A lot of critiques of existing divisions of gender roles take for granted the meaningfulness of the term ‘gender’. The critiques merely inflate or deflate the meaning, but take for granted the idea that gender can have any meaning at all. Even ‘post-gender’ accounts seem to take for granted the substantial character of gender performance. But I want to say that gender is nothing more than the performance. It is substantially empty. That is why we need it.
If gender is mere style, then what is the substance which it masks? If it is an empty mask, what lies behind the mask? I think it is true that gender extends from the biological accident of two sexes, one with XX chromosomes and one with XY chromosomes. This is regarded as ‘natural’, but what is natural is not inevitable. The word nature comes from the French naïtre, to be born. What is born can die. What is natural can fade away. So can sex, and the gender order which is plastered over it.
But gender is not simply a biological construction. It is a sociological construction, in dialogue with gradations of class and status. In a society divided by economic and political hierarchies of power, gender is another layer of division which satisfies people with a kind of sexual mysticism, or an erotic imagination. We like to imagine that people have ‘natural’ roles that they perform lawfully and dutifully. Even now – indeed, especially now – this imagination is almost completely hegemonic. All political positions subscribe to some stereotyping of people by gender; indeed, it is inevitable that in a gendered society the only honest language to use is one which itself constructs some kind of gender distinction.
Some people want to root gender in some more primordial distinction between ‘masculine’ order and ‘feminine’ chaos. This is sweet, but incorrect. Anyone can behave in any combination of ways regardless of their sexual characteristics or gender ascription. There is nothing about us as men, women, or non-binary people that makes us order-loving or chaos-loving. These variables are completely independent. Because while ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ mean something, ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not.
What about religion? Are not men condemned to labour in the fields, while women are condemned to bear children? Well, no – not anymore. And this situation was a contingent circumstance of agricultural empires, which are long gone, even if they are preserved in the historical documents of holy scriptures.
The fear of disorder from abandoning gender is real and understandable. Conservatives fear a ‘feminised’ society in which anarchy rules, according to the whims of the market (which the same conservatives want to expand, paradoxically). Liberals fear a ‘masculine’ state which tyrannises citizens according to the whims of leaders (who liberals also believe can be educated in the light of reason – or at least, their classical forbears did). These fears are real and understandable in a modern system in which the political state and the economic market are in permanent contest for power by appealing to the competing interests of social classes. They sometimes legitimate their claims for power in the language of gender.
So long as human beings are sexual creatures, they will always create some mysticism to defend the blind evolutionary drive to reproduce, or attain reproductory pleasure without extending the species down the generations. We want to give meaning to what is meaningless. It is understandable. It is perhaps inevitable. It is also completely mistaken. There is nothing beneath and nothing above. There is only humanity and our pursuit of power, after power. All else is window-dressing. Including gender. But we need window-dressing, lest we confront reality for what it really is. Perhaps then we can escape from it. Until then, we need gender to keep us slaves to the fates. When we wish to break free, we will no longer need the tools of slavery, and we will be able to enter the house of freedom. How long must we wait? How long is our sentence? Time will tell. Until then, gander on. It’s going to be a gendered ride.