Bob: Gender is real – man and woman. There are two genders. People claiming that there are multiple genders, being third-gender or bigender or whatever – are usually just trying to feel special.
Alice: Wait hold on – but gender is a cultural construction in the first place. We associate things like ‘wearing dresses’ with ‘woman,’ but that’s not absolute. Why can’t we say it’s manly to wear dresses? It’s all in our heads and the narrative society feeds us.
Bob: Well to clarify before I continue – we’re not talking about sex. People can have different genitals, sometimes both genitals at once. There are medical differences. Obviously claiming your physical sex as the ultimate say in your gender is a bit of a silly idea.
Alice: Well we agree there. I’m talking about the mental conception around the way we should behave, which is frequently but not always associated with our genitals.
Bob: Yes. Gender is a cluster. “Maleness” does communicate something – it’s associated with things like sports, being unemotional, aggression, sex drive, bravery. It’s also associated with physical things like beards, large muscles, and penises.
And these things are associated with each other. People who have penises tend to be aggressive. People who like sports tend to grow facial hair. Because we see these things appear together all the time, we give it a name – Male. And even if a male doesn’t watch sports, or if he doesn’t have muscles, he still usually has enough of the cluster so that he is way closer to the “male” pattern than the “female” one.
This is why our culture has an idea of “x is not manly.” What they mean is that x is not typically found in the “male” cluster. A man wearing a dress isn’t manly because “dress wearing” isn’t commonly found in people who are similar to him.
Alice: I feel like you’re making my point for me – that of social construct. We’ve identified this pattern, sure, but it’s only just because it’s common. There is a ton of different possible patterns that aren’t the male or female pattern! Everyone is different and varied. Why do I have to be “manly” or “unmanly”? Why is it that belching isn’t feminine, and why is it that when I do present as feminine, people assume that I’m feminine in other ways as well, like being terrified of mice or some shit? I fucking love mice. This is the entire point – that we break down our conceptions about previous pattern. By identifying as something other than male or female, I am declaring to the world that I am my own unique pattern, with its own unique name. I will not be defined in comparison to preexisting norms.
Bob: I partially agree with you. It’s true that the patterns of male and female aren’t absolute in any way, that it’s an idea that society has.
But the point I’m trying to make isn’t that the male-female patterns are fundamentally arbitrary and culture-bound, but rather that they carry meaning in a way that things like “third-gender” doesn’t, and so to equate them is a bit silly.
For example: we’ve had the word “cunt” in our vocabulary for a long time. It is a very loaded word. It’s banned on television, you can’t say it around your grandma, and if a young child says “cunt” a lot, we get worried.
Is it fundamentally arbitrary? Yes. Is it a social construct? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that you can come along and introduce a new word – “bogus” – and expect it to carry the same weight. You can’t cry “bogus is a bad word!” and expect people to have the same reaction to ‘bogus’ as they do to ‘cunt.’ And that is essentailly what you’re doing. Male and female are concepts that are extremely ingrained in our awareness, and you can’t make a new gender equivalent just by proclaiming it aloud.
Alice: But how else do you start? There are people out there who genuinely don’t adhere to either gender role. Male and female feel intuitive because they are predictable. We generally know what women are like and how to talk to them, what their bodies look like, that they get pregnant – and same for men. This is why we identify those clusters so strongly, because of the strong and well-known association.
But if we start using bogus like a bad word, maybe eventually it will become a bad word. If we want to make other genders a recognizeable pattern, we have to start actively treating them as such.
Bob: I’m not against that in principle, but I think that’s much harder than it sounds. The traditional gender pattern clusters have one huge advantage – that part of their pattern is their physical bodies. If you’re talking about pattern being valuable due to prediction, then you’re not going to be able to beat the powerful predictive ability of visual input.
It’s like – if every time you said the word “cunt,” grandma passed out. And every time you said the word “fuck,” Jesus shed a tear. The words are associated with something measurable and obvious.
And then if someone comes along and says “let’s make bogus a bad word,” you might agree – but if isn’t associated with either your grandma fainting or Jesus crying, then somewhere deep down, you’re not going to feel like it’s a bad word. You’re going to feel like it belongs to a different category entirely, despite people keep claiming it has bad-word properties.
Maybe if every time you said “bogus”, hell got a little hotter, then you would feel like “bogus” was associated with something, and thus a real word. And maybe if we had a physically distinct third gender with a unique role to play in the reproduction process, then “third gender” would carry more meaning.
But it just doesn’t. Patterns are powerful, and they exist because they correspond to something that we “discover,” not something that we invent.
But I am not against shirking your traditional gender role. I think anyone can be anything they want, behave however they want (as long as they don’t hurt anyone). There is no reason for a male-bodied man to be obligated to adhere to the male-cluster. I just think that the words are useful. If you’re a man who wears dresses, you’re less manly. And that’s completely okay.
4 thoughts on “Are there other genders?”
“Bob” is a perfect example of the type of regressive discourse around sex/gender that is prevelent right now. People like “Bob” think what they are saying is truly profound but it could not be more superficial.it ultimately reifies and reinforces asymmetrical power relations, and connotations of gender.
I don’t think you can say ‘male’ and ‘female’ are clusters of traits. ‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are, but ‘male’ and ‘female’ are descriptors of sex. That’s why we describe animals as male and female if they sexually reproduce, even if they don’t exhibit obvious dimorphism.
As for deviations of traits from the normal clusters, we have terms for those already – effeminate, butch, tomboy, effete, manly, androgynous, girly, boyish, etc.
Why add another gender when there are already perfectly good descriptors of people already in existence? Is there something you think isn’t accurately conveyed in the language we have already? And if so, why is adding a ‘gender’ a better solution than adding an adjective to the existing genders?
Excellent point! I think the important part is that all of your example words indicate masculine or feminine characterization. There aren’t words like “thirdly” that you can use saying “She seems very thirdly,” the gendered words are all based on the spectrum between male and female. There’s one metric with two possible extremes; a “sex axis”, if you will.
Asexual is probably the closest to a third gender definition, but I don’t think the absence of gender is enough to add a new metric to gender itself. Yes, sexual drive is a factor that varies, but when we’re talking about gender I think even asexual people present with more masculine or feminine traits. I guess it just depends on the window you use when defining gender.