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Gender & Power

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Race and gender are both socially constructed aspects of human nature and culture.  Yet although they are both socio-historically formed there is a great difference between the two – gender is innately finite, there can only be two, no matter what that cannot be changed.  You cannot blend genders to create other genders.  Gender is limited to exactly what it is, whereas race is infinite.  You cannot strictly and specifically determine race because of the blending of races and ethnicities throughout history.

            Race can be done in the same way that gender is done if the racial makeup of the individual can be determined.  This is my point – there are particular acts or behaviors that are and have historically been considered “female” or “male”, things that it is felt only men or women would do, there are other, not nearly as concrete, acts or behaviors that are believed to be inherently black, white or Jewish.  It becomes the issue of or that statements asserted like, ‘black people don’t do that’ or ‘she wouldn’t act that way if she were white’; the elements of race, gender and power are intersectional because the significance of one cannot exist without the other.

            To be looked upon as an individual is not limited to your race or your gender.  You can’t just be a man or an African American, you’re an African American man, because African American men are expected to behave differently than African American women and they are also expected to behave differently than Caucasian men.  Society has made it such that one does not exist without the influence of the other.

            Our society has formulated what they consider “appropriate” displays of race and gender, giving way to such statements as, “talking black”, “acting white” or throwing “like a girl”.  None of these has any true definition, there is no such thing as “acting white” or “throwing like a girl” because not every girl will throw the same way just as all whites, blacks, or other races will not speak and behave in the same fashion.  Society has made the mistake of taking portions of the whole and setting them above the others to act as the poster child for the “normal” human behaviors of that group.

            Society has learned to become far more lenient with racial behaviors and displays.  It has come to be understood that you cannot simply glance at an individual and determine their racial makeup, and quite often you won’t be able to speak with them for any unspecified amount of time and be able to determine their racial makeup, but it is believed that you should be able to glance at someone in passing and be able to determine their gender based on the way that they are dressed, wear their hair, or carry themselves.  Is a woman who wears jeans and a sweatshirt anymore of a woman than a man with long hair is a man?  No, because according to our society neither of these are considered socially acceptable behaviors.  If you are a man you are supposed to “act like a man” just as women are to “act like women”, the problem comes in, in defining what it means to ‘act your gender’.

            The ideological interpretation of society makes it far easier to “do” gender than it is to “do” race, but they can both be done.  It is far easier to be a very thin man who shaves his legs and eliminates any trace of facial hair, styles the long tresses which he has worn for years, and go to a bar adorned in a dress and water bra, or for a woman to bind her breasts and cover herself in baggy clothes than it is to a dark brown Asian or Caucasian.

“Doing gender” means to behave in a manner that is considered to socially embody the gender which you are attempting to portray.  “Doing race” can be far more difficult unless you are in an inherently Caucasian or African American area.  For example, if an extremely fair skinned African American  or a biracial African American were to grow up in North Dakota where the African American population is limited and move to Richmond, California where African Americans are more dominant to attend any of the various collegiate institutions near the area, it would be far easier to study the behaviors of those around you and begin to “do race”, you will study the behaviors of the individuals surrounding you on a daily basis and begin to act as they act, which socially speaking would be you “acting black”, whereas if you were to be yourself, you may be considered “acting white”.

            Our problem as a society is that, as Lucal points out in her work, Judith Lorber is right, “we have no social place for someone who is neither woman nor man” (Lucal pp. 3).  As a society it has been decided how men and women are to behave and you are not culturally accepted or considered a member of that gender if you do not adhere to those “rules”.  You can address an individual whose racial or ethnic makeup you are uncertain about because our interactions as a society do no place such a great significance on race as it does on gender.  You have never witnessed an individual addressed as Asian Ming Lau, or African American Timothy Smith, it is either Mrs. Lau or Mr. Smith because it is difficult to address an individual without use of the words “Mr., Miss, Sir or Ma’am”.

            Informal gender is dealt with on a very common and simplistic level.  People attribute gender to appearance, if you “look” female (feminine) to them you are likely to be addressed as Ma’am or Miss, and the same holds true for women like Lucal, if you have more chiseled, masculine features, you will most often be addressed as Sir, whether you are a male or female.  The formal negotiation of gender is far more complicated by comparison.  “Given our cultural rules for identifying gender (i.e. that there are only two and that masculinity is assumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary)…our appearances, mannerisms and so forth [are] constantly being read.”  Thus, “the gender nonconformist must find a way in which to construct an identity in a society that denies her or him any legitimacy…as a “real” [man or] woman” (Lucal pp.318).  We are being judged silently everyday as men and women and tested against some invisible ruler to determine if we are exhibiting the “common attributes” of our gender.

Gender labels are attached to everything in our society and although the excuse is that we use them as a display of respect it is far too obvious that they are in fact used as distinctions of societal position.  If you can determine that an individual is male you will know to treat him “like a man”, and if you know that an individual is female, you will know to treat her, “like a woman”, who is considered inherently less than a man.  The intersectionality of gender and power are imbedded in the reactions that individuals receive in a social, and increasingly often, professional context. It has somehow, at some point, during a secret meeting, been decided that men are to be taken more seriously than women and are deserving of more power; the problem comes in with the fact that this is a point with which women simply do not agree.  Our society is built around and operates on a patriarchal construct of gender in relation to the power structure.

            It’s like being given the honor of applying for and possibly “winning” a position at a place like Bazoom’s, society has formulated the idea that women are lucky and should be elated to be placed beneath men because this is as far up as they can expect to climb.  They should be happy working for someone who knows what they’re doing and can handle the stress of being in charge, as if being a man is a more difficult task than being a woman.  Women are not to worry their “pretty little heads” about power; they should “leave that to the big boys”.

The formal aspect is the fact that our society is hierarchically structured with men at the top, it is no surprise that men are the majority owners, operators and CEO’s of major companies and corporations, and there should definitely be no surprise that most managers within those organizations are male because no man is going to go against the power structure and place women in positions of authority over men if he has given in to the theory that no woman could possibly be prepared or equipped to handle the responsibility.  “Acting like a woman” will get you a job working in a place like Bazooms, but redefining womanhood such that society looks upon you as “acting like a man” will put you in a position to own a company far better than Bazooms.

            Formal authority and the assertion of power, as Loe points out in Chapter 30of the text, are concentrated in management positions and if those positions are dominated by males, then men can control the power structure.  They decide who gets hired, fired, promoted, and properly paid.  The informal negotiation of power includes many variations and instances of activities like ‘quid pro quo’ sexual harassment and implied employment incentives.  If you know that you are the person in the subordinate position you will be far more likely to be nice to your manager whether you like them or not because you understand that this person makes the decisions as far as your employment position is concerned.  The problem is that these types of behaviors can be easily misinterpreted.

            You could be attempting to be friendly in the workplace as not to appear standoffish or as if you are not a team player and your employer or manager could look upon your behavior as flirty or sexually suggestive and begin to step beyond the appropriate exercise of power, letting you know “off the record” that they control what happens to you within that position.  Deciding on what percentage raise you will receive as a result of a favorable annual review or whether or not you receive a promotion would be a formal act or negotiation of power.  Being called girl, young lady or sweetheart in the workplace would be considered a more informal act or negotiation of power because these are terms denoted to individuals of young age and minimal knowledge or experience.  It is as if to say ‘I know what you want, but you’re not going to get it, so why don’t you just sit tight and learn to be happy where you are…at the bottom’.

Works Cited

Loe, Meika.  “Working at Bazooms: The Intersection of Power, Gender & Sexuality”. Mapping the Social Landscape, 30: 342-359.

Lucal, Betsy.  “What it Means to be Gendered Me:  Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System”.  Mapping the Social Landscape, 28: 315-329.

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