by Manoj Dhakal
“Imagine that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. One day long ago the Martians, looking through their telescopes, discovered the Venusians. Just glimpsing the Venusians awakened feelings they had never known. They fell in love and quickly invented space travel and flew to Venus.
The Venusians welcomed the Martians with open arms. They had intuitively known that this day would come. Their hearts opened wide to a love they had never felt before.
The love between the Venusians and Martians was magical. They delighted in being together, doing things together, and sharing together. Though from different worlds, they revelled in their differences. They spent months learning about each other, exploring and appreciating their different needs, preferences, and behaviour patterns. For years they lived together in love and harmony.
Then they decided to fly to Earth. In the beginning everything was wonderful and beautiful. But the effects of Earth’s atmosphere took hold, and one morning everyone woke up with a peculiar kind of amnesia selective amnesia! Both the Martians and Venusians forgot that they were from different planets and were supposed to be different. In one morning everything they had learned about their differences was erased from their memory. And since that day men and women have been in conflict.”
John Gray (2004), Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus
The above introductory paragraphs from the book describe the background to explain the planetary theory of sex roles which argues that men and women are different just because they belong to different planets by their origin. This essay will refute this idea by explaining the concept of social construction of gender roles. On doing so, the essay begins with an introduction to the concept ofthe social construction of gender relations. A brief on the sex role theory is presented before making my reflection to conclude that the gender is more a social construction rather than a biological determination.
Michael Kimmel (2008), in an article, ‘Inequality and Difference: The Social Construction of Gender’in The Gendered Society argues that the differences in gendered identities is more due to social interaction and less because of one’s biological constitution. He explains this by examining the differences not only between men and women but also among men and among women. Kimmel aims to refute exclusive biological deterministic approach with social constructionist perspective. However, this essay deals only with summarizing the key problems associated with sex role theory and to reflect it.
It is a largely observed phenomenon that the gender identity is acquired through social interaction of individuals in their families. It seems that there occurs the trade-off between internal stability and conflicting sex roles before one is constructed in particular gender way. Sociologists argue that the sex role theory is insufficient to understand the intricacy of gender for four reasons- curtailing the significance of gender, fixed and singular definition of masculinity and femininity, ignoring the relativity of gender, missing to explain the contexts which finally lead to its meagreness to realize the social movements for change.
Role theory assumes that our roles are constructed by socialization before we actually act on these roles. It does not only manifest as the usual roles that we perform on day to day basis but also its implications can be seen in other social aspects. For instance, it is not only the biology that makes differences between the female worker with the male counterparts but it may also be the wages, respect and others aspects as well.
The singular notion of masculinity and femininity is impractical as culture varies across time and space. Therefore, the meanings of femininity and masculinity are also subject to change. This means that we are not in position to universalize it as a constant entity. The importance of interaction in forming the differences among the definitions of masculinity and femininity is stated by Kimmel as “Sociologists, on the other hand, believe that the differences among definitions of masculinity or femininity are themselves the outcome of the ways in which those groups interact with their environments.” [Kimmel, 2008:102]
The above discussion that the gender is plural rather than singular shows the way that it is also relative. This concept suggests that the male gender role is formed in relation with the female and vice versa. One side is taken as the standard and the other is the complete reversal of it.
In the same vein, sex role theory is not able to acknowledge the situational meanings of gender and its plural and relational meanings.
The moment I was reading this text for the first time, I made an impression that the sex role theory makes us take things for for granted. If we are in a position to accept that men and women acts as per their roles determined by the biological disposition they possess, we will not be in position even to think whether gender difference is prevalent in the society. Likewise, failure to recognize the multiple determinants of gender identity posit us to stick on what Kimmel says ‘false universalism’. I suppose it has a potential not only to institute but also to replicate the normative definition as normal. Moreover, it moves further from the fact that the differences are more among men and among women rather than between men and women. Similarly, becoming one with reference to other seems to be the one side of the coin, the other side is not explained by the theory. In the same manner, the situational meanings of gender vary. I conclude this by observing the interaction between a brother and a sister in a stationery shop, once with their parents and once in their absence. The brother’s etiquette towards his sister was different in their parents’ absence. The boy was dominant to his sister in the absence of his parents and her state of submissiveness was clearly observable. The girl, I think, was in no way inferior to him but the sociology of gender was making her so. This suggests that gender difference is creating a situation of domination and gender inequality, which in another word would be ‘power equation’. Finally, use of sex role theory to describe gender relation is a victim blaming approach and against the concept of positive discrimination or affirmative action.
Gray, John (2004) ‘Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus’ Harper Collins
Kimmel, Michael (2008) ‘Inequality and Difference: The Social Construction of Gender’ in TheGendered Society, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 98-123