Introduction to the sociology of gender
Chris got up and went to the bathroom. Leaving pyjamas on the floor and turning on the shower, Chris stepped into the water. It was not a hair-washing day, so after a quick rub with the soap it was time to get out and dry off. After towelling and applying hair putty to the new short haircut, Chris dabbed on some moisturising lotion and went to get dressed. Nothing special was happening today so jeans and a T-shirt would be fine. The only choice really to be made was between basketball boots or sandals.
This is a paragraph I made up. When you read it I imagine that you assumed either that Chris was a woman, or that Chris was a man. Yet Chris is a shortened name which both Christophers and Christines use and I have not used any pronouns to indicate sex. There is nothing in this description that definitively identifies masculinity or femininity. You may protest that ‘real’ men do not use moisturiser, or that women are less likely to have short hair. Nevertheless, most people know of men who are into face creams and other such products and women who have short hair. Your decision is not defensible, but the point is that you made a decision. We do not know how to think about people as neutral; we always think about them as women or as men and we interact with them accordingly. If you decided Chris was a woman, go back and read the paragraph again and imagine Chris is a man. Does that change how you read it or what you think about Chris? Do you think it ‘typical’ of a man just to leave his pyjamas on the floor; do you feel a little titillated by imagining a naked man in the shower? Try to continue describing Chris’s day without giving away whether Chris is a man or a woman. It is very difficult to do.
We live in a world which is organized around the idea that women and men have different bodies, different capabilities, and different needs and desires. This book examines these assumptions, drawing on sociological and related approaches to understand how and why the social world
is arranged around such gender distinctions. This introduction begins that task by defining key terms, then looking briefly at the history of gender within sociology. In some senses the rest of this chapter outlines what the book is not about — or, to put it more positively, why I focus on the issues that appear in the book and not on facts about inequalities or on media images of gender. I want to explain why I say so little about these things because long experience of teaching this topic tells me that people come to it with a strong sense of what is important. Many assume that women and men are equal now and that the media are most crucial in how we now behave as women and men. I want to establish some of the bare facts about inequalities and discuss why the media may not be as all powerful as they initially appear. I will then be able to turn to my central project of explaining the cultural turn within sociological and feminist approaches to gender. When the sociology of gender emerged, inequalities between women and men were the focus. Discussion of women’s relative lack of access to wealth and other resources was gradually overtaken by concerns with language and meaning. The promise and problems of this shift within ideas about gender are the subject of following chapters. Those chapters will make more sense if the key terms used are clearly understood.