Week 2 – Gender: “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.”

It is important to establish what is meant by gender and what traits are attributed to a specific gender.


  • dependent
  • emotional
  • passive
  • sensitive
  • quiet
  • graceful
  • innocent
  • weak
  • flirtatious
  • nurturing
  • self-critical
  • soft
  • sexually submissive
  • accepting


  • independent
  • non-emotional
  • aggressive
  • tough-skinned
  • competitive
  • clumsy
  • experienced
  • strong
  • active
  • self-confident
  • hard
  • sexually
  • aggressive
  • rebellious

Gender is in no way a stable identity. Gender identity is learned and reinforced in response to cultural, political, historical, and social contexts. It also determines what is masculine and feminine. Gender is more than the physiological, anatomical organs one is born with. The question I have is how does one be a specific gender? What is male and what is female? There are attributes that are placed used to distinguish masculine and feminine, man and woman. Butler’s approach to this topic is by stating that gender is a performance. The body shows this performance. Butler equates gender as a playing a character in a theatrical performance. These performed acts can express inner identity, but also reinforce gender norms.

Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.

Butler consistently uses the terms ‘act’ and ‘category’ throughout the essay. Act is defined as the “expression of a gender core of identity.” These acts can either conform or contrast. They conform to the binary definitions of gender. The binaries, the implicitly heterosexual framework for the description of gender, gender identity, sexuality.” have one specific goal, to reinforce the biological imperative to reproduce. Without this binary, reproduction is not probable.

Sex, gender, and heterosexuality are historical products to reinforce this. The grey area in between the binary, for example, androgyny, transsexual and homosexual identity, also being overly effeminate or overly masculine, threatens this historically constructed ideal. “Gender is governed by more clearly punitive and regulatory, social conventions” When you stray into this grey, you are deemed as other and punitive punishment happens. That can be expressed by physical, mental, or verbal abuse.

“Bodies get crafted into gender.” Gender roles are based on the historical performance of their gender. “The body comes to bear cultural meanings, it is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities.” Butler mentions the outward appearance is not predetermined by internal identity. The key distinction is that though subjective, cultural, historical, and political contexts are shared public reality. Those around you dictate your individual performance.

Butler makes the distinction that “sex is a biological facticity” and gender is the “cultural interpretation or signification of that facility. Physiology and biology do not determine gender. The issue is when these terms, specifically sex and gender, become interchanged. Sex is biological, but term gender is also used in this context. I posted the videos of Janet Mock, a transgender male-to-female writer to help illustrate this point. A good step to redefining and also change our historical situation to question this idea that gender is a performance is by looking at one who has changed their outward appearance because of their gender identity. Using the other, so to speak, that disrupts this notion of feminine and masculine traits, also sex (born as a boy), gender (social expectation), and gender identity (felt female) will help challenge the expectations of gender and sexual identity. Also taking note of which gender traits are exaggerated to fit into the gender norm.

Photographs play into the historical context on the performativity of gender. Especially now with the over abundance of imagery, the male and more so, female form is shown. “Perfect” gender ideals are present through advertisement, paparazzi and social media photographs. To construct my own identity, I will look at images and make a value judgment if that specific photograph of an individual, male or female, fits into my subjective gender identification. Two artists that I think about when thinking about gender roles, are Rineke Dijkstra and Rachel Papo. Both employ the use of individuals that are still in the midst of defining self. Dijkstra’s Bathers specifically because of the stage in the subject life with there is still the uncertainty and still a formation of gender identity. They are performing for the camera, some are caught in expressions that can deemed as masculine or feminine.

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From 1988-1990, Rachel Papo served in the Israeli Air Force.  Her series, Serial No. 3817131, focuses on when the lives of teenage girls, including her, are interrupted by this mandatory service. The resulting images are an exploration of the adolescents during the time of diametric opposites. Each person is juggling defining who she is an individual while learning to become a soldier in a totalitarian, masculine environment.

The photographs in this project serve as a bridge between past and present—a combination of my own recollections and the experiences of the girls who I observed. Each image embodies traces of things that I recognize, illuminating fragments of my history, striking emotional cords that resonate within me. In some way, each is a self-portrait, depicting a young woman caught in transient moments of introspection and uncertainty, trying to make sense of a challenging daily routine. In striving to maintain her gentleness and femininity, the soldier seems to be questioning her own identity, embracing the fact that two years of her youth will be spent in a wistful compromise. – Rachel Papo


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