What is gender? Is it a biological condition or a social construction? In today’s modern world, it appears that it can be one or the other or even a mixture of both. Transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner, an Olympian) have raised awareness about the issue of gender, and so have others, like the Wachowski siblings, famous Hollywood directors, who have brought attention to the issue through their exploration of sexual and gender identity issues. Researchers have also added to the debate about what is gender identity by performing both qualitative and quantitative studies about it, ranging from discussions of the difference between sex and gender to neurobiological brain scans of brain wave patterns in men, women, straight and transgender. Results, findings and conclusions remain contested and controversial, suggesting that even today little is known about why gender identity is an issue for some and not for others — whether it is handed down through posterity as a result of patriarchal social conventions, or whether it is a function of biological patterns in the body manifested in psychological and behavioral expressions. This paper will attempt to answer the question of what is gender identity from the standpoint of biology vs. social construction, with a focus on the modern history of gender, including the issue of transgender identity.
If, as Virginia Woolfe wrote, “that even in the nineteenth century a woman was not encouraged to be an artist” (Woolfe), by the 20th century, the role of women was set to change. Women’s suffrage was won, and the Feminist Movement re-conceptualized the way in which the gender of women was construed. While television icons like Mary Tyler Moore displayed an image of womanhood as smart, house-tied, always looking one’s best (in heels), and nurturing, women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem began to challenge this identity. Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and held that she “came to political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife” (Horowitz 2). She took the identity of woman, in other words, and coupled it with a political ideology — the concepts of women’s rights, equality, and women in the workforce (women having a roll outside the home). To a large degree, Friedan bore out and expanded upon the proto-Feminist doctrine of Simone de Beauvoir, who believed that “woman” is not what is born but rather what one “becomes” (Beauvoir 51) — in short, the Feminists held that female gender identity was not based on biology but rather on action, on thought, and on manifestation of the will: gender identity was related to gender politics — and suddenly in the 20th century, the entire paradigm of social order and patriarchy was being questioned as a result of a re-examination of the nature of gender.
The argument was that if gender was not linked to one’s biology, then perhaps it was all just a social construct. Then again, as researchers would later show, there is a clearly distinct pattern in the brains of transgender individuals that is biologically similar to the patterns found in the genders with which they identify, suggesting that biology does play a part in the way one identifies one’s gender (Rametti et al. 199). Thus, on the one hand the 20th century produced the concept that gender identity was a social construct (an idea used to reinforce the argument that women could do just as good of a job as men could do), and on the other hand it also challenged this narrative by asserting that gender identity was related to biology (an idea used to reinforce the argument that transgender people were actually natural and biologically geared towards the gender of their “choice”).
The research into the brain wave patterns of transgender individuals is recent enough that it necessitates further testing in order to draw out conclusive findings. But so far, the research indicates that there are “a priori differences between men and transsexual patients” and that the main cause of these differences is the “neurobiological processes or task-solving strategies” within the brain (Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al. 1858). In other words, the way the mind of a transgender individual and the way the mind of the individual’s same-biology gender counterpart works/operates is different. The biology of the sex parts may be the same, but the biology of the mind is distinct — in short, there is a neurobiology that informs the transgender of his/her identity. For these individuals, therefore, gender identity is more about “discovering” one’s true gender rather than “becoming” or “proving” oneself by expanding or pushing the boundaries of the way in which society views a gender role.
In some respects, it was the role of the female artist in the 20th century that helped pave the way for transgender individuals to become more public about their issues with gender and gender identity. The photographic artist Nan Goldin depicted the lives of transgender individuals in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. One of her most famous pictures is called Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, 1991 and portrays to transgender individuals in the back of a taxi cab staring at the viewer with expressions of, “This is me — this is who I am — and I don’t care if you don’t approve” written on their face. Goldin represented a bold side of the gender issue by pushing into the public sphere the underworld of gender issues that was growing just beneath the surface of public culture in the 20th century. Goldin’s transgender couple represent a drag queen side of society that mainstream America had not yet embraced (with the celebrity culture surrounding Caitlyn Jenner this is all changing and modern American society is more willing than ever before to accept cross-dressing and transgender individuals — as even Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump has stated: “Caitlyn Jenner can use any restroom in Trump Tower she wants” — a response to the controversy regarding the transgender bill in North Carolina that had media outlets running headlines for days on end about bigotry and prejudice in the state’s laws) (Zaru).
Goldin’s photography and her picture of Misty and Jimmy in particular set a tone in the American consciousness that challenged the American public to confront the issue off gender identity and question whether or not it would welcome or reject the gender identity issues brought up by the transgender community. The drag queens in Goldin’s picture may not have cared whether the public accepted them or not, and their “sleazy” clothing, gaudy make-up, gold bras, , and exposed bra straps coupled with the complete lack of interest in their faces (a discernible hint of scorn is even detected in their eyes) indicates that the issue of gender identity for them was not really a public one at all — but rather a personal, private matter — one that the public would sooner or later have to accept.
And essentially the public has accepted it — to a degree. The North Carolina issue over whether transgender individuals have a right to use the public restroom of the gender with which they identity has revealed that tension and division still remain regarding this issue and that gender identity is still linked to gender politics and to politics as a whole, with is merely a representation of societal thinking and desires. How transgender individuals identify themselves remains controversial, therefore, even as celebrity transgender persons like the Wachowskis or Caitlyn Jenner grow in their status and in their ability to navigate mainstream culture. As Judith Butler notes, the life of the transgender individual is not an easy one and sometimes it takes years for such individuals to come to terms with themselves: “Drag has its own melancholia,” Butler has remarked — and it is an assessment that Jenner would certainly agree with, as he himself struggled to embrace his transgender identity, even after he began transgender hormone therapy (Butler 32; Robinson).
Thus, for transgender persons like Jenner, gender identity is both a response to social constructivism and biological necessity. Jenner’s own journey or transition from being a man to being a woman began in the 1980s when he first started thinking about starting hormone therapy (Robinson). He was already cross-dressing in hotel rooms and identifying as a woman in terms of clothing that he would wear in private. “I felt like a liar,” he would later confess, regarding how he felt about not being “true” to his neurobiological gender identity — even if his biological sex identity showed that his gender was male (Robinson). Jenner’s need to understand himself as a “her” is what began the escalation of the process, and his identity changed physically to match more accurately the identity he felt in his brain. Jenner’s acceptance by the mainstream media in recent years has had an impact on the way that the American public views gender identity. The animated TV show South Park satirized Social Justice Warriors for holding up Caitlyn Jenner as a hero for her “bravery” in identifying as a transgender individual — but at the same time, the show acknowledged and accepted Jenner’s gender identity as a fait accompli and made no moral judgment about it in particular.
Gender identity, however, remains a tricky issue for many, as gender theorists in the past years have had difficulty attempting to construct a gender identity for women that was not in some way connected to the concept of sexuality and — more explicitly — to the phallus (for transgender persons, this issue is also one that takes importance, especially for those who undergo a sex change operation). The fact is that sex and gender are intimately related, whether theorists, social constructivists, or activists like it or not. That does not mean, however, that gender identity depends up sex identity. It does mean, though, that sexuality often interacts and informs gender identity and how gender identity is perceived. Gender identity construction, for Judith Butler, has been rooted in the need to formulate a radical repudiation of a culturally constructed sexuality” (31): Butler goes on to note that “if there is no radical repudiation of a culturally constructed sexuality, what is left is the question of how to acknowledge and ‘do’ the construction one is invariably in” (Butler 31). Gender identity construction and sexual identity construction overlap in other words and one of the issues that has to be addressed in order to break down older conventions and lay the groundwork for a new way of thinking about both is to demolish the traditional social concepts related to each. Sexual liberation, therefore, helped to radically change the way that society viewed issues like sexuality, marriage, monogamy, family, children, etc. (Jones 4). In turn, the idea of gender equality and gender identity transformed as well, albeit within in its dynamic, sometimes interacting with sexual ideology and sometimes not.
Gender identity issues for women as well as transgender individuals began to receive most attention in the 1960s and 1970s, when radical and revolutionary discourse entered into the mainstream consciousness for the first time. The Women’s Movement led the charge for gender issues. Mulvey famously identified the role of the “male gaze” in the false construction of female gender identity (6). Her view was that women base their identities as women by appealing to what men think of them. Their sense of self-worth was phallic-centric, in this sense: it was dependent upon the male perspective. Women were not identifying themselves on their own merits, on how they viewed themselves; instead, they were looking at themselves through the eyes of men — and this was evident in the way that women portrayed themselves on screen and in TV: they were spruced up to be attractive to a male audience, while women in the audience, in turn, were attempting to mimic and mirror the look of the women on the screen. Instead of self-identifying and defining one’s own terms and one’s own sense of gender, women were basically still acting subserviently to men and to the patriarchal order. Even Gloria Steinem exuded a sex appeal that reflected the Raquel Welch-era of sex symbology: her fashion sense and ability to connect feminist militarism with sexuality and fashion launched her career and made her an attractive poster girl for the Feminist Movement. Thus, while her gender identity (liberation for women, equal rights for women, womanhood as strong, independent, sexually liberated, etc.) was politically-situated, it was also biologically-based in the sense that it still engaged the “male gaze” and created a discourse with it.
The same can be said of the post-Feminist music stars of today, who use sexuality as a means of conveying an idea of their gender. Stars like Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, J-Lo and others use sexuality as a power tool: instead of using sex to attract the male gaze in order to have a man to whom they can submit themselves, they use sexuality to dominate the male gaze and to assert their own dominant role in the male-female relationship. Their sex identity is used to reinforce their gender identity and support it through erotic display that becomes a form of power negotiation. There is, moreover, a paradoxical element to the identity cultivated by post-Feminist stars, as Michael Unger points out: the “music video is a paradox of (re)presentation,” as the performers are idealized and “empowered,” but at the same time they are “objectified and reduced to a commodity of idealized beauty” (Unger 25). There is, in other words, a commercialization process in place that reduces the women to a commodity for consumers of voyeuristic sexual thrills. Yet, the female stars embrace this commercialization process because they believe it gives them a significant power advantage. However, the power paradigm does not objectively shift in their favor, it only gives the impression of doing so; the male is still free to accept or reject the sexual display.
With the introduction of the transgender concept into the equation, the idea of power dichotomies is rendered mute: a third dimension or possibility arises — that of the gender plurality concept, or of the gender neutral zone. Gender, as a result of bending the definition of the word and the meaning of its social and cultural sense, has resulted in its overall porous nature: it does not hold the weight or significance that it once did. Therefore, gender identity among transgender individuals is more about identifying as a particular gender (male or female) in the traditional sense of the gender word (even as, ironically, men and women attempt to liberate themselves from traditional notions of gender identification). Jenner for instance takes pleasure in dressing glamorously and doing her hair in an attractive manner that resembles the old female icons of TV, such as Donna Reed or Mary Tyler Moore. For Jenner, identifying as a woman means dressing in gowns, wearing makeup, flirting with men, etc. It is more about the sexual aspect and traditional gender-sex ratio rather than the political aspect of gender identity, which is where the revolutionary action originated among the Women’s Movement leaders, such as Friedan.
In short, there is no clear cut definition of gender identity today that places the concept firmly in a category that can be applied to all persons, whether male, female, transgender, gay, straight, lesbian, etc. Gender is a personal term and is personally applied in ways that differ from individual to individual, with some adopting a neutral tone, others adopting a political tone, still others using a sexual tone, and others adopting a traditional tone. Gender identity encompasses more than one’s sexual biology but at the same time it is not divorced from it. It is this point that opponents of transgender acceptance insist upon in their desire to create laws that bar transgender persons from using the restroom of their choice in states like North Carolina. For some, the transgender movement is indicative of a misapplication of gender identity: they view gender as more intimately related to sex biology than to neuro-biology. The difficulty is that gender appears to be related to both, as research shows. Thus, for transgender persons in modern society, controversy and prejudice may continue to be a problem that persists in mainstream culture, even as mainstream media embraces the transgender movement and celebrities celebrate it. Not all parts of modern culture view the transgender identity as one that is authentic or valid, and their argument is based on the idea that one’s sex biology is a part of one’s gender identity and the fact that transgender persons can undergo hormone therapy to alter their sex biology proves their point: in order to become more like the “sex” with which they identify, they must change the sex of their birth, so to speak. As Mohsin Hamid notes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, identity is something that can be extremely “fragile” and that can result in persons adopting a certain “persona” so as to try to support the identity within themselves that they recognize as being weak (Hamid 148).
Such an argument is not accepted by all, but it does raise evidence of the divide between acceptance and rejection of transgender persons in modern society and it does, moreover, point to the underlying issues that have grown over the decades into the question of what is gender identity. It appears, from this examination, that gender identity is both a biological extension and a social construction — that it navigates between these two in a way that is difficult to follow because of the various other factors that also interact in the phenomenon of formulating one’s gender identiy — factors such as psychological cues, nature vs. nurture, socio-economic position, and philosophical and/or religious ideology. In short, there is more to the issue of gender identity cultivation than a discussion of biology and society — but for now these points may serve as starting places for investigating the issue more fully.
In conclusion, gender identity is a complex issue that some resolve in their own manner (by identifying as a transgender, a feminist, or as a traditional person, etc.); and while one’s preference may not be accepted or even understood by other members of society, there is a tendency in the modern era to be more inclusive of all genders, no matter how they identify themselves. At the same time, there is push-back from parts of society that do not wish to be inclusive of transgender society, that prefers it to go back underground where it was before persons like Nan Goldin brought it into the mainstream with her photographic art. The reason that Goldin herself was able to do that, however, was that she herself had been part of an evolutionary process in the 20th century that saw female artists emerge from the cocoon that Virginia Woolfe identified them as being stuck in during the 19th century. In other words, the history of the question of gender identity in the modern era is one that has been evolving and transforming the ways in which men, women and transgender persons interact with society.
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