Defining Gender Identity


“Why do we group human behavioral characteristics as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’?

Are they really best described by those terms, or does grouping behaviors in this way just lead girls to think they shouldn’t express strength and be assertive, and boys to think it’s bad to express emotions?”

Carla Golden, a professor in the fields of Psychology and Women and Gender Studies at Ithaca College, poses these questions in her article “We are not from Mars or Venus; The Work of Sandra Bem.” Golden describes the pioneering work of Sandra Bem and her extensive research on the ‘debilitating effects of sex-role stereotyping.’ As a result, Sandra Bem created the Bem Sex Role Inventory which measures an individual's femininity/masculinity as on the “same side of the coin” instead of “opposite ends of the spectrum.” The test consisted of 60 characteristics individuals would rate themselves on from a 7 point scale ranging from always to never. Characteristics that were associated with femininity were “yielding, cheerful, shy, sympathetic, compassionate and gentle.” Whereas characteristics associated with masculinity were “defends own beliefs, self-reliant, independence, athletic, assertive and aggressive.” Although in the end, Sandra Bem digressed from using the Bem Sex Role Inventory, and Carla Golden relied on it less frequently in the classroom.

This is due to the fact that femininity and masculinity are not inherent aspects of men and women (despite how adamantly society tries to perpetuate a patriarchal, heteronormative system). Instead, they are cultural constructs that are constantly evolving throughout time. In response to such pivotal work, I decided to delve deeper into Ithaca College’s culture by posing my own question to students and faculty of the college;

What do the terms femininity and masculinity mean to you and how do you express them?

I found the myriad of responses touched on a range of variables from how someone was raised or educated and subsequently how someone acts and dresses. Ultimately, I came to a conclusion that these labels can be constricting to an individual’s identity and expression.When I asked Professor Derek Adams for his views on femininity and masculinity, he said, “They are concepts that explain the way we try to create gender structures within our society, you can have femininity and be a man and have masculinity and be a woman because the concepts are different than the kinds of bodies we inhabit.” Many individuals also touched on this idea that masculinity and femininity are not isolated to gender. Nadia Racaniello illustrates this phenomena highlighting the United States perspective by stating “These traits have been exacerbated in western society especially in the United States but it actually has no meaning to who you are as a person in regards to gender identity, sexual identity.” However, even if someone does constitute a certain gender stereotype, that isn’t necessarily negative either. Senior David Braddy described the terms as “being two sides of the same coin--I don't think you can have one without the other and I don't think it needs to be defined as concretely as society demands.

Often individuals mentioned how societies definition of femininity and masculinity created the illusion of “concrete” and rigid boundaries which in some cases perpetuated systems of oppression. Freshman Eliot Willenborg relayed, “Femininity is just what everyone is expecting women to do. Then there’s masculinity which is equated with violence and chopping wood.” Eliot personally described femininity and masculinity saying, “They can be whatever you want them to be, I’ve walked around with painted nails but if a woman walks around without her nails painted she isn’t inherently masculine.” In a similar manner, Dan Albanese stated, “I’ve grown up with the idea that I’ve had to be masculine just because I’m kinda adept to that.” Both individuals touch on the fact that acting masculine or feminine is a societal demand we have to meet.

The ramifications of such stifling societal demands can be detrimental in more ways than one. Dr. Elizabeth Bishop, a professor in the realms of English, Education and Women’s and Gender Studies stated, “Numerous behaviors and patterns exist because of them - the perpetuation of rape culture, internalized misogyny and homophobia, the pay gap that women experience, the list goes on. Saying they are artificial does expose the operations of power and might assist in dismantling or deconstructing some of these performative markers - if for no other reason than to free individuals to experience and enact their subjectivity as they desire. In my everyday life, I am an interrupter of these categories.”

Furthermore, Elly Veazey touched on how gender roles impacted her life on a individual level. “The idea of women being the weaker, more emotional sex has always sat wrong with me. In terms of masculinity, growing up having to take care of my father at the age of 11 has even made me reject the entire idea. I view masculinity as a cover to make it impossible for men to express real feeling or thought,” Veazey said. Toxic masculinity is the patriarchal belief that men should be “violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive.”

In the end, most everyone described how they flip societal definitions by creating their own empowering identities that transcend both femininity and masculinity. Sociology Professor Sarah Grunberg attests; “The ways in which I express both masculinity and femininity range from day to day. I love flowers, vibrant colors and anything that is little. I work hard and fight for what I believe in. I speak up, but not without attempting to listen, empathize and understand others. The way I dress is at most times, what I believe to be practical and comfortable. I try not to assign any of the ways that I express myself to masculinity or femininity, but instead, I see them as somewhere in-between.” The fact that she is able to take different aspects associated with both terms reflects how identity expression can break through borders and be empowering.

Elly Veazey described “femininity” as being “strong, independent, and level-headed”. Savanna Lenker touched on how individuals are recreating their own definitions. “Femininity can be used as a source of power and unity like in the Free the Nipple movement. Now people are becoming more accepting of guys showing emotions and girls being more outspoken.” Similarly, Ithaca College itself is attempting to create spaces where students and faculty can fully explore their expression of femininity, masculinity or a combination thereof. Derek Adams, a professor in the Women and Gender Studies program examines the opportunities further.

“There are many programs in the Women and Gender Studies program courses, that even just by virtue of their title, poke at the idea of rigidly defined masculinity and femininity by trying to pull apart and decouple those things from the specific genders they are attributed to. So that way we can have a more nuanced understanding of the real social identities that people occupy within this campus. Ithaca College isn’t perfect at it, we haven’t quite created an environment where one can transcend gender. But people have opportunities where they can express their gender identities if they so choose to in ways that go against gender constructs. I actually really love that about working at Ithaca College.”

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