Elisha Sum | Our Genderation

Tori Amos once sang, “How a lion becomes a mouse by the woods.”

While writing cover letters for summer internships, I couldn’t help but worry about the effect my perceived gender would have on my potential employers, given that my name is Elisha. Would the assumption that I am female reframe the response to my application as opposed to if they knew I am male? Would knowing my real gender perhaps unconsciously result in more brownie points, especially since I applied to mostly feminist or women−centered organizations? Would they be shocked, or at least taken aback, if my perceived gender and sex didn’t coincide?

These questions highlight the fact that we live in a gendered society, in which we navigate the resultant power dynamics by way of socialized behaviors and reactions. We can neither escape the implications of gender nor ignore them; we do not live in a post−gender world any more than we live in a post−racial one.

As a beginning framework for analyzing our gendered world, returning to the final question mentioned above draws attention to the assumption that we wear our “sex” on our sleeves; that is to say, our sex and gender are often expected to be visually apparent and to correspond. It is thus a luxury when our bodies result from the harmonious phenotypic expression of our genotypic sex and the more abstract notion of our gender, for though they do differ, they are often conflated. For instance, documents and forms never deviate from the gender binary, offering just two boxes to check and using the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. Thus, for the purposes of this column, I define sex as solely rooted in biology and unchangeable and gender as a more dynamic social construction.

Our social milieu and our surroundings often impact the way in which our gender is expressed and received by others. For example, a man may confine himself to be hyper−masculinized — perhaps bragging about sexual conquests — among his male friends, but he will subscribe to a different version of masculinity in front of his boss. Though his sex remains the same throughout, its manifestation and understanding of it by others are different in the two situations. Although a simplified model, this example remains useful in understanding a social constructionist view of gender that posits that power is inevitability intertwined in its conception of gender.

In terms of gender relations, men as a whole wield more power than women, some men more so than other men, and some women more so than other women. Taking into account other variables of identity, such as race, sexuality, disability and weight, further complicates the dynamic but also provides a more profound perspective. Limiting the focus back to gender, the general group of men ranks highest in the hierarchy, regardless of individual men who may be lacking power, as we live in a patriarchal society. That is not to say we should ignore the plight of men, for they too are restricted by another set of conventions, but we cannot forget that systemic gender inequality still oppresses those deviating from hegemonic masculinity —including men — the patriarch of all types of masculinities.

We cannot dismiss the ideals of feminism seeking to equalize the playing field for all genders in all arenas of society because we cannot easily see the play of power dynamics. Power functions within groups and institutions and confers privileges to individuals. Often, without a critical eye and a larger sociological perspective, it becomes invisible to us. As a result, we reject the fact that gender inequality affects our lives, whether positively or negatively. We cannot ignore the intersection of our environment and all of our identities, whether they are biologically or socially based. Gender discrimination will continue, especially if we ignore the unequal power dynamics that exist between genders.

Elisha Sum is a junior majoring in English and French. He can be reached at Elisha.Sum@tufts.edu.

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