The Study of Gendered Media Engagings (Part 2): Defining Gender

This is the second part of my dissertation’s first chapter.  The first part was on defining gendered media engagings

Theoretical constructions of gender

In order to properly begin a discussion on the theoretical approach being employed in this study, it is necessary to define what is meant by the gendering process.  The concept of gender is much contested as various definitions and related concepts overlap, to the point of confusion with the term of sex and its application to differentiate people (Deaux, 1985; Hawkesworth, 1997; Laner, 2000).  The common use of the term “sex” is to refer to the individual’s observable biological nature as being male or female as determined by sexual characteristics, both directly related to reproduction and indirectly related as physical features (Deaux, 1985).  Alternatively, gender is referred to as the psychological characteristics that are seen as masculine or feminine (Deaux, 1985), or as the sociocultural information that shapes these psychological, and ultimately identity, characteristics (Hawkesworth, 1997; Laner, 2000).

This discussion of sex versus gender involves differentiating structural versus agentic approaches to understanding differences between people.  It is argued below that there are three primary ways in which differences between men and women are explained: two are primarily structural, while the third makes allowances for agency.  Before this argument can be developed, how the terms are being used here must be clarified.  As Antony Giddens’ structuration theory is closest to my own beliefs about the relationship between structure and agency, I defer to his work for my definitions (1976/1993; 1979/2002; 1984).  The definition of structure used here is an overarching system that is external to the individual, although features of the structure, such as norms and ideologies, may be internalized by the individual, and not under the immediate volition of the individual.  The definition of agency used here is a human’s ability to choose to engage in some activity, be it internal (thoughts, feelings, decisions) or external (observable behavior).

Across a variety of academic fields, theories construct this relationship as one where a society or culture structures the agents’ internal and external behaviors because the structure transmits information on what are acceptable behaviors.  The structure molds the “perfect” individual, whose agency is an illusion, just as the dance of the marionette appears lifelike due to the disappearance of the puppet master into the shadows.  These conceptualizations have been discussed by such theorists as Karl Marx, Claude Levi-Strauss, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault – all seeing the power of structure in varying ways over the individual (Althusser, 1971; Foucault, 1978; Hall, 1977; Hebdige, 1979; Ryan & Wentworth, 1999; Storey, 1993).  Other theorists see individuals having power, again to varying degrees, over how they are subjugated, interpolated, or subjectified by the structure.  These theorists include George H. Mead, Herbert Blumer, Pierre Bourdieu, Antony Giddens, Watsuji Tetsuro, and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (Bourdieu, 1980/2002; Blumer, 1969; Giddens, 1976/1993; 1979/2002; 1984; Giddens & Pierson, 1998; Lane, 2000; Thompson, 1989, Watsuji, 1937/1971).  Common to all these theorists is the recognition of some relationship that produces and reproduces the sociocultural environment, the individuals within that environment, and the collective action by individuals that may change that environment.

Those who study gender have discussed it in regards to all of these relationships (Fowler, 1997; Smith, 2001).  As Deaux indicated, “…underlying the debate on the use of sex versus gender…are assumptions about the determinants of differences between men and women, whereby sex often implies biological causes while gender invokes explanations based on socialization.” (p. 51, 1985).  Depending on the scholar’s academic field, he or she may invoke one term to label people when attempting to differentiate them.  Someone seeking biological constructions as the reason is referring to sex differences.  Someone seeking sociocultural constructions as the reason is referring to gender differences.

However, there is a third approach that connects these previous two by adding a perspective less utilized.  According to Deaux (1985), the common application of sex or gender is via the observer’s imposition.  That is, the researcher assigns the categorization to the study’s participants, either by direct observation of physical features or by the results of some measurement scale, such as Bem’s Sex Role Inventory.  Less common is to study men and women’s interpretations of their sense of self as being gendered.  The third approach involves someone seeking interpretive/performative acts as the reason for gendered differences.  This third approach is argued as the nexus for all three and serves as the foundation for this study.

Biological constructions.  The foundation for arguments about why men and women are different can be reduced to biological sex differences.  Even in the face of other reasons for why differences exist and persist, it cannot be ignored that there are indeed differences between the male and female sexes of the human species.  The question becomes not do they exist, but do they exist to a strong enough degree so as to determine differences between people on other aspects that cannot be easily reducible to sex differences?

The nature structural argument focuses on hormonal differences that exist between men and women due to their different sexual reproductive systems (DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007).  The existence of such a difference is a biological fact and cannot be disputed as existing in the species.  However, those who adhere to the nature structure to determine gender differences argue variations in hormones will impact neurological chemistry, thereby impacting the structure of the brain.  Differences in how the brain operates determines how the person thinks, feels and behaves, producing general tendencies that can be described as “masculine” for appearing in men and “feminine” for appearing in women.  Gender differences between men and women become naturalized, determined by the genetics of X and Y chromosomes before any outside societal and cultural information could occur.

The genetic aspect of the argument is further developed with the addition of evolutionary theory.  Here gender differences are said to have been reinforced by early human behavior, preexisting civilization with its societal and cultural influences.  Men were the hunters, competition-oriented and polygamous, while women were the child bearers, relationship-oriented and monogamous.  This gender difference was built on the sexual reproductive difference, which led to specific behaviors that were then reinscribed into what males do to be men and females to do be women.  Evolutionary psychology often harkens back to this pre-civilized state of humanity in their attempts to describe current gender differences (Condit, 2004).

Men and women thus are doubly inscribed by the nature structure: genetics leads to hormonal differences which impact personality, and sexual reproductive differences concretized the relationship between male and female during the predawn of humanity.  The agency of the individual may be able in modern times to impact this structure, as in sex change operations, but for the most part its predetermined argument remains intact as immutable.  However, the nature structure can also be seen as the foundation for the nurture structure, for how societies and cultures determine and recreate gender differences.

Sociocultural constructions.  Whereas the biological constructions of gender differences constitute the nature structure, sociocultural constructions constitute the nurture structure.  Under this structure, the arguments for where gender comes from are reducible to gender having to be learned by the immersion into and instruction by a sociocultural environment.  In order to become a gendered individual, the male or female human being is socialized by a sociocultural environment to identify with masculine or feminine internal and external behaviors.

While the nurture argument can be seen as separate and opposing to the nature argument, the two in fact reinforce each other, as the classic nurturing information was based on naturalized sex differences.  The factual sex differences of the nature structure become the symbolic gender differences of nurture structure.  Indeed, it was the goal of feminism to deconstruct gender as naturalized due to biology by showing cultural variation in what gender was and where the differences lie (Andersen, 2003; DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007; Hawkesworth, 1997; van Zoonen, 1991; Wood, 1994).  However, if we trace back the genealogy of the discourse around gender, we can find these biological differences were used as a foundation upon which sociocultural, or symbolic, differences between males and females have been built (Foucault, 1978; Seidman, 2003).  Thus, biological sex differences are transmitted via the sociocultural symbolic differences.

Symbolic differences found in sociocultural norms define the boundaries of each gender; that is, the information encapsulated in these norms structure what each gender should feel, think and do in their everyday lives in order to be treated as a proper member of that sociocultural environment (DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007).  Members are taught the proper behavior, internal and external, to match their biological sex — information that an individual must know to function as a successful member of that environment.  Individuals are expected to be willing and able recipients of this information; males and females would want to receive this guidance from the sociocultural environment in order to successfully, i.e. without extreme prejudice and/or harm, exist within it.

Hence a transmission model of communication is the most common conceptualization for how gendering occurs, and is depicted in Figure 1.1 below.  The symbolic differences are the messages transmitted to the members of that sociocultural environment through communication pathways that include more channels than just interpersonal and mediated; they can also be other socializing institutions, such as religion and schools (Mastronardi, 2003; Kelly & Donohew, 1999).  Normative information can be reinforced from a variety of sources and may be in the form of entertainment, such as stories, songs, and art.  In industrial and post-industrial societies, where the mass media permeate the sociocultural environment, the individual is inundated daily with this gendering information.  Increasingly, if not already, mass media are the primary channel through which symbolic differences are woven into people’s everyday lives and sense of selves.

Transmission Model Gender

Figure 1.1.  Transmission Model of Gendering Process

Interpretive/performative acts.  The nature/nurture structure is predicated on the belief that individuals will accept the packaged information about gender without resistance because it is in the individual’s “best interests” if that individual desires safe integration into the corresponding society and/or culture.  However, such an approach to understanding the creation of a sense of self as gendered, or gender identity, and thus the maintenance of sexual/gender differences, has two interrelated problems.  First, the approach presumes the individual has no agency in its dealing with the nature/nurture structure, and thus is passive toward any subjugation, interpolation, and subjectification process (Butler, 1997; McNay, 2005).  Second, feminists advocating this approach have replaced the naturalization of sex with the universalism of gender as the determining factor in human activity (Butler, 1988; Hawkesworth, 1997).  To address these problems, the third and most recent approach to understanding gender as a process restores the individual’s agency and recognizes situationality in the matter of developing a sense of gender.

Instead of seeing the construction of a sense of gender, and thus gender differences, as an act of being open to transmitted information, the interpretive/performative construction operates from a dialogic model, as depicted in Figure 1.2 below.  The individual is in constant negotiation with the information being provided by the nature/nurture structure, and this negotiation manifests itself in how the person thinks, feels and acts as a gendered individual within situations deemed requiring such actions.  Reflecting on the structure’s information is the interpretive act, while manifesting some internal or external behavior based on this reflection is the performative act.  In this way, gender moves from being a noun that encompasses stable traits to being a verb that reflects a fluctuating, responsive process (Hawkesworth, 1997); instead of gender being constructed solely by the structure, it is deconstructed and reconstructed by the individual (Poggio, 2006).

The individual’s capacity and requirement to engage in this negotiation has been discussed from such theoretical perspectives as symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969) and performance theory (Butler, 1988).  Uniting these different theories is the basic belief of gender as an interpretive frame, or script, or schema, that is only known to observers in how the person discusses their views and actions, and the observation of such actions.  An interpretive frame contains, maintains and informs how the self meets with conditions of life as experienced at that moment; the frame can draw upon a repertoire of experiences with previous moments and the knowledge of and reaction to the nature/nurture structure.

For any situation in which the individual interprets the need to act in a gendered way, that determination is the result of the negotiation of this repertoire with the interpretation of sense-making instance aspects of the situation, which includes manifestations of the sociocultural environment, such as gender stereotyped norms (Blumer, 1969).  In some situations, this process may result in interpreting/performing gender in accordance to the nature/nurture constructions, but it is just as likely to be against, negotiated, or any position across that range (Ruddock, 2001).  Knowing how gender will manifest within a person, and thus across people, is dependent upon the individual’s interpretation of the situation as “what works best for me”, and not what the structure deems is best.

Because of the central focus of negotiation, the dialogic model of communication is applicable.  Using this model means gendering does not happen solely through the force of the society or culture, nor does it arise fundamentally from the actions of a lone individual.  Gender arises from the confluence of the structure and the individuals who reside with it, where the exchange of information between these various factors results in something more than the sum of its parts.

Dialogic Model Gender

Figure 1.2.  Dialogic Model of Gendering Process.

Gender differences, as stereotyped by the nature/nurture structure, are maintained by the interpreting/performing of individuals in accordance with the structure’s categorization.  While there are pre-existing definitions as to what constitutes gender, it is only through the actions of individuals that these definitions are maintained (Blumer, 1969; Butler, 1988; Wood, 1994).  Indeed, these definitions cannot be escaped as they are always present, always the information that the individual must contend with in making his or her own determination for a sense of gender.  But the individual’s power lies in his or her ability to reflect upon the situation and what is required in it to successfully negotiate, survive, handle, move through it (Dervin, 2003a; Weigert & Gecas, 2005).  If the individual deems the structure’s categorization and expectation is not sufficient, then the individual may act in degree counter to the structure.  If enough actors interpretively and performatively respond in this manner, then the structure must change to maintain unity and its hegemonic influence.

Gender in this study.  With the three major disciplinary approaches to studying and understanding gender sketched, I want to clarify how the concept of gender is defined for use in this study.  Gender is a category created from biological sex differences into sociocultural norms that are replicated through interpretive and performative acts, creating a naturalized, ideological, hegemonic construct that may or may not be replicated through individual agency.  In this study, the gendering process refers to the means by which an individual comes to see him or herself as having gender, in relation to how gender is constructed by the sociocultural environment.  Thus, the gendering process concerns how gender is defined, how it is assigned to specific individuals, and how those individuals come to accept and/or resist this assignment.  A sense of self as gendered, alternatively known as gender role or gender identity, is the sense the individual has of being in some quality and quantity in concert with the ideological construct of gender.  The gendered interpretive stance is the interpretive framework built of information about the construct of gender that influences the individual’s interpretive/performative acts as interacting with the parameters of a situation.

As this study focused on the individual’s interpretive stance, it is also important to point out how gender stereotypes operate.  Stereotypes are reductions of complicated groups to simplified definitions to explain differences that are then integrated into a person’s interpretive frame as part of the repertoire to be called upon in times of need (Deaux, 1985; Fisk & Taylor, 1991).  Gender is a stereotype, used within the sociocultural environment to divide people into categories, and used by people to understand others in times when predictions need to be made quickly.  Stereotypes in a gendered interpretive stance, as the exclusive, primary information source, would be revealed if resulting performings are in concert with the expectations of the nature/nurture structure within a situation in which gender is present.

In other words, for this study, a person is interpreting/performing in concert with the nature/nurture structure if any aspect, or sense-making instance, of the situated process of engaging with a gendered media can be explained by a pre-existing gender stereotype.  Those divergings between individuals that are stereotypical may be indication of person interpreting gender, the gendering process, and/or gendered self in concert with what is constructed by nature/nurture.  Convergings between individuals are expected to be counter-stereotypical, traceable to some other aspect of the individual’s sense of self and life situation.  Those divergings that are not stereotypical would be presumed to be either evidence of breaking down stereotypes or the individual negotiating with something other than gender for that aspect of the engaging process.

Part 3: Why It Matters can be found here (coming soon).

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