We Made Gender Up


I don’t understand people who want to argue men are like Y and women are like X. After all, we made it all the fuck up.

A blond baby dressed in a white onesie sits on the floor and plays with a yellow blanket while smiling. It's difficult to know the sex or gender of this child from the image alone, and at the end of it, it doesn't matter.
Boy or girl? Male or female? It’s a baby — does it really matter? (Pixabay / Pexels.com)

Yes, yes, for some people, biological sex is very cut and dried. (It’s not). And they like to argue that our DNA determines whether we’re men or women. (Our DNA sometimes does a poor job as an indicator too.)

Aren’t Gender and Sex the Same Thing?

There are some people who would like to argue that gender and sex are indeed the same thing. They do not buy into the idea that gender is made up.

The evidence is all around us, though. Around the world, people have different ideas about what makes someone a man or a woman. Modes of dress may be different. How people relate to each other are different.

For example, in some cultures, descent is matrilineal. Women tend to hold more power in these societies. They might even form the government.

By contrast, other cultures are patriarchal, tracing lineage down the father’s line. In turn, men tend to form governments.

Women in Medieval England vs. Victorian Viewpoints

Patriarchal societies tend to portray women in particular ways, such as being irrational or ill-suited to government. By contrast, matriarchal societies might believe men do not belong in government.

History also proves the point here. In medieval England, for example, people portrayed women as raging sex addicts. They were the “weaker sex,” and thus more vulnerable to corruption from the devil. They were also closer to nature. Women were thus experiencing (and desiring) sexual appetites far more frequently and voraciously than men. Women were censured, because they were the horndogs of the medieval world.

Fast-forward to the 1800s, and you’ll find women portrayed as demure, innocent, and almost frigid. The Victorians, unlike their medieval counterparts, believed women had much lower sex drives than men. As a result, women tended not to desire sex at all. That’s where we get ideas like “lie back and think of England.”

Victorian women were also seen as innocent angels, who were almost childlike in their need to be protected by men. That’s a fairly far cry from the medieval woman, who was so close to nature, she was totally corrupt. Medieval women were not innocent angels; they were temptresses, seductresses, witches and demons.

Remember: this is one culture, English culture, just separated by several centuries.

Ideas about Gender Evolve in Social Circumstances

What we can see from the above examples is that gender is socially constructed. Sex is, by and large, biological. It’s not a neat and tidy separation into “male” and “female,” though. Even among XX-phenotype humans and XY-phenotype humans, there is a lot of variation. And that’s not even accounting for intersex individuals.

So, there are not necessarily huge variations in sex between cultures. Nor were attitudes about women forced to evolve because of some biological change between 1100 and 1800.

What’s much more likely here is that social attitudes changed. Social attitudes do differ between different cultures, and in turn, they also evolve across time.

The Changing Position of Pink

One of the simplest demonstrations is the assignment of the color pink as feminine. Until the 1920s, pink was actually associated with young boys.

Why? Pink is just a mild form of red. Red is typically masculine, associated with anger, aggression, bloodshed, and war.

Boys in Dresses Were Common Throughout History

Another easy evolution to see is the attitudes toward children’s clothing. Prior to the 1900s, it was very common for boys under the age of seven to wear dresses. We can see this in a painting of the future George IV of England, his mother, and his younger brother. George is standing at his mother’s knee, wearing a blue dress.

Queen Charlotte of Britain, in pink, sits for a painting with her two young sons, George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick. Both boys are wearing dresses, as was typical for children in the 1700s and 1800s.
I mean, his stance says all we need to know.

There was nothing “emasculating” then about wearing a dress until you were seven or so. (Dresses for young children make sense, as it makes it much easier to change them. It also allowed the same clothing to be used for a child, regardless of their assumed sex at birth.)

If we go back further, we can see that, although clothing for men and women differed in Ancient Greece and Rome, pretty much everyone was rocking skirts. The Middle Ages are similar; many of the garments in the church developed in the late Roman era or the early Middle Ages.

So, while there’s always been different dress for men and women, those codes have undergone vast changes over time. And they continue to evolve. By the early 1800s, for example, women’s fashion had entered a “throwback” period to Ancient Greece and Rome.

But clothing for men didn’t follow suit. What this suggests is that mores for men had changed—a lot—between the Ancient Roman Empire and the early 1800s. That means what was acceptable for men in Ancient Rome wasn’t necessarily acceptable in Regency England or elsewhere in Europe.

And we can see this trend keep going, to the point that menswear has almost completely obliterated skirts from its repertoire. Now, even young boys can’t be exposed to the “feminizing” of a skirt—not even when they’re in diapers.

What Does This Mean?

It means gender is not actually a biological fact, written into our DNA. If it were, then men would never, ever have worn skirts—and definitely not into the 1800s. It means that our ideas about masculinity and femininity are constantly in flux, changing and evolving.

Those who argue that it’s engrained in our DNA don’t like this change. That’s why they argue it’s impossible to change. They want something like “women like pink and men like blue” to be baked into DNA.

Patterns Do Not Hold over Time and Space

But, as we can see, the association of colors as “masculine” or “feminine” changes from historical era to historical era. A man raised in the 1700s would not understand why men in the twenty-first century are so against pink. Men raised in non-Western cultures might also fail to understand this prohibition.

There’s no DNA trip marker here. It’s pure social construction. And social conventions are constantly evolving, changing. The case of pink is instructive here.

That means there’s relatively little governing ideas around masculinity and femininity, around what makes someone a “man” and what makes someone “a woman.”

People like to get uptight about this, though. They believe that men and women fit into little boxes.

Almost nothing could be further from the truth.

Humans Are Breathtakingly Varied

Nature is messy. Even if there were a DNA marker for certain humans preferring one color over another on the basis of sex, that still wouldn’t hold true across every single human.

The same is true of almost every other behavior we hold to be biologically engrained (versus socially engrained). The idea that women are more emotional and more caring is not a universal truth. Some biological females simply are not maternal types. And that’s fine.

By contrast, some XY-phenotype humans are inclined to engage in caregiving behavior.

If being “emotional” and “caring” is supposed a sex-linked trait, how do we explain this individuals?
For the biological essentialist, individuals who don’t fit in the box have to have something wrong with them somehow. There must be some underlying problem.

The only underlying problem here is that we’re suggesting social scripts spring from biology, when, in fact, they do not. They’re prescriptivist nonsense, made up to reinforce divisions based upon observable sex traits.

Even those “observable sex traits” are poor indicators of actual sex. We can make generalizations, but without DNA testing, it’s sometimes difficult to “prove” someone’s biological sex.

Technology Has Changed How We Police Gender

The advent of technology and scientific understanding has made it easier to push the biological essentialist stance. In the 1700s or 1800s, you had to go on what you could observe.

So, if someone with a prominent jaw, broad shoulders, and small breasts and straight hips dressed up in a hoop skirt and wore their hair long, without getting a look at their genitalia, you’d have two options:

  • this is a man in drag
  • this is a mannish woman
In the video game Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Cloud Strife dresses in drag to infiltrate Don Corneo's mansion. Nobody seems to notice that Cloud is "a man."
If we didn’t know, we might assume Cloud was just a “masculine” woman — not a man dressed in stereotypically “feminine” clothing.

Today, we can test for DNA markers that might help us “explain” this natural variation. Some XX-phenotype humans are more “masculine” than others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but biological essentialists would have us believe there is.

How This Hurts Everyone

This prescriptivist stance leaves us very narrow windows that define acceptable “female” and “male” presentations. The second we step outside of those boxes, we’re somehow pathological.

Yet people step outside these impossibly narrow boxes everyday. Almost no one conforms perfectly to the scripted gender roles. Very few women, for example, perfectly adhere to the social role of wanting to be loving, caring mother and wife, always perfectly put together and pretty, and hyper-competent at their jobs as well.

Men are rarely quite as aggressive or as confident as the narrow window provides. Very few are actually as cold emotionally as the prescriptivist model suggests. And, beyond that, many men are genuinely emotional and caring. More often than not, they are emotional and irrational.

So the suggestion that our DNA dictates, with 100 percent accuracy, our behavior on the basis of sex alone is ridiculous. Human beings are complex genetic creature, with multiple genes acting on pretty much every structure in the body. Differences in our environments—and our experiences—in turn activate or deactivate certain genes.

And that’s just basic biology. So to suggest every single XX-phenotype human will be like this or like that is ludicrous.

Thus, there can be no other conclusion to the idea of gender than it being a social construction. Only humans could conceive of something so neat and tidy, so clean-cut.

Nature has repeatedly shown us it doesn’t work that way. At all. Not even biological sex is as clear-cut and “normative” as we’d like to think it is.

Therefore, gender could never be anything but an imaginary concept, dreamed up by human beings.

What Does That Mean for Gender Identities?

It means identities don’t fit into a neat box—and they can never. You will never have 100 percent compliance with one definition of “woman” or “man.” Never. That, in turn, means that even people who should fit in one of those boxes will feel constrained by it.

That is, to some degree, the point of these boxes. They constrain us, restrain us, and thus make us easier to control. Those who refuse to conform are easily picked off, isolated, oppressed. Those who do conform often do so with a nagging sense that something is deeply, inherently wrong.

In turn, even those who conform to the ideal are oppressed by the ideal. By arguing that we need to uphold it, they argue to continue their own oppression.

Loosening Gender Prescriptions Does Not Mean the End of the World

If we take down the fences or throw away the boxes, more people will achieve freedom from such oppression. It is much more difficult to persecute “women” on the whole in this scenario.

This is a terrifying concept for most people, because the strict division between “men” and “women” help them to make sense of themselves and their world. To get rid of it seems to suggest total anarchy. How will we know which bathrooms to use? What clothes to wear? Who can do this or that?

Gendered Bathrooms Are Case in Point

The first step to alleviating this fear is to realize that these notions are largely falsehoods to begin with. Gender-neutral bathrooms exist all across Europe with relatively little incident. They exist in private homes in North America, again with relatively little incident. Gendered public bathrooms are, actually, unnecessary by and large. Those arguing that they are necessary to “protect women” fail to see that protecting women does not mean creating separate spaces. It means creating a society that produces fewer predators and introduces strict punishments for those who engage in predatory behavior.

It is possible for men to be less predatory; the idea it’s engrained in them is another example of how social ideas about gender are twisted up in biology. Arguments like “oh, he can’t help it” and “boys will be boys” excuse predatory behavior. They show men that it is acceptable, provided they can “get away with it.” And we also fail to punish those who do engage in predatory behavior.

Thus, we conclude that creating isolated spaces where it is easier for predators to find their prey cannot possibly be the solution. Policing who goes into which bathroom is relatively foolish and does nothing to address the real root of the problem. Instead, it merely serves to reinforce divisions between the sexes and outlandish ideas about gender as baked into our DNA.

The world will not fall apart if we abandon strict gender identities. Indeed, we may see a freer, happier society, where people can be true to themselves—no matter what is in their DNA.

About the author

By Cherry

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