Today’s word is gender. Gender refers to the socially constructed expectations of femininity and masculinity. These are the norms, the expectations, the roles, and the relationships that society expects of girls and boys, women and men. Gender is what we teach our AFAB (assigned female at birth) and AMAB (assigned male at birth) babies. By “teach” I don’t mean that we sit them down and explain concepts and expectations to them. I mean that through living and interacting, babies and children absorb what it means to be a girl or a boy.
When I was growing up, girls had long hair, wore dresses/skirts, liked pink, played with Barbies, were interested in make-up, were good at making and keeping friends, were not good at or interested in math or science or trades. You get the idea. Boys had short hair, wore pants or shorts, played with cars and Lego, were rambunctious and hard to control, were good at math or science or trades. You get the idea. These ideas of who does what in society continue on through adulthood. Moms stay home to take care of kids, cook and clean. Dads work full-time and don’t help out around the house, but take care of the car and yard. In 2020, we have made some shifts from this, but not as far as we collectively think. Research shows that women still bear the biggest burden of “home” work despite working outside the home. They experience barriers at work because it’s expected that they will be the primary caregivers of children. They still make less than men in comparable positions. Men with families who work full-time can experience pressure to work more, with the assumption that their female partner will cover all the family’s needs. They still tend to do less cleaning, cooking and childcare.
These are all gender roles. These are all things so subconsciously passed on to us, that we most often don’t realize we live them out so readily and completely.
These constructs of femininity and masculinity are different not only across time, but in different cultures. We can see even in our lifetimes that the ideas of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man have changed. But because we are immersed in our own culture’s ideas of masculinity and femininity, I think we can miss the significance of gender norms in other cultures, how that can help us understand some of our own ideas of gender, and how we can learn from that. As Christians, I know that we have missed seeing that some people in the Bible lived outside of their own cultural ideas of gender.
In the story of Jacob and Esau we read that Esau was his father’s son, a manly man who loved the outdoors, hunting, and all things that were masculine in his family’s definition of masculine. Jacob hung out with his Mom. He learned to cook. He did feminine things. I grew up seeing this as just two brothers being different people. But we can see gender playing out here. Both twins were biological males but one conformed to cultural expectations of that gender and one did not.
Because our ideas of masculinity have changed from that time and culture, we can miss what would have been obvious to people in another time and another culture (the people the Bible was written for): God favoured not just the younger brother but the Other, the one who didn’t fit. Jacob was a gender-diverse person chosen by God. That is significant!
There have always been gender diverse people among us: people who don’t conform to society’s ideas of masculine or feminine. Today, we are developing language to talk about the wide range of genders people experience. I will talk about some of that language in upcoming posts. For now, it’s just important to note that the people themselves are not experiencing something new, modern and novel; language is finally catching up to describe what many people have lived and are living.
God transcends culture and all of its expectations and ideas. God is not constrained by ideas, however strongly believed or held. Our culture has told us that there are two sexes (which is scientifically incorrect, even if visually often correct), and that those two sexes correlate with two genders. God is bigger than a binary. God’s creation demonstrates to us the unfathomable vastness of God’s imagination. Why would we think gender would be limited to two?
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