Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Males and Females in the Sex/Gender System

In her essay on the political economy of sex, Gayle Rubin makes a significant point when she writes of the Oedipal complex as “a machine which fashions the appropriate forms of sexual individual”(29). Such phrasing suggests that both sexes, male and female, are transformed from their natural state into something that they are not by the sex/gender system. Whether or not the Oedipal complex as Rubin outlines it is a reality, the process of “genderization” through society which it describes seems to me to be fact. Both sexes have artificial restrictions imposed on them by this impersonal and mechanical process.

Indeed, the universally restrictive nature of the gender construct can be found in all instances of societal division. Any time humans organize themselves into distinctions of “us” and “them”, whether it be racial, socio-economic, or gender based, such classification imposes restrictions on every resulting group, including the supposedly superior one. The history of racial segregation in the United States is a clear example of this principle. Although African Americans certainly suffered the most under segregation, white Americans, many of who believed that they were somehow benefitted by segregation, undoubtedly suffered as well. Whites were also restricted under this system, which on a most basic level prevented them from forming happy and meaningful relationships with an enormous number of their fellow Americans. Ironically, segregation, which was created by whites, actually put significant and unnatural restrictions on their daily lives.

The sex/gender system, although not as explicit as racial segregation in its restrictions, establishes implicit boundaries for behavior which are similarly unnatural. Furthermore, these boundaries adversely restrict both males and females. The gender construct certainly is more restrictive of females, but males are afflicted by it as well and it is important to recognize this as our class gets underway. I don’t know much about feminist theory, but I do know that there have been times in my life, as in every male’s life, when I have felt restricted by the behavior that is expected of me as a man.

I’m not arguing that feminist scholarship take pity on the plight of males under the gender construct, but simply that feminists should recognize that males may also have a vested interest in transcending the gender stereotypes. Studying the oppression of females without considering its negative effects on males is like studying segregation without recognizing the harm it brought to society as a whole – it is simply an incomplete understanding of the issue.


  1. I feel like this is a more elaborate reiteration of the stereotypical complaint that men aren't allowed to cry. Sure, you suffer from a few limitations and expectations placed upon you as a man, but it pales in comparison to the restraints and rules placed on women under the same system. Not to say you don't put up a good argument, Colin, but just as I tend to disagree that white Americans have a legitmate claim to victimization under society's racial constructs, I feel that men's cries for inclusion in the detrimental effects of sexism are ill-founded. I think that recognizing the harm that prejudices of all kinds bring to society as a whole does not require sympathy for the dominant and oppressive group.

  2. Lindsay,
    Thanks for the response. I was hoping to see what others in the class felt about this issue. The example of segregation was not intended to suggest that white Americans are victims of pervasive and institutionalized racism. Rather, my point was to show that a system of oppression hurts all those involved, including those who supposedly benefit from it. This cannot be denied.

    Regarding sexism, I explicitly state that no pity, or as you say "sympathy", should be shown to men as far as their suffering under the gender system goes. Furthermore, I wrote that women do, as you argue, suffer far more under the sex/gender system. Nevertheless, like the case of racism, sexism does harm both the "oppressed" and "oppressor", albeit to differing degrees. The overall point of my blog was to state that males and females can and do share an interest in changing the sex/gender system. I feel that it can be easy for feminists to overlook this on occasion, but this is certainly to their detriment. It is already a monumental task to try to modify the gender construct and all that comes with it; it seems a nearly impossible task if feminists refuse the cooperation of half of the population.

    I must say that I anticipated a response similar to yours, and it's clear to me now that I did not properly flesh out my point. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Nevertheless, I urge you to not simply view my post as an "elaborate reiteration" of the common complaint that men can't cry. My blog was not a "cry for inclusion", but rather a declaration of mutual interest.

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  4. If I might jump into this conversation, I would like to make a distinction between the harm felt by the oppressed and the harm felt by the oppressor. I believe that the harm done to the oppressed is more deeply rooted in the female's psyche than the harm felt by the oppressor. For example, if a male feels remorse and sorrow for oppressing a female, that feeling is only temporary. Or, if he feels pain and anger from knowing that he will be scoffed at in attempting to become a ballerina, he is still freely able to do so without physical or structural obstacles. I would argue that this type of harm is not equitable to the damage done to the female psyche, it is not the impairment of one's self-image, it is simply a temporary hindrance. 

I agree with you, Colin, that males can be marginalized or feel similar pressures of a gendered society that has established certain norms and roles for each sex, but I would ask you to explore more deeply what exactly is felt when a female experiences those pains and when a male does; as well as, what does each do in response to that pain?

  5. L'Etranger,

    Thank you for this insightful post. I agree completely that there is an enormous difference in nature and degree between the pain felt by the oppressed and the pain felt by oppressor. I seem to have not expressed my understanding of that clearly enough in my first post. Furthermore, I'm sure that it would benefit me greatly to explore this difference further, as you suggest.

    However, this was not the point of my post. The example of a male feeling inhibited by his gender was used only to show that males can also have an interest in challenging the gender construct. This is true even though males do not suffer to the same degree as women under the sex/gender system.


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