Monday 5 April 2021

The gender debate... and why it does not make much sense to me

Listening to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 this morning, I came across an interesting debate about genderised advertising. TV adverts of a famous chocolate brand targeting a female audience attracted the particular ire of the discussants. Whilst I have no particular view on chocolate advertising, feminine or otherwise, it got me thinking about what our world would look like if the dream of some campaigners came true who advocate gender neutral products, and a gender ‘blind’ life in general. Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we did not ‘see’ gender differences at all?  

He, she ....?
  (Copyright: Steve Tobak)

The issue about gender is clearly related, yet distinct, from biological sex. There are few who deny that, biologically, men and women are different. The debate turns around what happens next. Genders are social constructs and, whilst they feel ‘natural’, there is clearly something like internalisation going on: as we are growing up we develop role behaviours, some of which are related to what others expect from us as we are (rightly or wrongly) perceived to belong to either the female or male sex. So, what would happen to us if we achieved something approximating to a gender neutral upbringing and a gender neutral society? 


It is easy to agree that there are some aspects of our gendered societies we can do without. We all struggle from time to time with the gender stereotypes we are supposed to conform to. But before you say that the world would be a better place without those, try to envision this alternative gender neutral life. 


Here is why I have some doubts about the benefits of a place entirely bereft of gender differences. For a start, when we talk about the impact of gender stereotypes we tend to focus on the invidious aspects of them. We highlight our difficulties to conform to exaggerated notions of masculinity or femininity. Wishing these away sounds like opening up a perfect world. What gets less attention is that stereotypes and hackneyed ideas of masculinity or femininity have an important role to play in forming our self-perception as individuals. They are critical in allowing us to identify who we want to be and who we would rather not be. They have a discriminating function that creates choices. It is those choices that evokes agency, the very agency that we then use to take a stand against the very gender notions we refuse to accept. 


So, in essence, gender identities are formed in the crucible of personal struggles that require these very concepts we revolt against. This may not be the best argument to retain a gendered society, but it highlights the contradiction at the heart of the those who advocate a gender neutral world. It is the fact that we belong to something or someone that allows us to rebel and find another place in the world we live in. Without this, our lives may adopt a random quality that may create more problems than today. Thinking about this, I think I can reconcile myself to a bit of gender stereotyping, even though you won’t get me anywhere near a football stadium.