In 2018, Freddy McConell, a transgender man, gave birth to a son. It was a fascinating anomaly, challenging gender roles in the extremist form. Even though he lost the case to be legally recognised as his son’s father instead of mother, the objection stems from the argument that the parent who undergoes the physical and biological process to deliver a baby must be deemed the mother, regardless of the person’s gender. In either case, there is no denying the fact that a man gave birth, displaying the most defining and ‘feminine’ traits of all.
But Freddy McConell is not the first or the only man to have done so. Thomas Beatie underwent a gender confirming surgery in 2002, but chose to retain his female reproductive organs. In 2007, he became the world’s first pregnant man, when he decided to bear a child because his wife was infertile. He later went on to have 3 more children, and multiple other men followed. These incidents are striking and awe inspiring – and confusing too. Freddy McConell and Thomas Beatie, while taking these historical steps, challenged one of the most fundamental gender roles – child bearing – which prompts us to question our understanding of gender and ask, what makes one a man or a woman?
Earlier conversations around this issue started with Simone de Beauvoir. She made a radical claim in 1949, in The Second Sex – “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. It propounded that the quality of being biologically female does not automatically make one a woman. In fact, according to her, “not every female human being is necessarily a woman”. It says that biology does not determine the condition of being a woman or feminine, but one’s situation and social conditions do. And although Beauvoir does not explicitly claim it, the same clause applies to men too. In simpler terms, gender does not come naturally, but its ideals are structurally fed into men and women, giving the illusion that masculinity or femininity are natural or essential features of men and women.
Female and male children are brought up differently, dressed differently, given different toys, cartoons and colors, even before they are born (gender reveal parties). These traditions naturally differ across cultures, regions and classes, but nonetheless, the children of both sexes are treated differently. They also witness their mothers and/or fathers fulfill specific, distinctive roles, and develop similar expectations from themselves. Subjected to different lifestyles since inception, they learn to identify themselves with one section of the society and emulate its characteristics. Since everyone is a part of this cycle, a majority of us adhere to and internalise these social ideals and this behaviour is considered biologically natural, intuitive and acceptable. As we may have all experienced, however, this misconception becomes deeply problematic when it restricts people from expressing themselves when it does not align with their expected identity.
In mainstream media, a man is ‘too feminine’ if he wears nail polish, a woman is ‘not feminine enough’ when she does not remove her body hair. Such ideals restrict an individual to a very small space of expression. Interestingly enough, these restrictions are actually ironical and contradictory to the notion of biology or natural gender. If indeed one’s gender is biologically determined, and I, for instance, am a man, then none of my actions could possibly be anything but masculine. Just like every characteristic displayed by a tree is automatically its natural characteristic, so should have been the case with gender. But it is not. Instead we can see how society tries to enforce gender norms on different people, based on their sex. Humans do not decide what properties or traits any non-human objects or beings have – we merely observe and note them, whatever they may be, and deem them natural. Why is it then that a man wearing a skirt does not determine what masculinity is, but the other way round?
It immediately stands out that more than anything else, these normative ideals benefit patriarchy. Without their existence, there would be no basis to discriminate between the two genders – they are absolutely essential to justify the elevation of masculinity over femininity. Along this current, we should see the diminution of gender normativity alongside patriarchy. It could be argued that this is not necessary, if we can attain some kind of a balance between both gender traits – gender expression could be regulated without having a hierarchy. For instance, then, let us assume that society somehow starts valuing household chores as much as working outside the home, and in general, traditionally feminine traits as much as traditionally masculine traits. Consequently, career fields would still value and hire men for their masculine traits over women, leaving them without opportunities if they want to do something besides domestic chores. A similar restriction holds for men, but it is more flexible, since masculine traits are traditionally suited for working outside the house. The societal structure remains unchanged and creates a consoling illusion of equality.
Alternatively, let us say that the ideas of femininity and masculinity drastically change but are still exclusive and normative. Taking the same example of career fields, one may value feminine traits over masculine and another masculine over feminine, leading to the first field hiring majorly women and second majorly men, creating local hierarchies. Again, an illusion of overall balance will be created, yet discrimination based on gender would certainly not be avoided.
This obviously does not imply that the concept of gender needs to be forgotten. It exists and has very real implications in our lives, but we must empower individuals to comfortably define what their masculinity, femininity, or other gender expression is. Rather than society enforcing a standard definition of the genders, each individual should have the power to subjectively define what their gender and gender identity is.
Thus, it is not enough to demand equality without a complete reassessment of gender categories and traits. But this idea has been slow to be accepted. Some radical feminists, for instance, strongly oppose the inclusion of trans women as women. In 1978, the Lesbian Organisation of Toronto wrote that ‘a person cannot just join the oppressed by fiat’ and that biological males cannot speak for women by calling themselves women. These feminists are called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) who largely believe that trans women’s inclusion in women spaces masks their male privilege. At the same time, they still consider trans men to be women. Lierre Keith claims that femininity is behaviour that is ritualized submission resulting from women’s socialisation since birth, and gender is more an unchangeable caste position than identity, which is deeply problematic. It yet again propounds a definitive idea of femininity and womanhood, and even evokes absurd questions – would one cease to be a woman if they do not exhibit such submissive behaviour?
Postmodern feminism is much more progressive in these regards. According to Judith Butler, an important figure in postmodern feminist thought, ‘[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary’. She points out how normative gender definitions (of any kind – traditional or such as proposed by Keith) are not only problematic because they are restrictive and discordant, but also because they are exclusionary. Beauvoir says that one becomes a woman, but what characteristics actually allow one to be identified as a woman? Biological features or anatomy is clearly not an appropriate basis. Some feminists (Chodorow, for example) argue that a ‘feminine’ personality makes a woman, and that is who feminism should be concerned about. But does a ‘masculine’ woman not face discrimination due to being a woman? And would a ‘masculine’ girl not qualify as a girl, merely because she is not feminine enough? As discussed earlier, femininity and masculinity themselves are not stable and definitive, then how can they be used to define a man or a woman?
Even if one tries to define a woman (or a man) according to certain experiences, according to Butler, there would be many discrepancies across different social groups like class, race, caste, nationality and more, which would make it impossible to settle on one single definition. She argues that in pursuit of replacing biologically deterministic definitions of women, feminism has created different socially constructed definitions that are equally restrictive. The expectations and experiences of different genders in different social groups are different. The social reality of a lower caste woman and an upper caste woman are different – one set of experiences cannot define their femininity. In the same way, no one definition can cross-culturally define men. In the end, it is futile and erroneous to even try and define who a woman or a man is. Any attempt to do so could construe latent gender normativity.
These arguments show how an inclusive feminist movement cannot successfully thrive on the pillars of gender normativity. It forms the foundation of patriarchy, and it is essential to discourage standard gender ideals not only in the most blatantly sexist forms but in every form. Otherwise, we will face many ideological roadblocks and will cease to be inter-sectional and inclusive.
Riyosha Sharma is a 1st year undergraduate student at Ashoka University.