Who decides who is a man or a woman?

Alessia Peretti

If somebody asked you to define what a man or a woman is, what would you answer? They are such basic, common concepts that anyone ever questions their meaning. The most immediate answer would be that men and women are differentiated by their different reproductive system, a response that the Queer Theory and – in particular here – Judith Butler would immediately refute.

The American philosopher Judith Butler is the author of the ground-breaking book Gender Trouble, where she skillfully draws a distinction between one’s sex and gender. While the former is a biological state of being, the latter is its cultural significance which can be achieved by continuously transforming the body into the cultural meaning of woman or men. In fact, there are actions and behaviours which are culturally referred to either men and women that society expects people to perform. What is wrong about this view is that the binary biologic opposition of man and women facilitated the binary assignment of polar values, judgements, behaviours, considering weird or unnatural anyone who would not behave according to their category. For example, a man should not cry or be emotional because he should be a “real man”, or a girl should not like cars and be strong because she should be feminine.

Unfortunately, these conceptions create discrimination: everyone has heard at least someone making fun of a young boy because he like dolls or flowers or cried, or a girl because she liked football, fighting, going on adventures and hence she was labelled as a tomboy. This is so encoded in the society that some of our most common expressions are surprisingly discriminating, such as “stop being such a girl” and “run/fight like a girl”. In the campaign Always #Like a girl, the girls asked to “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl” obey by reiterating the stereotype against themselves without a blink. However, when they realise that “being a girl” does not mean being weak or powerless, they finally run and fight according to their ability, significantly turning the expression that had become an insult into an empowering message.

It is unfair that people are discriminated against because they do not act conforming to the social expectations of feminine and masculine.

One’s biological sex does not necessarily mean that one has to thoroughly belong to the corresponding gender. Unfortunately people constantly reiterate this assumption with expressions like “man up” if a man is being emotional or weak, or the already mentioned “don’t be such a girl” and on a more subtle level getting pink or blue ribbons and toys for children. 
The labels of “woman” and “man” are not a curse from birth to whom one must behave accordingly, but a chance to continuously redefine yourself.

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