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Understanding gender and sex and the implications and consequences of the gender binary

In this video Jemma Rimmer introduces the concepts of gender, sex, binary and non binary gender.
Written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter.
As we have established, the male and female sex have become associated with specific gender roles and formed stereotypes, such that society expects men and women to act in a certain way based on their ascribed gender. This is based on the gender binary. The gender binary is the primary means by which we classify people, although this categorisation is now frequently problematised. By organising people by their sex we focus on one characteristic at the expense of others, and also make this more salient as a way of defining and understanding people. This is particularly challenging for those who do not conform to the classification, such as those who are intersex, and those who are transitioning their gender.
It forces people who don’t conform to the norm to be set apart from others and can draw unwarranted and unwelcome attention to them. This process of identifying people as different is known as ‘othering’. Othering is the process by which individuals with certain characteristics or groups are identified as different from the norm. This occurs where there is a dominant group that constitutes the norm and ‘others’ who sit outside and in contrast to it. This ‘othering’ operates formally and informally. Formally, it may be the outcome of being classified and treated differently in the eyes of the law, and in some cases this could have serious consequences (where tolerance for certain types of difference is outlawed, for example homosexuality in certain countries).
In other contexts, and more pervasively throughout the world, it operates informally in everyday settings where those who are ‘other’ may be reminded of their non-conformance and treated differently, and typically less favourably. In the context of the workplace, the female body can be treated as the ‘other’ to the male body. A man’s body may traditionally be associated with work, particularly physical work. A women’s body stands in contrast to the male body by being more frequently sexually objectified, and also judged by its bodily cycles, pregnancy and hormonal changes, what Dworkin and Wach, amongst others, have termed the ‘leaky and uncontrollable body’.
Similarly, the emotional stereotype of the woman- the assumption that we make about women being more emotional than men – has often been considered the antithesis of the rational and masculine mind required for the workplace. Although today these notions are challenged, they remain in our societies, as well illustrated by the 2011 American documentary film ‘Miss Representation’. This leads us to conclude that the binary is not of two equivalent partnering terms, but a hierarchy of the dominant over the ‘other’. In this case men are considered the stronger sex, and women the weaker sex and masculinity is prized over femininity in many contexts, such as the workplace and in positions of power.
These constructs may seem out-dated to many of us, but still exist in some cultures in strong forms, and exist in subtle forms in many others, as reflected in the evidence we looked at when exploring examples of gender inequality. The qualification of the binary as two non-equivalent terms is also reinforced through the sexualisation and objectification of the female body. Both men and women are sexualised, but this is significantly more prevalent for women, as is witnessed in media and social discourse. You are far more likely to see images of scantily dressed and provocatively posed women than you are men.
The simplification of the gender binary is also inherently exclusionary, as those who do not identify with the binary fall outside of it altogether and are only recognisable as ‘other’ to the norm. Those who see themselves as gender-queer – who do not identify with any gender and may move between or combine masculinity and femininity, or identify with neither – may face the most significant challenges in terms of being accepted, and are the most likely to be vulnerable in society based on their identity. The gender binary plays a role in the assumptions behind and perpetuation of gender stereotypes and gender roles.
The identification of girls and boys from birth by sex is the start of a socialisation process that starts with a division based on differences. We are socialised into these roles – setting out how we should look, behave and feel - from birth. The division into male OR female, masculine OR feminine is reinforced through the way children are dressed, the activities they are given to learn from, and the way in which they are spoken to from a young age. From the moment a girl is wrapped in a pink blanket and a boy in a blue, gender role development begins. Colours of pink and blue are the first indicators typically used in Western society to distinguish female from male.
Young girls are often given dolls that encourage them to take on caring behaviours, whereas boys are typically given action men and machinery or construction toys that involve fighting or spatial problem solving respectively. The selection of toys help children to learn skills and develop intellectually and therefore what they are given is formative in their development. The binary helps retain these differences, by indicating that you should be either ‘this’ or ‘that’ but not both. This helps to reinforce and maintain the differences, which is detrimental to both men and women, as it inhibits non-gender conforming behaviours, and drives people to conform, perpetuating the gender binary. The gender binary leads to Gender stereotypes - assumptions about someone based on their gender.
These stereotypes negatively affect both men and women. Gender roles – that mean certain activities are linked with men or women. A hierarchy as, in a patriarchal society men and women are not treated as equal, and Exclusion for those who do not conform, treating them as abnormal. We’ll explore some of these issues in more detail when we look at gender roles and stereotypes next week, and the representations and idealisations of men and women in the media, in week three.

In this video Jemma Rimmer introduces the concepts of gender, sex, binary and non binary gender. Written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter.

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Understanding Gender Inequality

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