Performances – How We Do Gender

“Performances” discussed by Wade and Marx in chapter 4 as the unpacks socialization and explains how we perform the expectations of that socialization. Before we head into that we must first discuss socialization itself. Socialization is the process by which society’s values and norms, including those pertaining to gender, are taught and learned.

Gender socialization is the learning process of social expectations and attitudes associated with one’s sex. It begins at birth, continues throughout one’s lifetime and is reinforced by socializing agents (family, peers, education, religion, and the media). Our first exposure to gender roles and expectations typicall comes from the parents. Once an infant is born, and nowadays often before they are born, their sex (biology) determines how their parents act towards, and treat them.

Gender socialization

A lot of our socialization is about what we are not! The assigned color of pink to a girl and the blue to the boy is a great example. It is reinforced by the parents and social on what girls and boys should have before their birth. One of the greatest socializing agents today is the media – ads, movies, books, etc. all prescribe ways in which children perceive the world and themselves. Our socialization encourages us to put people and things into masculine and feminine categories without thinking about it; this seems natural when in fact it is constructed. Gender is a logic that we manipulate, that also manipulates us. Gender provides a framework in which we can understand our world, but that worldview is limited.

Let’s dive into some of the social learning theories on gender socialization.

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory – suggests behavior is learned through observation, children will imitate the social behaviors they are exposed to (including gender expectations). From this perspective, children learn gender roles directly through rewards that reinforce appropriate behavior or punishments that extinguish inappropriate behavior. And indirectly though observation and imitation (modeling). Children learn by observing same sex individuals and copying them.

How parents influence kid’s gender roles: Whit Honea, a co-founder of Dads 4 Change.

Gender Schemas Theory is a cognitive theory of gender development that says that gender is a product of the norms of one’s culture. The theory was originated by psychologist Sandra Bem in 1981. It suggests that people process information, in part, based on gender-typed knowledge.

Sociologist Erving Goffman developed a theory call Dramaturgy, in which he puts forth the notion that social life is essentially a performance that we perform on the ‘stage’ of life. Goffman contends that we are all actors, with roles, scripts, costumes and sets. Our goal is to maintain face, we have both front stage and back stage behaviors, and we manage those behaviors depending upon the situation and who we are interacting with.

Each performance involves the presentation of self through “impression management” – people’s efforts to present themselves to others in ways that are most favorable to their own image or interests. Goffman distinguished between front stages and back stages. During our everyday life, we spend most of our lives on the front stage, where we get to deliver our lines and perform. The division between front and backstage behavior is found in nearly every social setting. This theory closely aligns with the notion of gender as a performance.

The phrase, doing gender refers to the ways in which we actively obey and break gender rules (the socialized instructions for how to appear and behave and a man or women). Once children have learned the rules – they begin to behave in ways that reflect them: choosing toys are deemed “gender appropriate’ and making assuptions about others based on perceived gender. As Wade and Marx state: “kids absorb gender rules, while they are busy learning all the other rules of life.”

How we do gender… is gender a performance? According to Judith Butler gender is performative.

Gender rules vary by culture, history, and identities. We all do gender at least a little, but usually more.

Butler’s Gender Trouble Feminist Media Studies Theory Explained

Additional resources

What is gender?

What It Really Means to “Play Like a Girl”

Gender roles and stereotypes

Beer is traditionally crafted for men, but women are pushing back on this ideology.

Good luck!

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