The Difficulty with Studying Men and Women | Kristin McFadden


Studying the social and political construction of gender can serve as a significant way in which to deconstruct the power structures that promote a gendered, dichotomous view of society. However, in studying gender there arises certain issues with attempts to deconstruct socialized norms. This paper explores the issue that arises when studying gender in culture, particularly focusing on the societal need to link the biological composition of the body with social behaviors and actions. Through an analysis of gender binaries and their importance in the societal construction of gendered objects, the paper seeks to highlight the problematic nature that gender binaries present in culture and how these binaries allow the link between gender, biological composition, and social behavior to persist. Particularly, using the example of the gendered prayer cloth in the construction of gendered norms in many African-American religious settings in the southeastern part of the United States, this paper ultimately seeks to use the deconstruction of gendered practices and objects to reveal the link between social perception of gendered experiences and power.


Gender presents an interesting area of study for anthropologists in the sense that it allows for a glimpse into the core of a society’s political and social values. However, at the intersection of gender and politics, there is a larger discourse of power within a society that is hidden within many of the gendered, hyperpolitcal binaries and symbols that make up the society’s values.  It is through the lens of binaries that gender can be deconstructed into a political grouping based on power and social code and at the core of this deconstruction lies the difficulty with studying men and women. Because men and women operate within largely political structures that place value on sex and how one’s sex and gender function in society, their position relative to the society they live in is largely connected to the socialized norms regarding sexuality, binary structure of biological sex and gender, and the larger focus on the human body itself. The issue then with studying men and women can be concluded as the false necessity to link the biological and social aspects of their personhood, largely based on the function of their bodies in society.

Anthropological discourse on societal binaries reveals the hidden ways in which identities can be assigned within a culture and particularly confine an individual either in opposition to or in correlation with a socialized norm. To fit within a binary is in many ways to operate according to the mode society has deemed acceptable and more importantly most reflective of where power lies within the society. In her ethnography, Purity and Danger: External Boundaries, Mary Douglas concludes that, “the most dangerous pollution is for anything which has once emerged gaining re-entry” (Douglas: 1966: 124). Douglas’ analysis of the ways in which a society operates under the structure of binaries can be applied to the anthropological discourse on gender. Binaries become the ways in which gendered norms and practices function and can be seen explicitly through the example of southern women and men and how those gender identities are formed. As an African-American woman raised in the southeastern part of the United States, I have been privy to this sort of gendered binary structure that operates under the guise of “southern charm” and the epitome of being a lady. Most apparent through the religious spaces in which I have occupied in my childhood and presently do now, the gendered binary of southern respectability creates a political framework in which gender functions.

Religion, operating as the larger power structure controls the way a gender binary functions in this context. For example, a gendered item such as a prayer cloth, a piece of cloth  placed over a woman’s lap and knees to conceal her thighs and legs from the public view, is used widely in  traditional southern African-American religious settings. Women are taught that the purpose of this cloth is to prevent the temptation of men and to uphold the standards of ladylike behavior during religious services. There is a significant binary present within traditional southern African-American religious society of men and women and what their gendered roles within the church are. In this particular context, men’s roles typically include titles like pastor, deacon, trustee, bishop, and moderator, which are positions of power within the church structure. Women’s roles typically include titles like pastor’s aid, secretary, church mother, and nursery director. These titles operate clearly within the binary of power/support and in this case women are found mostly on the supportive side and men are found on the power side. The gendered prayer cloth then can become a tool which is used to gauge a woman’s adherence or opposition to this power differential. It is important to note that in this context, there is not a similar expectation for men, meaning that the only individuals who are expected to cover a portion of their bodies during religious services are women.  Women who choose to cover their bodies with the prayer cloth are seen as obedient and submissive, while women who choose not to use the prayer cloth are seen as radical, inherently hypersexual, and willing to undermine the authoritative male figure’s religious standing by tempting him to pursue her sexually.

In Introducing the New Sexuality Studies, the authors write that “sexuality is not an inborn property, but is a product of social labeling.” (Seidman et al: 2011:8). This social labeling is where the issue with studying gender becomes apparent because society creates gendered labels for men and women that are strongly related to their sexual behavior but not wholly reflective of their identity. In the context of the prayer cloth, the woman’s sexual identity is seen as entirely linked to men and her respectability as a woman becomes questioned when she pushes against those gendered categories that mark her sexuality in relation to a how a male views her body. When looking at how the gendered prayer cloth applies to men, the problem with studying men can be seen also. Men are viewed in relation to how they view women’s bodies and are perceived to be hypersexual. The power that society attributes to men works in conjunction with the idea of male sexuality, particularly heterosexual male sexuality. In Fixing Men, Gutmann poses the question. “What about men are perceived to be powerful: are they automatically so in all contexts, including the most sexually intimate”(Gutmann: 2007:34)? Gutmann’s question can be applied to the prayer cloth example. If women are expected to cover their bodies because their bodies are providing sexual temptation to men, then the reverse side of that perceived temptation points to the hypersexualized way that men, who are perceived to be heterosexual are viewed in relation to this temptation. In this context, men are perceived to have a uncontrollable sexual desire that applies to any woman who shows a part of her body. Gutmann’s conclusion that the “erect penis is not the default penis” deconstructs this myth that men are almost always looking for sex or always ready to have sex when in situations where women’s bodies are present (Gutmann:2007:36). When studying men in relation to women, if the perception is that they are hypersexual, all-powerful, and unable to resist temptation, then the way in which they are seen becomes extremely generalized and prevents the full identity of the man from being seen.

The binary structure of biological sex/gender contributes to the issue with studying men and women. Sex is in many ways perceived through a person’s gender and vice versa. Society constructs gender based on perceived biological facts. While it is true that men and women are biologically different, it is not true that this biological difference leads to clear gender dichotomies. Sex and gender actually can operate as a binary, with a person’s biological sex in clear opposition to their gender identification. The idea of biological sex being enclosed within gender is in conjunction with how the body is extremely publicized and made to be political. The bodies of men and women are public figures and in many ways, their gender is connected to the publicized view of their bodies. There is a significant mind/body binary that operates along the construction that the body is “the site of unruly passions and appetites that might disrupt the pursuit of truth and knowledge” (Price et al: 1999:2).  Here is where the body begins to be seen as something that needs to be controlled with the mind being in constant opposition of the body.

In reference to the gendered prayer cloth, the female body is seen as problematic, irrational, and causing disruption in the religious setting and the thought process of  placing the prayer cloth over the woman’s body is a representation of her mind acting to control the disruptive nature of her body. Bodies are particularly a point of focus because of the language that is associated with the physical nature of the body and how that in itself becomes gendered and leads to a further issue with studying men and women. In Feminist Theory and the Body, the idea of the sexed body is presented through the idea of performativity in which “the deployments of the body through acts and gestures, especially in terms of gendered sexuality, are through a process of reiteration, productive of a recursive identity that is both open and constrained” (Price et al:1999:9). This recursive identity shows the way a society can use symbols and code to mark gender. Gender norms are created through the perceptions of small behaviors that are linked to a gender identity based on sex.

In the example of the prayer cloth, the repetititve action of the women placing the prayer cloth over their bodies is the representation of the performativity of using gestures and acts to affirm gender identity. In this way, the prayer cloth becomes linked directly to women and if men were to use it in the same manner, this would diverge from what is accepted within this context for males and females.  This points to a expectation that biological sex brings to gender behavior, with men and women being expected to adhere to certain gender-specific behavioral codes. This is further illustrated through the characterizations of embodiment and what that embodiment says about gender identity and sexuality. Price et al present normative binaries that contribute to this characterization of embodiment. Price et al further state that normative binaries that are used to characterize embodiment “may be exposed in their instability, but also paradoxically confirmed –by the performativity of abject bodies” (Price et al:1999:9). Here the authors are  affirming that normative binaries are unstable in their ability to define a person’s identity, but become socialized through the abject and reiterative ways that bodies are viewed in practice with these identities.

There are two major issues with studying men and women in relation to their bodies, the first being the normative nature in which female and male gender is categorized according to their bodies and the second being the unmarkedness that gender studies has given to male and female bodies of different ethnicities, races, and classes. Understanding the intersectionality that links class, race, and gender is essential in the study of the way the human body becomes used as a tool through which gender is perceived. Price et al reference the feminist perspective that the body “can no longer function in its unmarked colourlessness” (Price et al:1999:5). This introduction of the importance of unmarked bodies within the gender dichotomy points to the static way that female and male bodies are considered. If when thinking about how society genders bodies, it is not acknowledged how society also further categorizes gendered bodies according to race and class, then the issue with studying men and women is also that marginalized groups of men and women are not represented adequately and in turn the discourse on gender lacks the vital contribution of understanding this perspective.

For anthropologists, deconstructing the political and social framework that perceived ideas about gender are constructed in, provides insight into a society’s larger structures of power and the accessibility and mobility of it. While gender provides a point of study that can be beneficial in deconstructing these power structures, it is ultimately the job of the anthropologist to always consider the problems associated with studying men and women, particularly when that study has basis in an analysis of biological sex and the human body. The evidence that I am presenting suggests that binaries lie at the core of the gender dichotomy and it is through an thorough analysis of  these gendered binaries and the contexts in which they operate that many of the assumptions and allusions about gender are deconstructed and gender can begin to be fully understood as a highly socialized and inherently political construct.




Douglas, Mary

1966  Purity and Danger: External Boundaries. London and New York: Routledge.

Gutmann, M. C.

2007 Fixing men: Sex, birth control, and AIDS in Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Price, J., & Shildrick, M. (1999). Feminist theory and the body: A reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Seidman, S., Fischer, N., & Meeks, C.

2011 Introducing the new sexuality studies. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge


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