equal rights. Especially for liberal feminists, women should be integrated into the military. They emphasize safe legal abortion, an end to legal discrimination, shared parenting and housework, and political and workplace equality.

Marxist and Socialist Feminism: Focuses on the problem of capitalist economic system based on gender and class exploitation. Marxism states that capitalism exploits the working class to benefit the higher class. In order for the worker to go to work, the job of the women is to take care of the housework. Socialist feminism focused on how women’s labor was exploited under capitalism. They were suppressed at home, as men went out and worked in factories. Socialist feminist argued for a more productive role for women working at home.

Radical Feminism: Also want to change the whole system. Their focus was on changing the patriarchy system (reproduces male dominance in sphere of family, sexuality etc.). Therefore they focused on issues regarding domestic violence, rape, harassment. They also focus on women’s autonomy, sisterhood, and solidarity among women, mobilizes against violence against women. They fought for a space where women can be different from men.

Multiracial and Postcolonial Feminism: Also did not want to be part of the pre-existing system (patriarchy, colonialism). They focused on the need to integrate feminism with struggles against racism and colonialism. Attends to differences among women. Intersectional approach to social inequality.

Intersectionality: The relationship between multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations, which is the best way of understanding gender (Ex. According to feminists, one cannot analyze the category of women without recognizing that the category is complicated by issues of ethnicity, class, culture, sexuality, ability, etc.) Therefore, these relationships are important to acknowledge in understanding the category of women. 

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