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Doing Gender – How Society Creates Differences Between Girls and Boys

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In this essay I discuss that “doing gender means creating differences between girls and boys and women and men….” (West & Zimmerman 2002:13) I am concentrating on the female perspective, how societyputs forth expectations of what is ‘natural’ or biological even though, in some cases, it can be quite demeaning and degrading. I am using some examples from the local media and also a few childhoodexperiences that have helped me to now strongly suspect that the quote from Simone Beauvoir (1972) “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” most likely has quite a bit of truth to it.

There is continuing controversy about the differences between girls and boys, men and women, the biological make-up and also how men and women grow up in society and are treated in different ways. Questions can be asked about the gender and sexuality of male or female when itcomes to girls and boys, men and women, and whether they are heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual or any other recognizable orientation. The ‘fixed in stone’ two-gender system is touted byvarious conservative groups, especially in some socio-political or religious arenas. It differs from country to country.

The Netherlands seems to be ahead of many other countries in it’s ‘liberalism’. In anarticle called ‘Pop singer steps in for pregnant MP’ written in The Press by David Charter, “The Netherlands has become well known for its progressive social legislation, including the first legal gay marriage and adoption in the world as well as the first legal euthanasia.” (The Press, Christchurch, Wednesday, April 30, 2008). New Zealand has considered itself progressive, in the past, as the first country in the world to allow women to vote for parliamentary elections. NewZealand also had the world’s first transsexual MP, Georgina Beyer, who was elected to parliament in 1999 and who left in 2007.

My childhood experience of ‘doing gender’ was growing up as a girl/adolescent, and both challenging and attempting to adapt to what is expected of a girl at that time. The period of time was the early1970’s and I was growing up as a missionary kid, on a remote mission station in Malawi, Africa. This was probably around the time that women were throwing their knickers at Tom Jones. When one of the newly arrived American missionary kids, 7 year old Catherine, attempted toteach me one of the Beatles’ hits, “I want to hold your hand.”, I screwed my nose up at her, to her surprise, and said, “Ha ha! That’s so silly!” Because of a conservative Christian upbringing and beingaway from the rest of the world, my knowledge of western culture was very limited. I didn’t know about famous musicians like the Beatles, Tom Jones, or Elvis Presley until I was back in New Zealand and in mylate teens. On this small mission station we had no television or adequate radio coverage, other than some tribal African musicians who sounded very much like, Jamaican born, ‘Shaggy’ does now and Idefinitely wouldn’t call his song “Angel” ‘silly’. Catherine was a similar age to my youngest brother and they got along like best mates.

She adamantly refused to conform to the ‘dress code’ which was a strict governmental law, required of all girls and women in Malawi. Females were required to wear dresses or skirts and the knees had tobe covered. The consequences were a fine, sometimes jail, and in some instances deportation, which meant being removed from your home and put on a plane, back ‘home’. This also meant losing your home and all the possession therein. In the culture, decreed by the Malawian Government, women were required to look like women, men to look like men, and in a very conservative way. Therefore upon arrival to Malawi, from the USA with her family, Catherine had her hair cut short, wore normal boys’ clothes and practically behaved as a boy. The police, whose job it was to watch out for women’s knees and deal out the punishments required, fortunately saw her as a boy. The government also had censors who attended to any magazines or newspapers that came into the country. Any ‘offending’ bodyparts were dutifully painted over with special black paint. The bodyparts beingthose of women, of course.

Catherine’s older sister Karin was the same age as me, 12 years old. Her parents had the latest ‘mod cons’ shipped out from the USA and her bedroom was decked out with hot pink shag pile carpet and a white fourposter bed with gold trimming and pale pink floral fabric, which flowed delicately in all the right places. My bedroom had the bare necessities, which was all I really needed or wanted. My bedroom was very basic with no signs of femininity and I was okay with that. I also didn’t like wearing frills or lace. I thought it was rather ‘lame’. What I initially found very fascinating about Karin was thatshe had ‘boobs’, which she was particularly proud of, and I was very flat chested. I’d never met anyone my age with ‘boobs’ before. She convinced me that that’s what boys like, and also emphasized the greatimportance of being liked by boys. She persuaded me to wear one of her old training bras and stuff it with tissues. I was so in ‘awe’ of her that I complied.

There were only a couple of older boys on the mission station and they were actually teenagers, so their approval of our maturing young bodies, well… hers in particular, was very important. Before Karin had arrived the thought of attracting the attention of a boy didn’t even register in my mind seeing as I was just one of them, mostly. I grew up with two brothers and mostly all male cousins so taking part in ‘boyish’ activities came naturally to me. In Malawi we climbed trees and rocks, rode motorbikes through mud and bush, but still as dutiful law abiding ‘citizen’ wore my dress, which I tucked into my knickers as, required. Karin had put a damper on that bycoming along, in all her feminine glory, and seemed to get a big kick out of showing me how to stuff a bra, shave my legs, and pluck my eyebrows. I was well on my way to constructing my gender as a very’girly’ woman.

In the 21st Century girls are being coaxed into attracting attention of the boys and even men. Professional models are increasingly becoming more provocative which in turn influences public expectations of how young girls should look. Young girls look at these models also, and often want to emulate them. To a lot of these girls this is what being a ‘natural’ woman is all about. Many parents of young girls are rather concerned about this trend which is particularly evident in anarticle in The Press, courtesy of The Times. It regards a teen that is upset, namely singer and ‘television sensation’ Miley Cyrus, and the photo provided of her by Reuters was taken at the Kid’s Choice Awardsin Los Angeles last month. The article is called ‘Photos ‘meant to be artsy’ and describes how 15 year old Miley had had to apologise to her teen fans for a photos taken of her and published in Vanity Fairmagazine.

The Times says, “The picture of the adolescent star posing topless, clutching a satin sheet over her chest, led to angry mothers threatening to hold bonfire parties to burn Hannah Montanamerchandise…..The photos in the June issue of Vanity Fair are seen to have marked a loss of innocence of America’s’ favourite child actress. Millions of children aged six to 14 watch Cyrus, the daughterof the country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus, play a schoolgirl who has a double life as a pop star in the Disney series.”In another culture like Russia, for example, girls and women are so pressured into looking and acting sexually provocative in order to obtain and also keep a husband (preferably rich) or boyfriend that awoman called Yulia Varra is running a ‘Sex School’ to teach women from as young as 15 years old the art of ‘seduction’ which involves using lollipops to ‘discover the finer points of fellatio’.

This article, inMarie Claire magazine (May 2008) written by Abagail Haworth, states “Varra’s approach is to teach women how to gain power over men using classic feminine and sexual wiles. To the Western feminist mind, it might seem a bit retrograde, yet Varra insists that Russian women are the ultimate post-feminists.” I feel it is very sad that some women have to stoop so low just to please and keep a man albeit a ‘rich’ one. Is it really worth it? Kimmel has an interesting take on this subject when he comments on the outcome of a study done by Psychologist David Buss who did a survey on over ten thousand people from ‘thirty-seven different cultures around the world’ where the question posed to them was ‘what women and men want in a mate’. His summing up on it was “In every society, females placed a high premium on signs of economic prosperity, whereas men placed their highest premium on youth and beauty, whose signal traits were large breasts and ample hips – ie. signs of fertility. Sexual selection maximizes reproductive success, right?”

A most typical ‘essentialist’ view I thought. He then goes on to say, “Does it interest you that although these traits were important, the single trait most highly valued by both women and men was love and kindness? Could it be that love, harmony, and kindness are even more important to our reproductive success than his sexual conquest and her monogamous reticence – that, in essence, evolutionary success depends more on our similarities thanour differences.” (Kimmel, 2008: 25)”In the beginning, there was sex and there was gender.”(Zimmerman, Gender and Society, Vol.1 No.2, 1987) This will always be to varying degrees until the end of time. . Our experiences in life, thechallenges and the constraints is what makes us, and not just the sex or gender we were born with. It’s social, it’s political, and it’s cultural.

Biology does form a basis but we still have the power of choice, the power to choose our identity whatever that may be. Kimmel concludes with, ” Although biological studies can suggest to us the basic building blocks of experience and identity, it is within ourcultures, our societies, and our families that those building blocks are assembled into the astonishingly diverse architecture that constitutes our lives.” (Kimmel, 2008: 53)


Simone de Beauvoir (1972)Quote: “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”Charter, David (30 April, 2008)The Press, ChristchurchB2 “Pop singer steps in for pregnant MP”The Times (30 April, 2008) The Press, ChristchurchB2 “Photos ‘meant to be artsy'”Haworth, Abigail (May 2008) Marie Claire magazine, pg 82″From Russia…With Lust”Kimmel, Michael (2008) The Gendered Society, Third Edition, New York:Oxford University Press. Chapter 2, pgs 25 & 53West, Candace and Zimmerman, Don (2002) ‘Doing Gender’, Gender andSociety, Vol.1, No.2, pg 125

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