Male Genders: A Preliminary Exploration

During my social work education, I encountered the concepts of sex and gender.  Sex, as I understood it, meant the traditional male-female distinction and also, for a small minority of the population, one or more versions of transsexuality.  Gender was often used as a synonym for sex, but in its more refined sense meant a social role, typically linked to sex.  So, for example, there was just one male sex, but there could be multiple male genders.

As I understood it, men would not necessarily be the only ones who could inhabit the appurtenant roles.  For example, there could be a woman who would occupy a role very similar to that of a son, in a father-son relationship.  My guess, though, was that her position would best be viewed as involving a gender somewhat distinct from that of a male in the same position, insofar as she was not in fact male and would thus probably have a somewhat variant experience.  There would perhaps be ways to tinker with this sort of thing – in, for example, the experience of a son who had begun life as a woman, upon being reunited with his long-lost biological father – but my knowledge and current interest did not run deep enough to parse that.

The topic of gender came back to mind as I thought further about a previous post on male-male interactions in schools of social work (SSWs).  That post was focused on faculty-student interactions.  I found myself wondering how the vocabulary of gender would account for this sort of thing.  It was something that I might have mastered during my social work education, but I had frankly avoided such matters because, in social work, discussions of diversity invariably seemed to position everyone else against the heterosexual white male.  There would usually be only a few of us, in a social work course.  So I was like the crash test dummy, in a study focused on models of automobiles:  I was there, sure enough, but was primarily valued for my service as the one that gets beat up.  Which is to say, social work education did not seem to be very oriented toward an understanding of gender (in which, for all I knew, I might have exhibited profound atypicality); I was categorized primarily by sex and race, and in the sorts of terms that one might expect in an inordinately female profession.

What I wondered about, now, had to do with the characterization of gender in those male-male interactions.  Would we say that the professors and I occupied different genders, purely by dint of our divergent social roles?  Were they all in the same gender – and if so, was I necessarily a trainee therein?  At this point, I was not equipped with the vocabulary and concepts to address these questions effectively.  I decided it might be worthwhile to flesh out the matter to some degree.

I was looking particularly for a categorization or taxonomy.  In sexes, we have male and female:  universally recognized.  What genders were, or should have been, universally recognized?  A long Wikipedia article referred to a “trichotomy between biological sex, psychological gender, and social sex role.”  The concept there seemed to be that sex would be determined biologically (with some potential for subsequent adjustment); society would supply a sex-based role, or perhaps a choice among several; and then the psychology of the individual would work within or beyond sex and sex role to produce a gender.  Something like that, anyway.  So at the outset, there did not seem to be any taxonomy of genders.

That raised a question.  When I was considering the interactions of male faculty and students in SSWs, was I even getting to the point of gender?  These were social roles, professor and student, and in my own phrasing the only additional component was the male sex.  It seemed that I was talking about the person who found himself playing the role (actually, living the life) of the male subordinate to a male educator.  Sex and social sex roles; that’s all I had here.

The response, I believed, was that not all male professors and students were the same, or behaved in roughly similar ways.  Within the universe of male professors, or male social work professors (as developed to some extent in a previous post), some were bullies or exploiters, while others were not.  For that matter, some students would roll over and play dead upon receiving such treatment while, again, others would not.  Did gender provide useful characterizations to account for such divergences?

What I was seeing in that Wikipedia article – what I seemed to have encountered in social work education – was that gender was something of a definitional game.  The term could be defined in various ways, that is, and those varied definitions would perhaps have usefulness for assorted purposes; but it preliminarily appeared that, no, I was not going to find any relatively bright-line distinctions in gender like those among sexes or social roles.

I wondered whether “gender” might provide bright-line distinctions when used as an adjective rather than as a noun.  That is, gender per se was not immediately clear; but Wikipedia, at least, felt that gender identity could be rather crisply defined as “a person’s private sense of, and subjective experience of, their own gender.”  In translation, this seemed to mean that I would, in some sense, participate in or draw upon “gender attributes assigned to males” within American society.  But why “gender”?  Shouldn’t they rather say “sex”?  I am male; I would draw upon male sex attributes.  The answer seemed to be that male sex attributes refer to physiology:  a male has a penis, etc.  The male gender attributes would be that men draw upon a limited assortment of approved ways of acting and appearing.

So did bullying have to be gendered, or could we just have equal-opportunity, unisex bully behavior by any professor worthy of the title?  Here, Wikipedia gave me a second category of adjectival distinction:  gender role.  In their telling, “A gender role is a set of social and behavioral norms that are generally considered appropriate for either a man or a woman in a social or interpersonal relationship.”  This, I felt, was weak.  Would being a prostitute be “generally considered appropriate”?  Ditto bullying.  Ah, but I was misunderstanding.  As they saw it, you just have the one gender (e.g., male), and just the one role (male gender role), with varied manifestations (e.g., different male hair styles, childhood interest in toy soldiers).  The world was divided into roles, like a pie chart:  you could be anywhere within the male slice, and still be in accordance with the male gender role.

This could be confusing.  What if you wore your hair like a woman, but preferred men’s clothes?  I was envisioning a bimodal distribution, with lots of people sporting a solidly male style, lots of obvious females, but also a fair number of people in the valley between the two, picking and choosing from both as they saw fit.  Girls can wrestle; boys can use mousse.

So that wasn’t too helpful.  Bullying might make you a crappy kind of man, but I didn’t see how it would make you a woman.  The Wikipedia gender role article did acknowledge the possibility of additional genders; for instance, the Bissu in Sulawesi were said to be “a combination of all genders.”  But this was evidently rare, accounting for a tiny portion of global population.  Gender roles were like two large adults, Mom and Dad, with a few other runts scattered around.

So let’s say there is a certain kind of bullying behavior that is peculiarly male.  Or how about a certain kind of physical behavior, like using fists.  Women do not often do this.  You could say that punching someone tends to be a male aggressive behavior.  Is it part of the male gender role, or how should we characterize it?

It seemed that what I was looking for, in such questions, was not within the normal language of “gender,” whether nounal or adjectival.  I suspected that I was looking for what they would call the difference between a man who was called macho, or a pussy, or a wimp.  Or, as a different example, the alpha or beta or omega male.  What was the word for that sort of distinction?  My searches weren’t turning up much, so I tried on the female side, and also tried a search spanning men and women.  This yielded the possibility that what I was looking for was simply referred to as male or female “types” or, as it developed, stereotypes.

So, OK, stepping back to appraise that, it seemed that there was a male gender role, and if you were male you would usually occupy (or at least would be commonly believed to occupy) a specific location, within that slice of the pie chart, corresponding to your male stereotype.  Actually, the slice seemed to be divided up among multiple male stereotypes, inspiring a Venn rather than hard-line apportioning:  you could live according to (or, to add another vector of complexity, you could see yourself as, or be seen as) a macho man or a wimp, and also a farmer or a mechanic.

The pie chart treatment seemed to be getting shaky.  Maybe being a man was more like having your own private pyramid, where you would gain a foot of elevation if you were macho, and another foot if you were rich, and another if you were a genius.  You know, there were these different ways of rising above the crowd, and the more you had of them, the higher your stature.  It’s not as though female traits were meanwhile oppositional, forming a negative graph below sea level:  being strong or smart or rich could be a plus there too, at least in the majority view.

That last caveat posed the problem that such appraisals could be in the eye of the beholder.  If I was going to get my categorization of male types, would I be looking for one based on an objective (i.e., third-party) or, rather, a subjective (i.e., self) appraisal?  Both, I guessed:  others might see a certain bully as simply a strong leader, at least until they came under his/her thumb, while I might paradoxically despise and yet, in another way, respect the bully’s dominance.

It seemed that such value judgments might just be muddying the water.  Whatever people might think of a bully or, for that matter, a saint, the better approach might be just to identify certain behaviors, each with its potential advantages and disadvantages for various purposes, and categorize people according to their participation in such behaviors.  So now, instead of clear categories, I was going to get a painting where colors overlapped and hard lines were few.  Each pixel on the screen, each human individual, was going to have some red, some green, some blue – that is, some percentage of bullying, some percentage of kindhearted, some percentage of indifferent behaviors – and these would apparently best be gauged using some assortment of self-report and observational instruments.  Like, you might combine a bullying questionnaire with an independent review of the person’s criminal record, reports from present and previous mates, and so forth.  We would still have value judgments, but ideally they would be based upon some kind of pattern emerging from the data – based, perhaps, on others’ appraisals of whether a particular behavior was desirable, or understandable, or something in which the appraiser him/herself engaged.

Where did this leave me?  My preliminary wanderings had not supported my initial impression from social work education.  Wikipedia and a few other websites, at least, did not seem to agree that there could be many male genders.  The language I had encountered suggested, rather, that male gender was a broad field within which people could participate in certain stereotypical attitudes and/or behaviors.  I mean, they could participate in whatever attitudes or behaviors they wanted, but some of those would be considered stereotypically male, in one way or another, and others would not.  If I wanted to categorize men, it did not seem that I would do so by looking for assorted male genders.  Instead, I might try to identify key types (e.g., macho, farmer).  I did not presently see how these could be mutually exclusive, so apparently I would want to develop a fairly rich stock of stereotypes, to build up a multidimensional impression of a given person.

Which is another way of saying that categorization or typology could be useful at times, for particular purposes, but in the most accurate analysis would be foiled by the complexity of individuals.  This observation could turn attention toward the question:  why does it seem necessary, in a given situation, to pigeonhole people?  I guessed that one answer was that, when you move beyond the level of direct interpersonal interaction (which, conceivably, you should not do), the limits of human cognition necessitate a certain amount of abstraction (resulting, conceivably, in distortion of who the person actually is).

Obviously, these meditations called for much better education on my part.  My problem was that, like many people, I lived in a real world in which there was limited time for exploration of all unknowns.  If it had been otherwise, I would not have attempted this post in the first place; I would have just sat down for some days or weeks and plowed through an assortment of books and articles.  In a pinch, what I needed was a thumbnail sketch, something that I could express in few words and apply with some plausibility in many situations.  And what had emerged from this process, so far, was an impression that I did not have much use for “gender” or “gender role” or “gender identity” – or at least that, like many others, I had gotten by without a very informed understanding of those terms so far.

Economy, it seemed, had left me at least semi-conversant by relying on little more than “sex” (with “gender” functionally synonymous) and “type,” where the latter was usually limited to gross generalities like “mechanic” and “father.”  If I did want to go into more depth than that, it appeared that I might continue to evade the language of “gender” and focus instead on the particular (maybe largely psychological) construct(s) that were in play within a given inquiry – on bullying, in the present case, or on violence or logic or anxiety or whatever seemed relevant to that inquiry.

Generally, this impression functioned as a sort of self-justification for my conceptual status quo, but not without reason:  despite years of social work education, “gender” had not deeply informed my way of seeing or describing the world, and even now was not offering obvious utility for daily purposes.  No doubt I was deficient in some regards, for purposes of understanding scholarly literature within the field of gender studies; but for most purposes, including the construal of most social work literature, my uncertainties about “gender” did not seem to have left me at a visible disadvantage.  But, as always, I was certainly interested in feedback, if my inquiry thus far had missed something important.


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