Boys Like Blue, Girls Like Pink
Constellations, Issue 3
Nicolette Wong & Lisa Zuliana Binte Zulkifli
Two children walk into a clothing store. The boy gravitates towards the blue t-shirt with Transformers emblazoned on the front. The girl is drawn to the pink ballerina tutu costume. At least, this is what conventionally we would expect the boy and girl to do. But, imagine if the reverse occurred. Would that then be considered unconventional? Abnormal even, for a boy to want to wear a ballerina outfit and for a girl to prefer Autobots to dolls. Years later, the two children are now young adults, and have outgrown believing that certain colours are for boys and others are for girls. Except now they subscribe to new beliefs such as the idea that in romantic relationships, men should take the lead while women should play hard to get. Or that, in the future, men should focus on climbing the corporate ladder while women should focus on becoming perfect housewives who manage all the domestic work.
Growing up in society, young children learn to internalize norms and come to modify their behaviours accordingly. We tell young boys to “man up” and young girls to act like ladies. Gendered expectations like these are ubiquitous and often taken for granted, which help them to fly under the radar. But where do these expectations come from, and how do they shape our behaviours and identities? Is there anything wrong with such expectations? And should we try to change them? These questions, and many others, are examined by the interdisciplinary field of Gender Studies.
What is Gender Studies?
Gender Studies is a field of academic research that is concerned with tackling the concept of gender itself: masculinity, femininity, and how people who identify as transgender, bisexual or queer express themselves. Contemporary approaches to gender start from the premise that gender (masculinity and femininity) is not exclusively determined by one’s biology (male or female). Gender Studies is also intersectional, meaning that it explores how other factors such as class and race interact with gender to shape identity and experience.
Assistant Professor Yong Wern Mei, who, alongside Assistant Professor Christopher Suhler and Assistant Professor Ivan Panović, coordinates the Gender Studies research cluster at NTU Singapore, says that Gender Studies should not be confused with feminist studies or women’s studies. While Gender Studies may have sprung up as a subset of feminist studies, it does not prioritise a social justice agenda. Moreover, unlike women’s studies, Gender Studies is interested in the study of masculinity and explores how social constructs determine the way men are expected to behave. Gender Studies also extends into sexuality, challenging heteronormativity and exploring non-heterosexual sexualities encompassed by the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, Trans*, queer, intersex, asexual) umbrella.
The Traditional View: Biological Essentialism
Traditional views of gender assume that men and women are essentially different and that these differences are an immutable biological fact. This assumption is called biological essentialism. From this perspective, gender is fixed at birth. Personality traits are gendered as either feminine (e.g. compassion, docility, sensitivity), or masculine (e.g. assertiveness, courage, dominance). These divisions are never neutral but accompanied by judgments about the roles that men and women should play in society.
Gender and Sexuality
The most important claim that gender scholars make is that sex (male; female) is not the same as gender (masculine; feminine). Sex is determined by the body: your biology determines whether you are male or female. Gender, however, relates to identity and behaviour. In Toril Moi’s influential essay “Female, Feminine, Feminist” she describes this distinction as follows: “female” denotes the biological sexed state of a woman while “feminine” describes behaviour exhibited by any individual, man or woman, that is conventionally associated with women. This same distinction applies to “male” and “masculine.” Moi emphasises that these terms cannot be used interchangeably and carelessly, or else all understanding of what gender and sex are becomes garbled.
Every single text that has been written in history is gendered. Language itself, a system of representation, is already implicitly gendered. The fact that the male perspective is universalised reveals in itself how gendered universal perspectives are.
– Asst Prof Yong WernMei
To illustrate, let’s look in more depth at the common stereotype that boys favour blue while girls prefer pink. Excited parents learn the sex of their baby, then quickly go out to buy baby clothes and toys in the corresponding colour scheme. As the infant grows into childhood, they enter an environment which has been engineered to reinforce their sex. If a boy should like pink, he might be mocked by his peers and deemed effeminate. So, does the child like blue because he is a boy? Or is it because he is a boy that he likes blue? Perhaps he likes blue because he has been conditioned to like blue since birth. To take the argument further, is one deemed worthy of boyhood because he likes blue? And should he like pink, does that make him a girl? With the simple example of gendered colour preferences, we can embark upon a line of questioning that shows that biological essentialism is too simplistic a framework to explain gender.
Take another everyday example. Say a man and a woman go out on a first date. Who pays? Traditionally, the man would be expected to foot the bill. And it might be thought of as very odd if the woman picked up the tab. Historically, men were the sole breadwinners of the family, and the onus was on them to pay for everything. Paying on a date, then, has become a conventionally ‘masculine’ affair. If we were to replace the heterosexual pair with a homosexual couple, the question of who pays may still retain its gendered dimension; in some homosexual relationships, one partner adopts a more masculine role and the other adopts a more feminine role.
Younger, less conservative voices offer a different solution: the one who initiated the date should pay. By taking gender out of the equation and focusing on the notion of responsibility, the thinking goes that the person who takes the other out is tasked with showing them a good time. Whether we notice it or not, gender norms dictate social customs and behaviour in ways that are sometimes harmless but can also be deeply problematic.
Cisgenderism and Transgenderism
The examples above show us that masculinity and femininity are socially constructed: gender is not biological but a product of culture and society. The child growing up in a society governed by gender binaries often has little choice but to develop according to the pre-existing mould. Those who do not conform are deemed to be “weird” or “strange” and frequently ostracized.
The ostracism that accompanies failure to conform to society’s gendered expectations can be seen clearly in the experience of transgender individuals. The term transgender is derived from the Latin prefix “trans”, which means “across”, “beyond” and “changing thoroughly”. For a transgendered person, their gender does not align with their sex: the individual may have been born male but identify as a woman and act in a manner traditionally considered feminine. Transgender is contrasted with cisgender that is derived from the Latin prefix “cis”, which means “on the side of,” and refers to individuals whose gender aligns with their sex, such as people who are born female and identify as such.
Trans individuals often do not behave in the way their biological appearance dictates. For example, people often look at a trans-woman—a biological male who genders himself as a woman—and pick apart the inconsistencies in how she appears, such as her bodily proportions or vocal pitch, that are perceived as not belonging on a biological woman. Consequently transgender individuals face frequent scrutiny because they do not behave or dress in line with their biology. Some transgender individuals undergo surgical and hormonal treatments to bring their bodily features more closely into line with the features that are typically expected of the gender with which they identify.
A further cornerstone of contemporary Gender Studies is the idea that gender is not an isolated part of a person’s identity or experience; it interacts with other factors such as race, class, sexuality, age, and physical ability. This concept is known as intersectionality. Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School) pioneered the concept. She explains intersectional oppression by likening it to “traffic at an intersection, coming and going in all four directions”. A black woman, if she were to cross the street, could get hit by oppression (in the form of speeding cars with no respect for pedestrians) due to both her gender and race. A white woman, by contrast, would only be hit by oppression via gender. People who are exploited at these intersections are people who occupy marginalised positions: those who are not male, white, economically privileged, heteronormative or physically able. Gender Studies, with an intersectional approach, aims to centre, prioritise, and surface the obscured narratives and perspectives of these people.
Negotiations of Identity
Needless to say, neither men nor women are homogenous. But as human beings, we are social creatures with a desire to belong. With sex as one of the fundamental pillars of identity that anchor children from birth, individuals have historically been expected to identify with others of the same sex. The Social movements such as the feminist movement and the Me Too Movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault paint a promising picture of sisterly solidarity. However, while the feminist movement has done admirable work in advocating women’s rights, there is a potentially worrying message underlying feminist ideology: that women ought to have solidarity with other women simply on the basis of being biologically female. Well-intentioned notions of female solidarity, then, may risk unintentionally reinforcing biological essentialism — the idea that all females (or all males) share a common essence.
The idea of essence presupposes that all biological females must identify as women, and that femininity – and femininity alone – is the primary dimension of identity. But this is not the case. Indeed, mainstream feminism has been criticised for being too exclusive and for only championing the cause of the white, heterosexual woman at the expense of marginalised groups who, despite shared identity as women, may have very different experiences due to being non-white, homosexual, or from a lower socioeconomic class. Here, again, the importance of intersectionality becomes apparent.
Such concerns can be mitigated, however, by pointing to shared experience and history, rather than biology, as the basis for solidarity. To use an intersectional example, African-American womenmay advocate for a common essence of blackness due to factors such as the United States’ history of slavery, and the enduring racism and socioeconomic inequality that they face today. The painful heritage of racial oppression is fundamental to their lived experience and identity and can thereby serve as a powerful basis for solidarity without problematic appeals to biological essence.
Gender Studies at NTU
Here at NTU, there are many ways students can get involved with the field of Gender Studies. There are relevant courses across the School of Humanities, in English, History, Philosophy, and Linguistics.
When asked why Gender Studies is significant to the study of English literature, Asst Prof. Yong says: “Every single text that has been written in history is gendered. Language itself, a system of representation, is already implicitly gendered. The fact that the male perspective is universalised reveals in itself how gendered universal perspectives are”. Similarly, Asst Prof. Suhler, who recently developed and taught Philosophy of Race and Gender, tells us that Western philosophy, despite its search for supposedly “universal” truths, was for most of its history dominated by men and neglected the perspectives of women, as well as those of, non-Westerners and individuals from lower socio-economic classes. He reiterates that we cannot entirely “divorce philosophy from the identities of people”.
Gender is an inescapable concept because every individual who lives, writes, researches or teaches is gendered. Even someone who identifies as genderless or who does not subscribe to the traditional gender binary is only doing so against the backdrop of gendered identities and expectations in society. The ubiquity of gender therefore demonstrates its own value in education and research.
Gender and Intersectionality in Singapore
As a Singaporean citizen, and mother of three children raised in Singapore, Asst Prof. Yong emphasises how understanding gender, particularly in terms of inequality and exploitation, is crucial. Although there is no outright cry for liberation or struggle for human rights as there is for countries such as Saudi Arabia or India, Singaporean women are still bogged down by the gendered expectation of women to “have it all”: to effectively juggle their domestic and professional lives and excel at both. In addition, female workers still suffer a wage deficit compared to their male counterparts. Furthermore, women are not always offered the same opportunities for career advancement as men and may find it more difficult to succeed due to a variety of factors including gender bias. As an example, consider how the same traits are perceived differently when men or women display them. Assertive men might be praised as strong leaders but assertive women might be denigrated as bossy or domineering.
A further obstacle is sexual harassment in the workplace, which affects women more than men. Consider the recent Me Too Movement. Women are starting to come forward with their own stories of sexual misconduct in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The phrase “Me Too” speaks to a solemn fact: many women can relate to one another on the grounds that they have experienced, to varying degrees, some form of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct. In Singapore, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) reports that their Sexual Assault Care Centre reported “a 79 percent increase in calls in the final three months of last year, which it credits to the #MeToo social media movement”.
As the concept of intersectionality makes clear, exploitation is not limited to gender but also interacts with factors such as race and class. One example is the ways in which some Singaporean working mothers treat their domestic workers, who are often women of a different race, nationality, and less privileged socio-economic status. In August last year, a Singaporean woman was jailed after subjecting her helper to prolonged physical assault and blinding the her in one eye. This example highlights a broader trend of more privileged women oppressing their less privileged counterparts and underscores the importance of intersectional feminism.
For these reasons, Gender Studies as an academic field plays a vital role in understanding human society and the complex interactions that take place every day. Without understanding these complexities, we risk repeating the same mistakes, and being constrained by the same limited identities and expectations, as previous generations. The next time somebody tells you that you should act in a certain way because of your gender, ask them, “Why?”