Are Gender Roles Inevitable?

There is a certain kind of political debate that turns on what we should make of “traditional gender roles.” The “traditional” here is redundant, as there are no gender roles that are not highly mediated by shared practices and expectations of the sort we point to when we talk about traditions. Implicit in debates about gender roles is a reference to the gender roles of a particular cultural setting, which in the American context usually is the immediate post war world of the white middle class (or an imagined version of that world). “Traditional” is added to distinguish this cultural setting from what emerged after the social upheavals of the last few decades, often to suggest rhetorically that what we’ve seen is a move away from strictly observed gender roles. This is lamented by conservatives and celebrated by progressive feminists, but there’s a general agreement that there’s a meaningful divide here. One side sees gender roles as necessary and healthy acknowledgement of biological reality; the other sees them as embodying generally pernicious socially created hierarchy. In light of the previous post I want to suggest both sides are a little confused.

I said before that siblings relations are gendered, and so we invariably it seems distinguish brothers from sisters. This points I think to the pervasiveness of distinguishing males from females in human relations, and it doesn’t take much to see in a general way how this tendency would be rooted in our biology (and in sexual reproduction in particular). It might be conceivable that humans could both reproduce sexually and yet fail to distinguish men from women in any other context, but the reality is that every human culture in fact makes heavy weather of the distinction in a variety of contexts. If we follow fashion and call sex differences as mediated by culture “gender differences”, it seems gender is for practical purposes at least an ineliminable feature of human life. For a variety of reasons I’m not sure we should want even in principle a culture in which it didn’t matter ever whether you were born a boy or a girl (or, come to that, neither). More on that later.

If I’m right, score one for conservatives who claim that a genderless society is a (practically) impossible and undesirable chimera. However, it hardly follows from this that the particular gender roles embodied in a given set of historically realized cultural practices is inevitable, or somehow more natural and for that reason more right way to go about things than available alternatives. It is surely the case that while sharing the basic categories of male and female cultures go about distinguishing men and women and assigning roles on the basis of gender in a myriad of different ways. Gender is about biology and sex in the way cuisine is about eating–the biology is down there somewhere, but overlaid by immensely varied and very thick sets of beliefs and practices. So score one for feminist who quite rightly warn against confusing cultural sensibilities and practices with “nature.” Nor should we confuse hierarchies built into gender roles with anything “natural” as there’s no obvious reason why men and women cannot interact as equals as measured by, say, access to basic goods or opportunities or positions of authority–score another point for feminists. On the other hand, neither does it follow that embracing gender roles in a given context entails endorsing either the roles of a particular cultural setting, or even less whatever inequalities they entailed. Someone might insist that husbands and wives have different roles in a marriage without endorsing a scheme in which husbands have authority over wives. Score one there for conservatives who don’t think the post war ideal was all that ideal but who still think men and women might typically bring different strengths to a marriage.

So what I’m suggesting here is that gender roles of some sort are probably inevitable, culturally varied, and not necessarily hierarchical. We can add to this the obvious point that they are fluid. Indeed recent history tells us they can change dramatically in a very short period of time. Like much of what is rooted in our biology, gender turns out to be very plastic if in the end unavoidable.

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