dangers of the male/female gender binary
Clear distinctions between the male and female sexes are continually reinforced throughout society, perpetually highlighting differences between the sexes, while any similarities are often disregarded. Due to scientific discourses, which repeatedly exaggerate differences between men and women, many have come to accept that the two genders are subject to biological determinism, and that one’s social life is generally defined by their biology. Feminist neuroscientist, Cordelia Fine has noticed such tendencies, realising the extent to which science is being used in order to justify the functioning of Western social structures and their over-emphasis of gender distinctions. The significance of such trends has had a substantial impact on societies, polarising the genders and ostracising individuals who do not conform to these gender dichotomies.
Before embarking on understanding the significance of the exaggeration of male and female disparities, we need to acknowledge the complexity of defining ‘male’ and ‘female’. Countless individuals do not fit in to the socially defined roles that associate the male sex with masculinity and females with femininity, as one’s biological sex doesn’t always define their social gender in reality. While many search for evidence to support the differences between men and women within the body, such differences are actually found within the social tendency to systematise gendered bodies as being different.
Scientific studies that focus upon the biological differences between male and female subjects have come to define the male brain as being more lateralised or specialised, and this has infiltrated popular beliefs regarding the genders, contributing to the tendency to grant a superior status to the male body.
Many have argued that behavioural differences between the sexes stem from their differing brain structures, and thus the stereotypes of empathetic, communicative females and most systematic, logic males have emerged. This is a dangerous and damaging reality, as it contributes to the continuation a gender binary. Essentially, the dichotomisation in Western discourses of male/female works as a polarising, ostracising process for all those individuals who do not adhere to the gender roles idealised within Western culture. It is a bizarre, backwards and unnecessary aspect of our culture to categorise individuals within such rigid binary oppositions, rather than celebrating in the gift that is human diversity.
Extending on the biological justification of sex differences based in the brain is the pervasive and influential nature of language as a tool to imply gendered variances. The nature of language within those scientific textbooks that detail the reproductive systems of males and females is a perfect example of this tendency. These are the books that we are given in school, the books that assist in perpetuating damaging conceptualisations of gendered subjects. Evidence shows that male and female reproductive processes described in our science books continually perceive the feminine egg as the ‘passive’, dependent foil to the heroic, masculine sperm. The distinctions are further embellished through descriptions of menstruation as a wasteful process, whereas the production of sperm is depicted as a successful process.
Ultimately this shows how science has become a tool through which cultural tendencies are reinforced and justified, representing the fundamental dominancy of male bodies within our society.
The problem of gender binarism continues to influence conceptions of embodiment. Findings of apparent distinctions between the natural behaviours and movements of males and females have been made by academics such as Iris Marion Young. Young explains the very substance of femininity as a condition that restricts a woman’s situation within her society, both emotionally and physically, so that the embodiment of a female is considered to be one that uses little physical space. Think about the everyday postures and mannerisms you come across in the street – women are constantly told to ‘act like a lady’. We are told to cross our legs, sit up straight, not to act ‘masculine’. Similarly, men who do not exhibit behaviourally ‘masculine’ tendencies – perhaps through the way they walk – are ridiculed for being ‘too feminine’. The strict policing of bodies our culture enforces is an absurd and harmful process. We need to be more progressive, accepting and open to the possibility of moving past the gender binary that currently dictates our lived experience.
One cannot dispute the fact that there are numerous differences between the physical composition of the male and female body. However, the differences that are continually reinforced and restated through influential arenas such as scientific discourse and academic research are frequently overemphasised. The significance of this tendency is that societal values continue to adapt views that exaggerate the differences between the male and female body, which persistently results in the polarisation of any individual who resides outside of these distinct boundaries. Furthermore, while any similarities between the sexes tend to be overlooked and downplayed, the argued differences are predominantly culturally constructed beliefs that are reinforced through societal processes. In order to overcome the biological and social splits that have emerged between males and females, one must begin to acknowledge the difference between perceived and factual conclusions that polarise the sexes, whilst recognising similarities that exist between the male and the female body.