Feminist writers often hold that the female body is a cultural construct that dictates women’s experiences and behavior. They dispute naturalistic explanations of gender that presume that sex determines one’s socio-cultural identity and role. Atwood (1990) espouses this position when she notes that society has normalized the perception of the female body as a sexual object with accessories that are meant to please men. She conceives gender as a stylization of the body according to social norms. Feminist theorists consider it an embodiment of cultural ideals.
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When Shaw and Lee (2011) claim that femininity or masculinity is a quality inscribed onto a body, they clearly emphasize the cultural construction of gender as either male or female. This duality is designed to control the expression of femininity. In her part, Bordo (1993) likens the female body to a text engraved with patriarchal ideas of Western philosophers, such as Plato. This paper draws on different conceptions of the female body to illustrate how all gender constructions are inherently oppressive to women through punitive cultural norms.
The feminist theory articulates the cultural influences on gender construction. The positions of different theorists are premised on the social construction of sexual differences, identities, and roles. For example, Shaw and Lee (2011) explain how gender duality confines men and women to certain normative standards and expectations in terms of dress and beauty. The male/female binary and other body or class categorizations, such as abled/disabled and racial groups, create privilege and oppression (Shaw & Lee, 2011). These arguments expose and deconstruct how society has created systems of inequality and subjugation. In particular, gender assignment at birth assigns one to a feminine or masculine development trajectory. The failure to conform to the expectations of a male or female in terms of behavior and expression of identity often attracts social sanctions.
Evidently, the construction of gender is a process that is socially shared and one that is rooted in politics and history. Gender identities are prescriptive in the sense that they are concerned with rules and norms (Madsen, 2000). They do not express feminine or masculine realities. Rather, they conceal gender in a cultural interplay of normative standards and social sanctions. In this regard, the visual body becomes a subject of dominant patriarchal systems. Women have to conform to distorted masculine traditions and expectations conveyed through the media. Sexualized beauty ideals, medical interventions, female reproductive health, rape, and abortion are all means of social control. They confine the woman to a status of being an object of male gratification and pleasure.
Certainly, gender is a pervasive quality of patriarchy. The binary gender system socializes girls to traditional feminine roles and qualities of being caring and emotional. On the other hand, it requires boys to be rational and aggressive (Madsen, 2000). This duality prescribes social sanctions for not sticking to the gendered script. Men embodying feminine qualities and women who take up masculine identities or roles are subjects of stigma and prejudice. Gender is consciously inscribed on the body to create systems of privilege and oppression (Madsen, 2000). It is not developed through nature but by patriarchal traditions that are meant to control and direct women.
Gender is not a fixed, inborn trait but a quality born out of male and female relationships. In a family setup, stereotypical norms assign different tasks and responsibilities to men and women and ascribe distinct characteristics to each sex (Parker & Aggleton, 2007). As a result, individuals view chores as either feminine or masculine. Men are considered muscular and strong, which make them good in technical roles, while women are perceived as sensitive and better caregivers (Parker & Aggleton, 2007). These stereotypes shape a gendered self-concept that directs and controls behavior. The same models are replicated in work, politics, and other settings to preserve established gender relations.
Social Construction of Gender
The social construction of ‘the self’ leads to power inequalities in most cultures. Human interactions and relations are influenced by gender norms that draw a distinction between femininity and masculinity. The process of constructing a gendered self-concept begins in early childhood and is then reinforced through relationships later in life (Parker & Aggleton, 2007). As a result, a relational self is created to govern relations with people of the opposite sex. Members of the dominant category expect the other group to be submissive. These self-concepts are internalized, becoming models through which society controls behavior and power relations.
The social construction of gender creates polarized categories. In our gender-polarized culture, one stereotyped construction of the self (male) is granted privilege, while the other version (female) does not. The socially dominant models are so pervasive to the extent that despite the progress in ensuring gender parity in law and employment, social relationships between men and women have not changed much. It appears that stereotyped norms are an unchangeable part of individual and collective identity. Although masculine and feminine categories may seem ineffectual, once they are tied to gender expectations and norms they become an important instrument for perpetuating power inequality in the society.
Atwood, M. (1990). The female body. The Michigan Review, 29, 490-493. Web.
Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Madsen, D. L. (2000). Feminist theory and literary practice. London, UK: Pluto Press.
Parker, R., & Aggleton, P. (2007). Culture, society and sexuality: A reader (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Shaw, S. M., & Lee, J. (2011). Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.