The Gender Binary: Love it or Lose it?

By Jo Paoletti

I have strong feelings about the gender binary. Simply defined, it is the idea that there are two (and only two) sexes, which are expressed in two flavors of gender, masculine and feminine. A more complicated model puts masculinity and femininity at opposite ends of a spectrum, allowing traits to mingle in between. An even more sophisticated model, now about fifty years old, was suggested by the late Sandra Bem. She visualized gender variation in two dimensions, with a masculine and feminine axis, and developed an instrument, the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) that could place individuals in one of four quadrants, based on their identification with masculine and feminine traits. For example, a person with many masculine and feminine traits was labeled “androgynous”, while a “feminine” person would score highly only on that scale.

Of course, in order for any of these models to work, there must be some traits that are inherently, essentially unique to male and female humans — traits categories as “masculine” and “feminine”. Rather than go down the rabbit hole of arguing whether these traits are the result of nature or nurture, I’d like to propose the radical notion that these adjectives are lazy substitutes for more descriptive accurate adjectives.

Consider how we would talk or write about clothing if those binary categories didn’t exist. Hang in there with me.

Why do we use the words “masculine” and “feminine” to describe colors, fabrics, or clothing styles? "Masculine" and "feminine" are sort of passive descriptors, which don't actually tell you anything about how something looks but point to cultural stereotypes. In my opinion, "urban", "tribal" and "exotic" are used in similar ways. In order to "get" the meaning of the word, you have to be familiar with the cultural reference. (If your brain translated those to into stereotyped images of African Americans, sub-Saharan African design or Southeast Asians, congratulations! Your consumer culture wiring is working as media producers and marketers hoped it would!)

As my research on the history of pink symbolism shows, pink is only "feminine" in a specific recent cultural context. The same is true of nearly all of the details we think of as "girly". To use "feminine" to describe something as "pink" or "elaborately decorative" is meaningful only in that narrow context. But beyond that context, it is not a terribly useful word. What makes a “boyfriend” sweater masculine? How would you describe it to a time traveler from the court of Louis XIV, where men’s clothing was as elaborate and detailed as women’s? It’s a simple, loose-fitting sweater, maybe oversized and probably with generous pockets. Wool, cotton, or acrylic, yes; testosterone, no.

This is not political and it certainly isn't "politically correct". It's two things I care deeply about; good writing and placing individual differences over categorical differences. If your son is reading two years above grade level, would you want to see him placed in a special boys' reading group because "boys don't read as well as girls"? Hell, no! Should your daughter automatically get the princess toothbrush at the dentist instead of the one with the rocket ship because "most girls like princesses"? Again, no. Does your son's reading ability make him feminine? Is your daughter's love of space science "mannish"? No, no, no, NO! Is Serena William's body "masculine"? Don't even go there.

So don't be lazy. Use your active adjectives!

Instead of "masculine", try tailored, functional, or understated. If by "feminine", you mean delicate, ruffled, or pastel, just say so! I think we are seeing a real groundswell of realization that the binary model of gender just doesn't work. It doesn't apply to most people in subtle ways, and it absolutely doesn't apply to many people in profound ways. The more we wake up to this realization, the less adequate our current language will become. This is true of the way we describe gendered objects as well as people. The fashion industry, including the fashion press, can choose to treat this as the "flavor of the month", or as the far-reaching cultural change it signifies.

Jo Paoletti is professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Maryland and the author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America and, Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution.

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