25 Away with “She” and “Her”: Gender, Rhetoric, and Ideology
For my two greatest teachers, mentors and friends:
I am far beyond those days when the two of you would hold my hands and walk me along the kitchen floor so that I could stand “on my own.” Now, I can walk and stand on my own, but one day, I will help the two of you stand – to walk – “on your own.” I cannot wait for you two to continue watching me walk. Watching me stride. Watching me grow. We all learn to walk, so that we may stride.
Your affectionate daughter
Keywords: Identity, Fluidity, Non-Binary, Inclusivity, Transformation
“Please select your gender: male, female, or other.” In our current culture, a statement as such seems culturally taboo, inappropriate or at risk of “othering” different groups, genders and communities. The more inclusive, effective and culturally accustomed rephrasing of this statement might sound something like: “Please specify your gender” and in some cases, “Please select your sex at birth.” Though the latter ultimately presupposes a predetermined selection process as opposed to an independent selection process, these two phrases speak to the complexity of gender rhetoric and ideology.
Yet, how does this initial phrase (i.e., “please select your gender: male, female, or other.”), its meanings and its rhetorical implications begin to shift or evolve when the word “gender” is substituted for words and phrases such as “sex” or “sex at birth?” This substitution that has taken place (i.e., moving away from the interchangeable use of “gender” and “sex”) was gradual, and thus a rhetorically evolutionary process. I would suggest that the mere evolution of a term, theory and in this case, the word “gender,” almost always presupposes its rhetorical significance in cultures and communities if some collective consciousness redevelops, reimagines or redefines an “original” meaning or culturally accepted construal of a term.
As a whole, our current culture largely conceptualizes the term “gender” to be inclusive, fluid and malleable. The intentional use of the term, “gender,” as opposed to “sex” or “sex at birth,” reveals certain ideological implications about the speaker and their conceptions of gender. But how did the evolution of the concept come to be, and what does its current theory suggest about our broader culture?
It appears that the term “gender,” when it is intentionally chosen and rhetorically employed as opposed to the term “sex,” is non-limiting, and it allows both the speaker and the receiver to engage with matters of identity, power, perception of the self and the totality of one’s public and private lives (Money, 24). Moreover, the term “gender” in place of the term “sex” can eliminate male-female binaries that may not be rhetorically accurate or appropriate in certain scenarios (Money, 47). For example, if we can loosely classify gender as the “aspects of sexuality that are primarily culturally determined; that is, learned postnatally,” then the use of the term “sex” would rhetorically direct the conversation to matters concerning pre-birth or birth itself (Money, 24). With this in mind, it appears that those who intentionally employ the word “sex” when the term “gender” is most fitting, are either A) trying to promote and accredit the male-female binary that is preserved through the use of the term “sex” or B) trying to limit conversations that concern principles and ideologies inherent to the term “gender” (Enos).
In contrast, the term “gender” can carry a substantial amount of authority, and it empowers groups such as, but not limited to: minority groups, feminist movements, and the LGBTQAI+ community. According to Brown and Scott’s contribution to the “Critical Terms for the Study of Gender,” women’s movements in the 1960s and 1970s were not centralized around, or rarely employed the word “gender,” as a means of gaining or asserting power for the movement itself (Stimpson and Herdt, 335). At that stage of the movement, the feminist community was constructed through a patriarchal, male-dominated lens and the identities and possibilities of the “female” were inextricably connected to one’s sex and sexuality. In this way, the term “sex” oversimplifies the multitude of possibilities and identifications that the term “gender” holds for the feminist movement since “sex” cannot account for “the variety of ways in which gender is lived, enacted, regulated and enforced within a particular culture” (Stimpson and Herdt, 337).
On the other hand, there is the thought that the term “gender,” since it is culturally construed and thus a product of experience and self-identification, ought not to be used in place of the word “sex.” This rhetorical hesitation seemingly counters the notion that “gender” is all inclusive, and that it is suitable rhetoric for self-identification when discussing transgender ideology. In contrast, those against transgenderism, or the idea that gender is both fluid and malleable, place great weight on notions of identity (Anderson). For example, have you ever heard someone opposed to transgender ideology say something like: “Well, they only identify as a woman, even though they are really a man.” Notice how the term “identify” rhetorically functions in this conversation concerning gender to essentially invalidate self-identification. Said another way, the rhetorical use of the term “identity” or “identify,” coupled with gender-rhetoric and ideology, usually suppress or lessen matters concerning the complexity, fluidity and inclusivity of gender.
Now that I have explored the rhetorical implications of “sex” and “gender,” it is also worth fleshing out how the terms “being” and “identifying” further function in this context. As such, what are the rhetorical differences, if any, between “being” something and “identifying” as something? What are the consequences of either interchangeably using, or forging decisive binaries between “being” and “identifying” in the context of gender rhetoric and ideology? What is more, how do these two terms operate on the gender spectrum, and how might these two terms, if interchangeably used, give power to, reaffirm genders and self-identifications that cannot be defined within the constructs of the male-female binary? On the contrary, how might these two terms, if rhetorically, linguistically, and culturally construed as separate, and thus placed in a binary relationship with one another, be used to perpetuate microaggressions, or “otherness” among cultures and communities who view the possibilities of self-identified gender-construction as either “male” or “female”?
I argue that those who are intentionally trying to uphold and give authority to male-female binaries will perceive “being” as concrete and existing in reality as opposed to “identifying,” which linguistically, seems more abstract and tentative. Ideologies concerning gender and sexual self-identification are almost always contingent upon recognizable patterns or “codes” attributed to certain groups and communities for which that individual is identifying themselves with. Likewise, if an individual claims self-identification within or among a certain gender, are they presupposing their belief in, support of, or affirmation of that gender, or does this proclamation of self-identification suppose the very nature of being itself? (i.e., “I identify with this gender; therefore, I am this gender.”) This question requires that we turn towards the term “identify,” in tandem with the rhetorical and cultural notions around gender, to essentially unravel the relationship between identifying and being within gender ideology.
It appears that individuals, groups and communities in support of gender ideology will reaffirm the term “identify” as opposed to the form of “to be,” since the very nature of the word “identify” presupposes and adheres to the values of gender rhetoric. Identify is fluid, multidimensional and constantly evolving, and so too is gender. Those who recognize the multidirectional nature of the term “gender” likely perceive this fluctuation and multiplicity of the self as empowering as opposed to invalidating.
I suggest that we view identification and gender in fluid and dynamic ways, because we experience the multidirectionality of these principles every day. We can simultaneously identify as both students and teachers, tutors and learners, friends and foes, artists and sports players, or parents and siblings. In this way, the possibilities and complexities of the self are made more accessible to us when we view identification as a means of coexisting among varying groups, communities and ways of being.
As a whole, it is clear that gender is multidimensional and multidirectional. The current, cultural understanding of the term is one of empowerment and self-identification to allow individuals to express their truest selves beyond the limitations of one’s sex. Gender as a rhetorical term, however, is still evolving, and because it carries great value and meaning, it will likely evolve even further. So, what other construals of the term gender are available to us, and how does it function in your own life?
Anderson, Ryan, “Transgender Ideology Is Riddled with Contradictions. Here Are the Big
Ones.,” The Heritage Foundation, accessed February 23, 2021, https://www.heritage.org/gender/commentary/transgender-ideology-riddled-contradictions-here-a re-the-big-ones.
Enos, Theresa, Gender Roles and Faculty Lives in Rhetoric and Composition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).
Money, John, Gendermaps: Social Constructionism, Feminism, and Sexosophical History (New York: Continuum, 1995), 24.