If Johnny Wore Pink

In what ways is gender identity arbitrary?

Posted Oct 01, 2011

Dr. Keith Ablow, commentator for Fox News, recently cautioned parents not to let their kids watch transgendered Chaz Bono on "Dancing with the Stars," for fear that their own gender identity would become confused. If we were to take this commentator at his word, gender identity would be a flimsy construct susceptible to change in the same way that a craving for a salty food can change on a whim to one for a cupcake.

To the Ablow's out there in the world: gender identity is not so impressionable that one depiction of an unconventional version of it would suddenly disrupt one's own development. Becoming transgendered is no more contagious than is becoming homosexual. Have we really progressed so little as a culture that commentators are condemning a network that is featuring a contestant who just happens to have had gender reassignment surgery as posing a dangerous threat to our innocent kids' fragile sense of respective masculinity or femininity? Doesn't this sound ominously close to outdated notions of isolating same-sex oriented adults from kids, lest they contaminate their sexual identities and (gasp!) turn them gay?

Let's say for the sake of argument, though, that being exposed to an unconventional depiction of gender identity--such as a boy who wears a dress, or the case of Chaz Bono who was born female but has chosen to become male--were enough to alter a child's burgeoning gender identity. My response is: So what?

What makes our traditional notions of masculinity and femininity so sacred that any depiction to the contrary would be a threat that we would not be able to withstand as a culture? Gender is in fact a social construct, not a biological one. One is born male or female, but becomes a man or woman in large part by abiding by the often arbitrary standards of what constitutes masculinity or femininity within his or her respective culture. Why should I be restricted from playing football with the boys just because I am a girl, or in contrast, from wearing the color pink, just because I am a boy? Maybe, in fact, our traditional notions of gender are outdated and even damaging. Indeed, research on gender reveals:

The dominant Western definition of sex delineates two normal categories: male and female. Notions of gender follow suit, typically contrasting masculine and feminine behaviors. Is this dichotomy universal? Anthropologists have uncovered compelling evidence that dichotomous definitions of sex are not universal, arguing instead that many cultures have multiple genders (White, 2009, p. 3)

Maybe instead of condemning Chaz we should be thanking him. He serves as a great example that gender need not be fixed, that our dualistic thought regarding sex and gender is restrictive and largely illusory. Androgynous individuals, meaning those who do not strongly internalize the confines of their own gender but borrow generously from each, oftentimes exhibit greater social adjustment than those who very narrowly internalize their respective gender identity. For instance, as I researched for my textbook on the psychology of aggression, males who internalize a very narrow construction of masculinity are often more prone to both aggression and violence.

So to Chaz, I say, dance on. And to those threatened by an alternative view of gender identity, make all the noise that you want; but ultimately, a more inclusive notion of gender is emerging in our culture. And I, for one, applaud that. For as one of my students wrote last semester on his essay critiquing traditional notions of gender: Our world would be a much better place if girls could masturbate, and boys could cry.

White, J. W. Clashing Views in Gender (4th Edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Copyright 2011 Azadeh Aalai