Gender, Theories of

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Gender, Theories of

Traditionally gender has been used primarily as a grammatical term. Gender aspects constitute a subclass within a grammatical class (noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms. In the second half of the twentieth century, largely through the rise of second-wave feminism, gender entered into everyday language either as a synonym of sex—serving to distinguish individuals on the basis of their reproductive capacities into male or female—or, in contrast, to set off precisely such organic or biological sex differences from the socioculturally acquired roles and positions that differentiate men from women in a given society. Whereas in some contexts the distinction between sex as biological fact and gender as social acquisition is useful, it is by no means widely observed, and considerable variation in usage occurs at all levels.

Most twenty-first-century dictionaries define gender as the condition of being female or male (or sex), but also include the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex into its meanings. To further confound the various uses to which the term can be put, gender may additionally refer to an individual's sexual identity, especially in relation to society or culture. The confusion about its specific reference, and the occasional convergence or sliding into one another of its various meanings, cannot merely be reduced to linguistic issues. The multiplicity of meaning embodied by the notion of gender also points up the complex interrelations among its variously constitutive components, that is, those of sex, gender, and sexuality, as lived phenomena and as analytical concepts. It furthermore reflects the divergent ways in which these interrelated concepts have been diversely, and often contradictorily, theorized both in and outside feminist discourse.


Although the term gender as synonym for sex has a history that goes back to the fifteenth century, prior to the 1960s it was rarely used in nongrammatical contexts. As an analytic term with reference to sex-related categories, gender was introduced into contemporary critical thought by way of sexological science. In 1955 psychologist and sexologist John Money proposed the concept of a gender role to "signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively" (Haig 2004, p. 91), including but not being restricted to aspects of sexuality, in the sense of eroticism. According to Money gender role is acquired in early childhood and may differ from a person's sex. Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller extended the distinction between biological sex and social gender by introducing the notion of gender identity, a term used to define "one's sense of being a member of a particular sex," as distinct from the "overt [gendered] behavior one displays in society" (Haig 2004, p. 93). Although Money himself believed that gender role was particularly resistant to change, it was precisely the possibility to separate off innate aspects of sex from learned or acquired gender roles, and hence for refuting the Freudian idea that anatomy is destiny, which rendered the notion of gender attractive to feminists, and apparently helpful in their attempts to challenge the normative hierarchy of sexual relations.


Whereas there is no ultimate feminist consensus about the meaning of gender, its varying usages share one thing in common, and that is the explicit rejection of the belief in gender as a natural phenomenon. A natural, and still widely spread, common sense attitude to gender assumes that differences between men and women are biologically—or genetically—given; that gender is invariant; that there are two and only two genders standing in opposition to each other; that genitals and reproductive capacities form the defining aspects of gender; that the male/female dichotomy is a fixed structure that cannot be modified and that determines the kind of lives people can live; and that all individuals can—and, indeed, must—be classified as either masculine or feminine, or else enter into the realm of pathology. Against such naturalist assumptions about maleness and femaleness, and about the determinations of (in)appropriately gendered selves, feminists in the early 1970s introduced the term gender in order to call into question any universalist claims about what it is to be a man or a woman. By the end of the 1980s, the use of the term gender was not only widely adopted, but had also given rise to a variety of usages, and concomitant contestations of its meaning.

Early second-wave feminist scholars used gender to reject biological determinism by presenting evidence of the historically and culturally varied ways in which femininity and masculinity may be expressed and understood. As Mary Hawkesworth (1997) points out, the term has subsequently been used to a wide range of effects, for instance, to analyze the social organization of gender relations; to explore the ways in which body, sex, and sexuality acquire and produce meaning; to explain the unequal social benefits of biological differences; to demonstrate the operations of social power in the lives of individuals; to illuminate the structure of the psyche; and to account for individual identity and social intelligibility. Depending on their ideological and theoretical commitments, different scholars furthermore use gender in strikingly different ways. Some regard it as an attribute of individuals, as interpersonal relation, or as a mode of social organization. Others emphasize the gendered aspects of social status, sex roles, and sexual stereotypes. Yet others consider gender a structure of consciousness, as internalized ideology, or as performative practice. The processes of gender—that is, the ways in which human beings come to be split into male and female kinds and gradually acquire their gendered (sense of) selves—have additionally been traced to divergent sources: From a product of socialization or disciplinary practices, to an effect of language, a mode of perception, or a structural feature of labor and power relations, gender has been variously discussed as a multifaceted phenomenon whose causes, purposes, and origins are neither as clear cut nor as easily identifiable as the still pervasively influential beliefs constituting the natural attitude suggest.


Within the expanding domain of gender theory, three aspects are commonly understood to operate simultaneously and in interconnected manners. First, gender is a feature of subjectivity, that is to say, people conceive of and recognize themselves in gendered terms, both individually and collectively. Second, gender functions as a social variable, structuring the ways in which different kinds of people—classified in, among others, the binary terms of sex difference—tend to assume different social positions and pursue different and largely preordained life courses within a multiply stratified sociocultural realm. Third, gender designates the cultural representations and significations of what it is to be (classified as) a man or a woman. Within the terms of this overall conceptual agreement, it is possible to trace a number of broadly defined schools of thought that have variously dominated theoretical debates on gender during the two final decades of the twentieth century and that continue to exert their influence in critical cultural studies and the social sciences in the early twenty-first century. A provisional distinction can be made between naturalist, social constructionist, and postmodernist approaches to gender on the understanding that considerable overlap exists among these general categories, and furthermore, that such labels can only serve as umbrella terms for realms of thought that can be further differentiated into a great many distinct theoretical models.

The noted predominance of natural attitudes toward gender can be directly connected to the prestige and authority that have generally been attributed to the modern sciences in the European and North American world since their emergence in the eighteenth century. The so-called nature-nurture debate (a shorthand term for discussions about the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities versus personal experiences in determining or causing differences in physical and behavioral traits), receiving new impetus by recent developments in genetic and sociobiological research, has inevitably played a role in contemporary theories of gender. Still, the most significant differences in conceptualization within gender and sexuality studies have evolved from social constructionist and postmodernist trends in critical thought.

The introduction of the term gender in 1970s European and North American feminism in the first place served to liberate women from their marginalized and oppressed position in society and to expose the idea of natural gender as a male-biased ruse that served to keep women in their subordinate place on the basis of their reproductive capacities. Giving credence to Simone de Beauvoir's (1908–1986) famous dictum, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (1989, p. 267), gender could be employed as an emancipatory tool that would ultimately allow women equal access to positions of power in society that had hitherto been the privilege of men. If gender is a social and not a natural phenomenon, there is no intrinsic reason why women should be confined to the margins of culture on the grounds of their essential difference from men. With gaining equality as their central aim, early second-wave feminists thus used theories of gender to be assimilated into a social landscape in which biological sex differences would no longer count against their viability in relation to a universal standard of humanity.


By the early 1980s a focus on group difference, that is, on a singular identity aspect or subjective category, came to prevail within various projects of critical sociocultural analysis in the European and North American academy. In feminist thought gender became the organizing term for a theoretical and political critique of heteropatriarchal social relations and was used to highlight the additional value and validity of a marginalized, in this case, feminine, perspective. Rather than attempting to include women in a gender-neutral universe in which all people are considered the same, proponents of gender difference theory defend an alternative worldview that not only recognizes but actually foregrounds gender difference as a positive value and as an "antidote to the androcentric organization of society" (Beasley 2005, p. 21). The insistence on the specific positioning of women in society in this context does not necessarily mean that gender becomes renaturalized, or that gender differences are conceived as essential or intrinsic. Especially within the branch of feminist thought known as sexual difference thinking, the controlling idea is that gender identities have no meaning or significance in and of themselves, but that the feminine represents in cultural terms difference from the masculine norm. As Australian political scientist Chris Beasley maintains, "gender (Feminine and Masculine) is here not so much about the actual characteristics of men and women as the exemplary symbolic register for power and hierarchy in society" (Beasley 2005, p. 21).

Gender difference theories find various equivalents in critical sexuality studies in which a strong focus on lesbian/gay identities equally led to the highlighting and privileging of marginalized perspectives that were suggested to offer more enlightening insights into the operations of heteropatriarchal culture and its underlying system of power relations. It is nonetheless partly as the result of critiques from lesbians, as well as from nonwhite feminist women, that gender difference theories came most severely under attack. Challenging its focus on the singular difference of gender, defined in term of the masculine/feminine dichotomy, lesbians and women of color, from the mid 1980s onward, began to challenge any form of gender theorizing that involved the suppression of other differences, such as differences of sexuality and racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. According to these critics gender categories necessarily function differently within different sociocultural locations and are, moreover, always complexly inflected with racial, ethnic, and sexual meanings. Instead of merely adding such differences, however, to any overarching mode of gender analysis, later scholars dealing with sexuality, as well as race, ethnicity, and imperialism, seek to understand the ways in which gender and other differences operate in mutually constitutive ways. As no aspect of any person's gendered self can be detached from other aspects of her/ his subjectivity and social positionality, such theorists recognize that gender, in its various forms and permutations, is always race, as well as sexually and socially, specific.


The recognition of the mutually constitutive character of multiple differences in the processes by which people acquire their gendered selves is equally central to theories of gender moving beyond the equality versus difference debate and that can be situated within the paradigm of social constructionism, a more general trend of critical thought that became significant in the course of the 1980s. Social constructionist theorists of gender do not regard difference as something that is an intrinsic part or essential aspect of identity/subjectivity, but, instead, the product of power relations. Adopting a view on power inspired by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926–1984), they see power as both an oppressive and limiting structure, and as the generating force of meaning and knowledge. Criticizing any notion of identity as fixed or authentic, social constructionists deny the existence of a preexisting core to the self and, instead, assert that identities are made (differently) by the structuring operations of power and knowledge systems, a process in which discursive power is seen to play a preeminent role. Their equivocal position in relation to human essence entails that such theorists reject the emphasis on or highlighting of group identities, be they defined in terms of gender, sexuality, or any other aspect of differentiation. They do not, however, go so far as to reject identity categories as a whole. Acknowledging the potential sedimentation and stability of such categories over time, social constructionist thinkers continue to pay attention to the concrete operations and functions of multiple identity categories in historically and culturally specific material realities.

The most radical theories of gender have come out of postmodern schools of thought that came to predominate both feminist and critical sexuality studies in the 1990s and 2000s. With an overall focus on the multiplicity and instability of differences, postmodern theorists of gender resist any notion of firm or fixed identity categories. On the contrary their major aim is to fundamentally destabilize and denaturalize the notion of identity itself, whether conceived in group or individual terms. Generally, but by no means exclusively, inspired by such queer thinkers as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, postmodernists propound a largely discursive account of gender construction, emphasizing differences among and within all human beings. The central issue, however, is not the multiple nature or mutually constitutive aspects of categories of difference but, rather, the questioning of the status of differences as such. Conceiving of human beings as the products of both material and discursive power, postmodernist thinkers reject the idea of a self lying behind the expressions and performance of differentiated identities, regarding gender as no more and no less than an obligatory masquerade. Following Friedrich Nietzsche's adage that "'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed" (1995), they deny the possibility and existence of a prior, true, or authentic self underneath the embodied practices of gender. Seeing power as a multiple, constitutive force that operates in a variety of ways to produce what subsequently comes to be seen as an interior core or preexisting identity, postmodernists conceive of gender as no more than the effect of power and, as such, as a performative act that ostensibly calls into being what it is supposed to express. Formulated in thoroughly antiessentialist terms, postmodern notions of gender not only deny any ulterior truth behind identity, they also implicitly reject the supposition of subjective agency on which the initial distinction between biological sex and cultural gender was founded.

Indeed, the widespread acceptance in feminist discourse from the 1980s onward of the concept of gender as a technical term for the socially constructed aspects of femininity and masculinity—as distinct from biologically determined differences between men and women—has, paradoxically, led to a more general adoption of gender as a simple synonym for that from which it was supposed to mark itself off. This is partly the result of the fact that it has proved difficult to maintain such a distinction, especially in situations in which processes of gender appeared to involve an interaction between biology and culture. Another reason the conceptual distinction between the two terms has become increasingly blurred might be that, given the relative semantic indeterminacy of gender, scholars who were not so familiar with the divergent emphases in feminist debates about its meanings "interpreted gender as a simple synonym for sex and adopted it as such in their own writings" (Haig 2004, p. 94). In postmodern theories of gender, the deconstruction of the sex/gender distinction is not, however, so much the result of explanatory inadequacy or simple confusion but a deliberate attempt to call into question the presumed naturalness of not only the categories of gender and sexuality but also those of sex and the sexed body.

Following Butler's cautionary observation that "'being' a sex or a gender is fundamentally impossible" (Butler 1990, p. 19), postmodernist thinkers understand gender not as a noun or a set of attributes of a previously sexed, presocial body but, instead, as a series of acts, repeated over time, that constitutes the corporeal identity that it purports to be. Instead of seeing the sexed body as a text upon which culture inscribes its gendered meanings, Butler defines gender as the process that constructs the internal coherence of sex, (hetero)sexual desire, and (hetero)sexual practice in the subject: "Gender is the discursive/cultural means by which 'sexed nature' or 'natural sex' is produced and established as 'prediscursive,' prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts" (Butler 1990, p. 7). The stylized repetition of gender-inflected actions, words, and gestures through time gradually gives the actor the feeling of naturalness of the body and of heterosexuality that is required in modern societies.

Functioning as a regulatory regime, gender in Butler's work becomes the causal force of (what is presumed to be natural) sex, so that what was believed to be sex in earlier modes of gender theory, in postmodern discourses is established as the product of the operations of gender. Within this framework gender itself is conceived as the effect of power structures, organized in institutions, practices, and discourses that regulate and establish its various shapes and meanings. The most important sites at which gender itself is produced, according to Butler, are the mutually reinforcing systems of, on the one hand, phallogocentrism, a neologism coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida referring to the perceived tendency of European and North American thought to locate the center of any text or discourse within the logos—Greek for word, reason, or spirit—and the phallus, a representation of the male genitalia, and, on the other hand, compulsory heterosexuality. The taboo against homosexuality thus ultimately comes to account for the naturalization of the body in gendered terms, whereas gender, as the repetition of a series of stylized acts, simultaneously becomes the cultural force that generates the belief in the naturalness of heterosexuality. As the central organizing principle of gender, heterosexuality in Butler's thought constitutes the epistemic regime that drives the division of humans into male and female, and that structures our understanding of the body as biological.

Although Butler has acquired a central position in contemporary gender theory, her work has neither been unquestionably adopted nor remained unchallenged. Especially with regard to the political efficacy of her model—which leaves little, if any, room for the contestation of existing gender regimes—as well as the place of the body in her work, this extreme form of antiessentialist and antihumanist theorizing has urged other thinkers to point up the need to "supplement her account with insights from psychoanalytic and materialist theorists" of gender, and to "attempt to weave these strands together in … discussions of sexuality, the body, transgendering, and the politics of identity" (Alsop et al. 2002, p.7). Nonetheless, the influence of Butler's performative model of gender supplemented with the destabilization of the links between sex and gender by queer theorists has opened up possibilities for such multiple and indeterminate sex/gender/sexual positionings that subsequent theories of gender cannot but result in the further deconstruction of what were for a long time believed to be stable, universal facts of nature.

see also Body, Theories of; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Sexuality.


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                                        renée c. hoogland