(Sorry for the giant break in this series… life happened!)
People are often seriously confused about social construction.
Socially constructed things are not less real than non-socially-constructed things. Money is a social construct: if everyone woke up one morning and decided that those little pieces of green paper were completely worthless, dollars would rapidly become only useful for ass-wiping purposes. However, if you decide that because money is a social construction you should be able to take as many items from stores as you like, the government (itself a social construction!) would probably send some nice people with guns after you.
Second, postmodernists and strawman versions of postmodernists, “reality is socially constructed” does not mean that trees only exist because everyone collectively agrees that trees exist. That is stupid. If everyone was adendronist, the trees would still exist happily photosynthesizing away. However, if a culture didn’t view “trees” as a meaningful concept, but classified “evergreens” and “non-evergreens” as separate categories, then for that culture trees do not exist, even though woody plants with secondary branches and a trunk do.
To understand how social construction works, imagine a man with some degree of attraction to men and women. In ancient Greece, he would have conceived of himself as an erastes, a lover of young boys who took the active, dominant and penetrating role. In Elizabethan England, he would have conceived of himself as a sodomite, a person who chose to commit the sin of male/male sex. Today, depending on his social group, he might think of himself as bisexual, pansexual, struggling with same-sex attraction, gay (by the “one drop” rule of homosexuality), homoflexible or simply queer.
Each of these different labels causes different behavior. A man who identifies as gay will probably not have sex with women, while a man who identifies as bisexual probably will. A man who identifies as pansexual or queer is more likely to be okay with dating people of a wide variety of gender presentations, performances or identities than a man who doesn’t. A man who sees himself as struggling with same-sex attraction might be celibate or seek out an ex-gay ministry. The erastes would have viewed teenage boys as the ultimate in desirability and would have almost certainly married a woman regardless of his actual preferences.
The attraction is the same; the behavior, mediated through social ideas, is not the same.
And now it’s time to mention, for the first time in this giantass series for a gender egalitarian blog, gender.
It is pretty clear that there are some aspects of gender that are biological, and some aspects of gender that are socially constructed. The “pink is for girls” thing, for instance, is socially constructed; however, men being taller than women is biological. However, a lot of other issues are far thornier.
Women and men have different brain structures. The hormonal arrangement of men and women is different; anecdotally, some trans people have reported personality changes once taking hormones. It seems implausible in the extreme that these would have absolutely no effect on men or women whatsoever.
On the other hand, we do know that some things about gender are cultural. For instance, some traits are different cross-culturally: in American culture, we have the Myth of Men Not Being Hot, while the Wodaabe have beauty contests for their men.
Besides, it would be simply bizarre to think the massive amount of gendered shit people go through for their entire lives has no effect on their personality. Gender role socialization begins at birth— parents will literally rate their children as littler, softer and finer-featured if they are female than if they are male, even when the children show no difference on objective scales.
As they grow older, children often become more insistent about their gender around preschool age (although whether that’s natural or a product of gender socialization who knows– and even many cis children may go through a period of insisting they are another gender and/or Batman) and may adopt more stereotypically gendered traits. Children of one gender may not realize that the toys or games of another gender is even an option. In addition, standard operant conditioning takes place: if you get parental and peer approval for playing football and bullied and shunned for playing with dolls, you will probably end up disliking dolls.
And that’s not even getting into complicated stuff like stereotype threat.
So by the time someone is ten years old, they’ve had years and years of gender shit in their heads.
At this point, I’m a gender differences agnostic, because I feel that is the most intellectually honest position. I figure that it’s probably not all biological, and it’s probably not all social, but which any particular trait is I will find out when the neuroscience comes in. Nevertheless, I still believe in reducing gender socialization as much as possible for one reason.
Regardless of the origin of the differences– men and women are far more alike than they are different.
Consider upper-body strength. It’s a bit hard to figure out how men could have been socialized into having more upper body strength, so that’s clearly primarily biological. However, there are female Olympic athletes and male couch potatoes, and we can clearly agree that a woman who can lift three times her body weight is a “real” woman, the same way that a man who only lifts the tortilla chip bag is still a “real” man. And if we decided that couch potato dude should have to carry the table when we move because men are stronger than women…
A lot of gender differences in our society are couch-carrying differences. Men might be more aggressive than women, but that doesn’t mean we should pressure men who are not aggressive into being more so. Women might have lower sex drives than men, but that doesn’t make slut shaming okay. These bell curves overlap one hell of a lot, and I disapprove of anything that makes life more miserable for a bunch of people for no reason.
Also, I’m kinda pissed because I never got action figures as a kid, and I would have totally loved Hulk fists with Real! Punching! ACTION!!!!