equality,  gender,  men,  women

What’s your label?

A recent email discussion got me thinking about the terms “feminine” and “masculine.” Specifically, I wondered what these descriptors mean when it comes to roles and functions in society. And more specifically, can we with 100% accuracy apply these descriptors to each male and female person we encounter; meaning, do all females exhibit 100% feminine traits and do all males exhibit 100% masculine traits. Finally, can we even construct unchangeable, always applicable descriptors of feminine and masculine?

Of course, being an old English major I checked the dictionary first.

Feminine –adjective
1. pertaining to a woman or girl: feminine beauty; feminine dress.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.
3. effeminate; womanish: a man with a feminine walk.

“feminine.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 01 Mar. 2010. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/feminine>.

Masculine –adjective
1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men: masculine attire.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.
3. (of a woman) mannish.

“masculine.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 01 Mar. 2010. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/masculine>.

[note: I disregarded the definitions pertaining to grammar]

The first definition for both terms relates to the outward appearance that one might expect to see when looking at a male or female person. These ideas of dress, hairstyle, looks, etc., are culturally determined. What passes for feminine beauty in the U.S. may be vastly different from what passes for feminine beauty among the members of an indigenous tribe in Brazil. The same, naturally, goes for which physical looks and dress are considered masculine.

The second definition for each term deals with personality traits that a culture ascribes to male and female persons. The examples given are traditional, stereotypical feminine and masculine traits. These traits stem from a combination of biology and culture. Females have more estrogen and are the child bearers; they tend to be more nurturing. Males have more testosterone; they tend to be more aggressive.

The third definition deals with what would be considered a derogatory use of the descriptors. A mannish female in many cultures is looked down upon. The same goes for an effeminate male.

Given these basic dictionary definitions, does it follow that all females are 100% feminine and all males are 100% masculine? Can we assign jobs, roles, and functions in society purely on gender, expecting that each male and female will exhibit the masculine/feminine traits we associate with each gender? If a person doesn’t fit the feminine/masculine stereotypes do we then denigrate the person, lowering their status in society for being too feminine or too masculine?

Stereotyping persons based on gender descriptors of feminine and masculine rarely works. Danica Patrick has a feminine body and beauty that she deftly exploits in her marketing efforts. However, she really does not fit the feminine stereotype since she is a race car driver. That highly aggressive and competitive sport fits better with our masculine descriptors.

What about Gandhi – a male person who changed his society through non-violence? His tactics don’t fit the masculine stereotype of physical strength or aggression. He lived simply, ate simply, fasted often, and refused to resort to any type of aggression to reach his goals. His life looks more like the descriptors for a mild-mannered femininity than a bold masculinity.

Even more than this type of high-profile person who defies conformation to feminine and masculine descriptors, I think of the people I encounter on a daily basis. Is every female I encounter 100% feminine and is every male I encounter 100% masculine. The answer is absolutely no.

If a female never has children, whether by choice, through not finding a suitable mate, or by infertility, does this make her “mannish?” Is she less female for lack of nurturing children? If a female is strong and athletic is she an affront to her sex? Is she to be ridiculed? What of the females who excel in math, science, engineering, and other fields which require analytical skills typically linked with masculine traits?

Are males who like to work with children and become grade school teachers effeminate? Should they be classed as aberrations of the male sex? What about the male who is neither strong or athletic? Is he girlish and rightly subjected to society’s ridicule? Are males who discover they are infertile and cannot father children lesser males?

The problem with stereotypes is that they don’t apply to all people, all the time. Stereotypes by definition are over-simplified generalities. Each person, whether male or female, will exhibit a wide range of traits. Culture, as mentioned earlier, will determine many choices in dress and behavior. Beyond culture, appearance, aptitudes and preferences will vary greatly.

Some females will have a curvy female figure; others will be slender with few curves; others will be square and stocky; some will even have broad shoulders and narrow hips, much like a male. Some females will enjoy the stereotypical female activities; others may not care a thing about cooking and prefer to fly airplanes.

Some males will be built like an NFL linebacker; some will be slender; some will be short; some will have broad shoulders and narrow hips; others will have narrow shoulders and a big butt. Some males will play sports; some will be shy bookworms who become great writers.

Any person or institution that attempts to determine the societal contributions of any person, male or female, based on gender stereotypes of what is masculine and what is feminine, does a disservice to both the individual and to society. No person can be described as 100% feminine or 100% masculine because no person is a stereotype. Reflecting back on our definitions, females are often strong and bold and males are often sensitive and gentle.

Which leads me to conclude that we cannot construct unchangeable, always applicable descriptors of feminine and masculine. Cultures change and the stereotypes change. Economies expand and new technologies develop; consequently, the roles played by males and females change with them. Scientific discoveries open our eyes to never-before-known facts about the world; and these new discoveries shape our beliefs about what it means to be male and female. Perhaps it’s time to forget about classifying people by gender and instead allow them to develop whatever talents God has blessed them with – even it if means they defy the descriptors of feminine and masculine.