Back to Basics: The Performance and Presentation of Gender

This post is part seven in an ongoing series about the basics of feminism. [part 1] [part 2[part 3] [part 4] [part 5]  [part 6]

One of the things that can really trip people up and make feminism seem like an exclusionary club is all the different terms people use and feel like they have to know. There’s also a considerable amount of gender and sexuality theory wrapped up in modern feminism, making it feel like if you’re not an academic, then you have nothing to contribute. The learning curve ends up being quite steep.

I was introduced to modern gender theory in a class in graduate school. I took a course in literary criticism during my first year at Baylor, and each of the students was assigned a different theory that they had to study and give a conference-length paper on (about a 15-20 minute presentation). Going in reverse alphabetical order, I ended up being assigned Queer Theory, where I was introduced to the idea of gender as a spectrum.

This was a new concept for me, but as I’ve mentioned in previous writings, this was the beginning of my identification as a feminist. The ideas behind queer and gender theory are relatively simple, but often hard for people to grasp. After all, our culture is so deeply steeped in the idea that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus that it’s often hard to get people to recognize that it’s simply not that simple.

There are several accepted principles in gender theory.

First: Gender is a social construct.

The marks of what is read as “man” or “woman” in vary significantly from culture to culture. What is “manly” and “feminine” in the US is not the same in Japan, and so on. As such, there is no intrinsic act or dress or presentation that is inherently gendered. Wearing a dress is simply wearing a dress. Wearing a suit is simply wearing a suit. Gender, as it exists with its markers of masculinity and femininity, are constructed on the basis of the society in which we exist – and they change with the times.

I lived in Japan for about 10 months in 2010. One of the parts of culture shock that struck me was how much I noticed the differing gender presentations throughout the country. Japan is still, in many ways, quite patriarchal – when I asked my mostly female students what they planned to do with their English degrees, the most common reply was to “marry an American husband.”

But gender presentations varied considerably from what the American church would consider the “universal truths” of masculinity. Men – grown businessmen – walked around with Hello Kitty backpacks. On the street, instead of orange traffic cones, there were plastic pink bunnies (I’m not kidding. See the picture.) Among the pop stars my students told me about, androgyny seemed to be an attractive feature.

I don’t say all this as a point of “look at how weird Japan is” but to refute the idea that masculinity and femininity is some kind of universal truth that all cultures understand. It’s simply not – at least not if you base it in the presentation of gender.

This is an axiom of gender theory that is necessary for a cogent feminist argument. Gender, if it is a socially constructed presentation, no longer has bearing on ability, roles, or merit. If the markers of my feminine gender are social constructions grounded in a specific time and place, appeals to the Timeless Truths about what gender means become moot.

This, ultimately, is what the current wave of feminism is about. This isn’t to say that gender doesn’t mean anything, but that supposed universal truths don’t necessarily exist. Gender, instead, takes on the meaning we ascribe to it. My femininity means things to me, specifically, in terms of how I choose to present myself to the world and my experience of my life. But what is true for me about my femininity is not necessarily true for others. This, ultimately, is what feminism is about – creating a safe world in which one’s gender does not and cannot impact employment, pay, and treatment by others. Your gender should not subject you to violence, or place you in a subservient role, or limit whether you can preach God’s word.

Second: Gender and assigned sex are different.

Because gender is a social construct, something that exists within culture and not as an innate characteristic, one’s reproductive characteristics have little bearing on one’s socially constructed gender. When we are born, the doctors assign us a gender based on our sexual reproductive characteristics. Feminist gender theory says that this act necessarily limits how we perceive gender, as assigned sex carries with it a number of cultural assumptions and limitations.

Because gender can be fluid, one’s assigned sex can and often is different from the gender a person feels they fit into. This is what being transgender or non-binary means. Gender, instead of existing on a binary, exists as a spectrum, with people existing as all different points on a line. To be cisgender is to have a gender identity that matches with one’s assigned at birth sex. To be transgender is to have a differing gender identity from that assigned sex.

This, in essence, is why it’s harmful to place gender within physical characteristics – not all men have penises. Not all women have vaginas. Reducing gender – a complex construction of identity – down to physical characteristics does very real harm to people by erasing who they are as people. We do not exist for and are not defined by our genitalia – which is ultimately a feminist statement.

Third: Embodied Experience is Important for Christian Belief

It is an important Christian belief that bodies matter. However, you will find a lot of mainstream Christian discussion that is very reductive in its thinking on gender. They talk of women as birth givers, with men as the providers of the seed. This reductionism erases trans identities from the church. Such reduction also subtly erases the actual importance of individual bodies. If women are birth givers, the Good News of the Gospel is not relevant to women who cannot or choose not to give birth. If men are the providers of the seed, the Good News of the Gospel is not relevant to men who do not have penises.

The beauty of the Gospel is that it is liberating for all peoples as they are, in their lived experiences. If we reduce gender to a socially constructed idea based solely out of reproductive characteristics of sex, we flatten and destroy the beauty of the Gospel message for the Church Universal. We end up with a church of roles, a staged play, instead of a Church of community and love.

This is why the a robust feminism within the Christian Church is important. It opens the applicability of the gospel to people’s lived experiences, creates a world in which people who know God is speaking call down the Kingdom of God. It gives us room for each person’s experience, for each individual talent to bring their work into the larger Body, and for all of us to live and benefit from the community.