When we talk about gender expression we first need to ask one basic question: What is gender? First things first – nowadays we don’t ask our mom, we ask wikipedia: Gender is the wide set of characteristics that are seen to distinguish between male and female entities, extending from one’s biological sex to, in humans, one’s social role or gender identity.
Wait – gender identity? Sure, we can look this up as well: Gender identity (otherwise known as core gender identity ) is the gender(s), or lack thereof, a person self-identifies as. It is not necessarily based on biological fact, either real or perceived, nor is it always based on sexual orientation. The gender identities one may choose from include: male, female, both, somewhere in between (“third gender”), or neither.
Sure, these definitions are rather brief and explained more closely in the linked articles but let’s work with these quotes now. Again – what is gender for us? There are definitions like the ones we just read and they aren’t all too bad. But can we draw such clear and strict borders when talking about a rather fluent phenomenon? Drawers don’t work because we rather speak about tendencies. Gender isn’t just the “s” before the “he” or the x or y. So let’s picture gender as an open box. So we rather could ask what – and how much of it – is in the box.
So, what kind of things are in this box? Let’s start with the sex; sure, you might guess that a transsexual writer would say that our genetic or biological sex has no influence on who we are – but it does. Even if a lot of the influence is only what we see when we look at our body (primary and secondary sexual characteristics) and how people perceive us, it is definitely relevant. Let’s add how we see ourselves not in the mirror but when we think about us or in our thoughts and feelings. But does gender really end with that? Many people would say that things like whether the kid plays with cars or puppets could be added to gender – I’d say it’s not that easy. But couldn’t we add things that aren’t all too obvious? When we say gender is a substantial part of who and what we are, couldn’t there be more to it than many guess – things about us that are not socially gendered can be just as well part of our gender.
With these things in mind we can leave the not all too short prelude and get to the topic. What is gender expression? In the context we look at it we don’t speak about biology. What I mean with this term is what we do – may it be consciously or unconsciously – to express or show our gender. There is a large risk of misinterpretation here: one can project something into someone that he or she isn’t. One can misread something as gendered which isn’t or the other way round; and last but not least we can misread something completely. And yes, before we continue with another basic thing (most of you will be annoyed because you know that) – when I speak of gender as a whole as well as parts of that gender I don’t perceive them necessarily as binary entities.
But how do we express gender? It’s how we dress and style, how we act, small gestures and body language, how we speak, what we say… you name it. Even something apparently simple as how we dress is way more complex than we may think – it’s way more than just skirts versus pants. We can find here already quite transgressing tendencies and one doesn’t have to be transgendered to transgress gender. Even definitions like tomboyish woman or effeminate man won’t do the job completely. And the often as neutral considered jeans-and-T-shirt look isn’t as neutral as it seems for we still read some gender when we see someone dressed like that. Still, there are strict borders here: When we see someone we read as male in a cheerleader dress or someone we read female in Charlie Chaplin style we get confused. Interesting here is that women tend to have more choices than men – or do you see often men wearing skirts or dresses? On the other hand we are used to women wearing suits. But also here a women’s suit is designed quite differently from a mans suit. So far I didn’t tell you anything you couldn’t see by yourself. But when you buy clothes you nearly always buy them gendered. Sure, there are also ways to break with such binaries pretty much – you could combine a skirt with high heels and a very masculine jeans jacket. Maybe you just try something like that and maybe it’s just your gender – or a gender of your own. The only thing you should keep in mind while reading this is that masculine and feminine can be far from male or female – although both is gendered.
But there’s more to life than nice clothes. Accessories work more or less the same way so we don’t look closer at them. Still, there are many other ways of doing gender and we use most of them every day. There’s the voice. Did you ever notice that women tend to raise their voice towards the end of a sentence? Maybe one could compare the sound of it with asking a question, something like “Hi, I’m Liz?” – but of course (and fortunately) it’s not that extreme. There are of course way more subtleties to language but this example shows quite well what I mean. And also here we can make a gender of our own. There are many expressions that would be read as binaries like a male or female sound of a voice; but I take every bet that you did (and also do) encounter many situations where you couldn’t assign certain attributes to the person by using binaries – a woman can have a low voice and a man can raise his voice towards the end of a sentence.
Now, there are also gestures that we assign a gender. How do you gesticulate? How do you open a door or hold a cigarette? Just to make it clear, not everything is necessarily gendered but also here we read a lot in the context of a person’s gender. We don’t do this consciously except when we question a person’s gender. As a transsexual you hear a lot like “this looks really feminine” or “I wouldn’t do this, it’s too masculine”. On the other hand, when we take someones sex for granted we rarely question such things, except we have another reason to assign a gesture to someones gender, like: “She’s a lesbian so it makes sense when she acts masculine”. But when everything seems to match the classic gender binary we get confused when something small doesn’t add up but we rarely realise what it is. It’s basically the same thing about how we walk and how our facial expressions work.
This was merely a brief introduction to a complex topic – I hope I gave also those who never dealt with it some thought-provoking impulse. But I have good reasons to guess that many of you already thought about most of this – so keep on thinking.
Your thoughtful Liz