Gender is a social construct, the saying goes. That which is socially constructed is defined by the rules of the society that created it, or the supposedly arbitrary rules that humankind has passed along for generations if not millennia. That which is socially constructed has no basis in biology—and to the extent that biology is applied to prove or enforce a behavior or supposed truism, that study or test or result is invalidated by the fact that biology shouldn’t have been applied in the first place. Culture, not biology, decides what is socially constructed. Since culture is malleable, so is that which is socially constructed.
When thinking of gender, specifically of behaviors applied to genders, the saying goes that no particular attitude, personality, mannerism, fashion, or expectation belongs exclusively to any gender. The phrase, “Boys will be boys” is problematic because there is no reason why boys should be allowed to roughhouse or treat girls unkindly; there’s no reason why their form of play should be exclusive to the wielders of the XY combination of chromosomes—there’s no reason why, when they grow up, they should feel entitled to a woman’s attention. All of their behavior is learned, thus leaving the possibility that not only can undesired behavior be unlearned, but that new, culturally appropriate behavior can be inculcated into future generations.
Girls, too, are encouraged to change what might otherwise come naturally. This is, of course, a foolish sentence since no behavior is natural, but rather socially constructed, at least when it comes to gender. If boys’ behavior is today defined under cease-and-desist parameters, girls’ behavior is defined by opportunity. Boys can engage in “girl’s play,” sure, but first we must make sure they tone down the boys’ play. And girls, meanwhile, should engage in more “boy’s play” because, after all, there’s nothing that defines it strictly as play that is or should be exclusive to boys.
There’s no job that only a man can do; there’s no task that only a woman is fit for. A man who believes he cannot wear a dress is oppressed by his gender—a girl that doesn’t take the leadership position is the slave of hers. Therefore, to break these gender norms, it is imperative that members of both genders engage in previously taboo behaviors because they shouldn’t have been taboo in the first place. In this new society, one that stares the social construct of gender in the face, plastic surgery is applied to turn that face into something else. And therein lies the problem.
No one is doing away with the social construct. All that’s being done is swapping out the current set of rules and expectations with another set of rules and expectations. This could be a better set of rules and expectations, sure, until we remember that the word “better” is subjective and will always be tied to society’s present-day sentiment. Also, it invites the question: better in comparison to what? We will always be comparing subjective things, since the previous set of rules and expectations were defined by the social construct of its day, just as our rules and expectations are defined by the social construct of our day. It’s important to modernize, we could say, based on our newfound enlightenment.
But we’re not tearing apart the social construct. The social construct cannot be torn apart. It can only be continuously defined and re-defined, examined and re-examined, like the view in a camera constantly adjusted to account for the change in light. So when people say that something doesn’t matter or has little to no bearing on how things should be, their reasoning for doing so is that anything socially constructed is impermanent—in the case of gender, it’s wrong. But then what they’re also saying is, “The rules and expectations you used to play by and hold should be replaced by these rules and expectations.” That which is socially constructed is simply being re-constructed.
Since we are in this process of reconstruction, society is confused. We only have the old blueprints to go off of; some people see good reason why city streets were laid out as a grid, while others remark that the grid-like method of organization subconsciously contributed to people’s inability to think differently, and therefore should be changed. Those who think things should be different are forming what they believe in real-time, on forums, YouTube videos, and tweets. You’ve seen the person or celebrity who tweets a statement, recants it, apologizes, and explains their learning or evolution on the subject matter. You’ve seen the threads that seek to clarify why it’s not just women who have it right, but trans women, then trans women of color, then trans women of color from indigenous backgrounds, then trans women of color from indigenous backgrounds who are also anti-capitalists. There’s an endless specificity that springs up when deciding who should have the mic to declare the new rules and expectations.
It’s difficult to know what the right path forward is, because so many paths are currently available. Some are orderly highways, while others branch out in so many minute ways so as to appear infinite. Should men act a certain way? Should women? If we say that men should do more “women” things, and women should do more “men” things, is it the eventual hope that everyone will eventually be able to do more “things”, without needing the preceding modifier? Is it also the hope that people won’t organize themselves back into “things” that some people do more than others? The future social construct could force a re-shuffling if that becomes the case, but is that any less oppressive than the way we currently live?