The Politics of Gender: How the Imposition of the Gender Binary Reinforces Oppressive Hierarchies

Design by Shannon Boland

[A black silhouette of a person with harsh pink and blue lighting.]

Our contemporary, normalized conception of gender is a binary, consisting of man and woman. In this view, gender is strict, immutable, and essentialist; you must either be a man or a woman, and that is inextricably linked to your biological characteristics. Although the notion of gender being a fluid social construct distinct from sex has become more widely accepted, the imposition of the gender binary permeates our everyday lives in more ways than we might think, including the way we view sex as a binary. By understanding the origins of the gender binary as a tool of oppression, we can more clearly see the ways in which it not only restricts human potential, but also reinforces constructed hierarchies.

Humanity has not always viewed gender as a rigid binary. Looking to how the gender binary derived from colonization and global capitalism will give us context as to how this notion of gender came to be. In “The Coloniality of Gender,” Argentine feminist philosopher Maria Lugones details how the project of European colonialism and global capitalism brought about the construction of gender categories, as well as race, as a means of establishing domination and hierarchy. 

Lugones first describes how colonization socially constructed the concept of “race,” separating the human population into social and geocultural identities of “European,” “African,” and “Indian”; white, Black, and Indigenous. The separation of people into racial categories, along with the othering of Black and Indigenous people as non-white, subsequently handed colonizers the conceptual ammunition to link “white” with “superior” and “Black” or “Indigenous” with “inferior.” These identities were then attached to biological characteristics such as skin color, making these constructed racial categories and their associations seemingly inherent and essential to a person’s identity. Thus, under European colonial logic, hierarchies on the basis of these racial classifications were innate to human nature; it was simply the “natural order” that white colonizers ruled over Black and Indigenous people. Consequently, as European colonization continued to expand, hierarchical racial classifications would become entrenched in all forms of social existence, including distributions of power and labor.

Through the lens of intersectionality, in which issues of different social identities are treated not as separate but overlapping, Lugones then goes on to connect the social construction of race under colonization to that of gender. Just as the categories of race were socially constructed, linked to biological characteristics, and used to reinforce hierarchy, people were classified under fixed binary gender divisions associated with the socially constructed sex binary, in order to justify the subjugation of women, particularly Black and Indigenous women. Like hierarchical racial classifications, the cisheteronormative patriarchy would become ingrained in all forms of social existence, manifesting in institutions such as marriage, leadership roles, and legal status. In the European colonized world, identity was not only racialized, but gendered, as a means of deciding who is to be dominated and who isn’t, to what degree, and in what ways. 

In recognizing how identity is both racialized and gendered under European colonization, Lugones illustrates how we can more clearly see the way white women are othered on the basis of gender, Black and Indigenous men are othered on the basis of race, and Black and Indigenous women are othered on the basis of gender and race, a notion central to the intersectional mode of analysis. Through the lens of intersectionality, we account for the ways in which Black and Indigenous women are marginalized as a result of the unique experience of being othered on the basis of both race and gender. Violence, such as sexual assault, against Black and Indigenous women in particular is justified on the basis of racialized and gendered hierarchies, in a way that is distinct from the oppression of white women or Black and Indigenous men.

Many Indigenous societies pre-colonization did not have gender binaries, but rather a much broader understanding of gender that did not rely exclusively on biology. For instance, as Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí describes in “The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse,” gender was not the primary means of social organization in Yoruba culture; there were no fixed binary and anatomical categories of “man” and “woman.” Many Indigenous cultures in North America recognize the Two-Spirit gender, an identity seen as a “third gender.” Further, many Indigenous societies also recognized intersex people without forced conformation to the socially constructed sex binary. 

It’s important to note that because the gender binary relies so heavily upon strict ideas of biological men and women, a socially constructed sex binary was developed as well. That’s not to say the biological features associated with sex are socially constructed, but rather, our perception of sex as a fixed binary. The sex binary is used to reinforce a rigid gender binary, when in reality, sex itself is far less of a binary than we think, especially when we consider the existence of intersex people. Sex is not the material base of gender; sex is the imposition of the gender binary on our biological features. The fact that many Indigenous cultures did not have gender binaries, or sex binaries, in itself indicates that the gender binary as we know it today is not innate to human nature, nor is it set in stone. As a result of colonization, the European gender binary became a globalized, universal concept, further demonstrating how its colonial imposition was done as a means of cultural domination.

Just as European colonization and global capitalism have developed interdependently, the colonial gender binary is also reinforced by the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism is defined by the private ownership of the means of production, and thus requires a capital-owning class ruling over a working class. Under capitalism, the gender binary functions as a means of producing a maximally efficient labor force. It is for this reason the notion of the nuclear family exists. The father fulfills the role of the breadwinner, providing labor to the capitalist economy, while the mother does the domestic labor of raising the next generation of workers. Any family structure that deviates from these gendered roles, such as families with queer couples or families that adopt children or choose not to have children, are seen as a threat to the capitalist order.

Due to the global imposition of the gender binary as a ubiquitous and natural concept, we see centuries-long oppression of those who are deemed the bottom of the hierarchy by that binary. Anyone who is not a white, cishetero man is othered and marginalized, and that is reflected in discriminatory policies, institutional failures, and systemic violence. From obstacles to healthcare and legal recognition for trans people, to sexual violence against women in carceral settings such as I.C.E. detention centers, to the epidemic of violence against Black trans women, it is clear that the constructed hierarchies derived from the colonial imposition of the gender binary remain pervasive to this day. This is further perpetuated by the idea that these hierarchies are as innate to human nature as fixed gender and racial categories. Essentialist views of hierarchy are fundamental to right-wing ideology, as seen by the oppressive policies and rhetoric of conservative politics, and the gender binary merely serves to uphold those ideas.

The gender binary restricts humanity’s potential in self-expression as well, through the cultural norms surrounding what is or isn’t acceptable gender presentation. Gender dictates how we dress, how we speak, and how we act; what we typically perceive to be a person’s gender lies in how they present through their appearance and mannerisms. Under our current conception of gender, those we consider to be men must present perfectly masculine, and those we consider to be women must present perfectly feminine. Expectations of what is “acceptable” gender presentation ostracizes transgender people by measuring the validity of their identity based on how much they “pass” as their gender. 

Even those who identify as nonbinary must present androgynous to be considered “acceptably” nonbinary. The gender binary confines us in how we are able to express ourselves by limiting gender possibility to strictly man or woman. Those who identify outside of the binary nevertheless are confined to defining their gender by its proximity to male or female because our language does not yet have the capability of adequately describing gender experience beyond the binary. Being nonbinary is seen as “in between” male and female, rather than outside the binary altogether.

When this idea of acceptable gender presentation and experience is compounded with our conception of race, we can see how these cultural norms are weaponized against BIPOC, such as when Black and Brown women are painted as more masculine and “aggressive” in order to justify how they are treated as an other. Just as essentialist ideas about race and gender were used as justification for the colonization and enslavement of Black and Indigenous people, the contemporary, ongoing process of colonization continues to use these ideas as a means of perpetuating unjust, oppressive institutions and norms.

Feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir famously discusses in “The Second Sex” how “One is not born but becomes a woman,” pointing us to the conceptual direction of not only the distinction between gender and sex, but the idea that gender is constructed through social roles. Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler continues on this idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” in which they describe gender as “an identity instituted through a repetition of acts,” of which those acts both inform and create gender identity. Through the work of de Beauvoir, Butler, Lugones, Oyèwùmí and countless others, we understand gender to be not just socially constructed, but socially constructed as a means of reinforcing colonial hierarchy. Having this understanding allows us to begin deconstructing the gender binary and all previous notions of what we conceive gender to be. Gender is not a fixed, universal, or eternal idea. To be liberated from the gender binary is to be liberated from the hierarchies that binary has imposed on us.

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