Are Gender Roles Natural?

How the dominant class uses pseudo-science to reinforce oppressive stereotypes.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Blaming gender roles on nature or evolution may be as old as gender roles themselves. What’s remarkable is that it can be used to justify everything and it’s opposite — You can say that women’s modesty is linked to their need to be picky when selecting a mate, or that their promiscuity is linked to the need to reproduce at all costs during their fertile periods. You can say that the clitoris emerged to encourage women to have sex and reproduce, or you can argue that female orgasms are a myth, that would serve no evolutionary purpose at all. Or, as a guy called Kyle wrote on Facebook:

My condolences to any women who have slept with Kyle.

When you talk about sexism or archaic gender roles, people often refer to evolution to justify the status quo, presenting our current social structures as the direct result of nature. I always find it amusing when we try and justify human behaviors with nature, because our society could not be further from a natural state of being. Trolls type out their arguments about gender roles being completely natural on their high-spec gamer computers while eating food made from artificial chemicals and they see no irony at all. Our society has reached the stage where our way of life is actively destroying the planet that keeps us alive — I struggle to see how we can still act as though we are following some sort of natural order.

When you actually look at nature, it is far more diverse than our arguments would have us believe.

Take monkeys and their mating rituals. Anthropologists Evelyn Reed, Elaine Morgan, amongst others, showed that female primates are the sexual initiators, and they took it in turn to be the most desirable in the troop, a “cycle that keeps turning as long as she lives.” This desirability, in some primates, is shown physically through inflamed pink sexual organs — which is not a hierarchal female primate characteristic, but a universal one that each female presents at different times, thereby eliminating the idea of “beauty” as being our version of inflated pink genitals.

These studies of our primate cousins belie many of the stereotypes we have about our own species’ mating rituals, notably our culture’s obsession with beauty. This is often presented as a natural tendency to compete with other members of our biological sex to have an edge in the reproductive race, making it natural that women should compete to look better than each other.

Similarly, many of our beauty norms are supposedly correlated to signs of fertility. They are justified by nature — men search for the most fertile woman. This is said of thinness, youthfulness, or the use of lipstick. Never mind that the ideal of thinness we aspire to in our society is so skeletal that to reach it, you generally have to starve yourself to the point of no longer ovulating. Or that the youthfulness obsession gets younger by the year — now, prepubescent girls are sexualized in much of our media.

The truth is, these beauty standards are not natural. That’s why they change throughout time. No, beauty standards are linked, on the one hand, to the beauty industrial complex, and on the other, to political and social power structures, who define standards of beauty for women that correspond oddly to that which is expected from women at a given time.

These beauty standards don’t come from nowhere, and they do serve a purpose. Similarly, gender roles don’t come from a transcendent natural force, and they too, serve a purpose.

An example of pseudo-scientific arguments being used to shape gender in the interests of the patriarchy came after the Industrial Revolution, at a time when the shift to using machines withered male identity by questioning the predominance of physical strength. When a man couldn’t be stronger than a machine, being stronger than women became more important, which is why the Victorian age saw an institutionalized weakening of women.

Presented as invalids, needing protection from the dangerous outside world, wealthy women were forced to be confined in their houses, supposedly to protect their reproductive capabilities. “To salvage men’s failing sense of dominance, women were encouraged to scale back their own physical development, turning themselves into restricted creatures,” writes Colette Dowling in The Frailty Myth. This was justified by “medical” arguments. Physicians of the 19th century campaigned actively to “protect” pubescent girls from too much mental or physical activity. In a popular medical textbook of the time, quoted by Dowling, doctor Thomas Emmet advised that girls “spend the year before and two years after puberty at rest,” and that each menstrual period should be passed “in the recumbent position.” It was considered that women’s genital organs would “decay” if she was too active.

I recently read Naomi Alderman’s novel, The Power. In a dystopian future, women have all acquired a power similar to that of electric eels — they can maim, stun, and kill using the electricity that has come out of their hands. This power completely reshapes the world and power dynamics, women take charge and men are the one’s sexualized.

Looking back at our era when men were dominant, started wars and were the ones renowned for aggression and violence, women of the future can hardly believe such a thing could happen. As one writes, in a letter to a historian,

“Surely it makes more sense that it was women who provoked the war. I feel instinctively that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you though about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women, with babies to protect from harm — have had to become aggressive and violent.”

With the evolution argument twisted to come to the very opposite conclusion than the one generalized today, we see just how faulty it is. Justifying sexism using evolution is a way of taking archaic stereotypes and disguising them as fact. Basically, using evolution to defend your sexism boils down to saying: “I’m a sexist ass, #science”.

Like our less evolved cousins, let’s take a look in the mirror — Photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash

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