The notion of gender can be understood to be referring to the cultural assumptions and practices that govern the social construction of men, women and their social relations. The concept gains much of its force through a contrast with a conception of sex as the biological formation of the body. Thus, femininity and masculinity as forms of gender are the outcome of the cultural regulation of behaviours that are regarded as socially appropriate to a given sex. Given that gender is held to be a matter of culture rather than ‘nature’, so it is always a matter of how men and women are represented.
A good deal of feminist writing has sought to challenge what they take to be essentialism and biological determinism through the conceptual division between a biological sex and a culturally formed gender. Subsequently, it is argued that no fundamental sex differences exist and that those that are apparent are insignificant in relation to arguments for social equality. Rather, it is the social, cultural and political discourses and practices of gender that are held to lie at the root of women's subordination.
However, the sex-gender distinction upon which this argument is based has itself become the subject of criticism. The differentiation between sex as biology and gender as a cultural construction is broken down on the grounds that there is in principle no access to biological ‘truths’ that lie outside of cultural discourses and therefore no ‘sex’ which is not already cultural. In this view, sexed bodies are always already represented as the production of regulatory discourses. Judith Butler has been at the cutting edge of this argument by suggesting that the category of ‘sex’ is a normative and regulatory discourse that produces the bodies it governs. Thus, discourses of sex are ones that, through repetition of the acts they guide, bring sex into view as a necessary norm. Here, while sex is held to be a social construction, it is an indispensable one that forms subjects and governs the materialization of bodies.
Butler's work is emblematic of a wider body of thought produced by feminists who have been influenced by poststructuralism and postmodernism. These writers have argued that not only are sex and gender social and cultural constructions, but also that there are multiple modes of femininity (and masculinity). Here, rather than a conflict between two opposing male-female groups, sexual identity concerns the balance of masculinity and femininity within specific men and women. This argument stresses the singularity and multiplicity of persons as well as the relativity of symbolic and biological existence.
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