Gender policing is the imposition or enforcement of normative gender expressions on an individual who is perceived as not adequately performing, through appearance or behavior, the sex that was assigned to them at birth (see gender performativity). Gender policing serves to devalue or delegitimize expressions that deviate from normative conceptions of gender, thus reinforcing the gender binary. According to Judith Butler, rejection of individuals who are non-normatively gendered is a component of creating one’s own gender identity.
It is common for normative gender performances of gender to be encouraged and rewarded, while non-normative performances are discouraged through punishment or generally negative reactions. Policing of non-normative performances ranges in intensity from relatively minor discouraging comments to brutal acts of violence. Tactics of gender policing also vary widely, depending in part on the perceived gender of the individual target. Males are generally policed more frequently and harshly. It is possible for gender policing to occur in any environment, and to occur at any age (of those policing and being policed). However, much of the relevant scholarly literature focuses on its occurrence in public environments (due to relative practicality of research), as well as the policing of young children by their parents or teachers.
An individual’s expression of gender is often first policed by their parent(s), as well as other elder authorities such as teachers and day care providers, at a very young age. Gender policing is part of the process of “gendering” children, or socializing them in a way considered conventionally appropriate to their assigned sex. Once children are taught gender norms and experience their enforcement, they are likely to begin policing others – both their peers and their elders.
Substantial literature regarding gender and parents’ behavior toward their sons and daughters indicates that two patterns of gender typing by parents are well documented. First, fathers are more likely than mothers to enforce gender boundaries, or police the gendered expressions of their children. Second, both fathers and mothers enforce gender boundaries more frequently with sons than with daughters.
Research on the topic of parental gender policing has shown that female children who display traditionally masculine traits or behaviors receive more social and parental acceptance than male children who exhibit traditionally feminine tendencies. Many scholars on the subject argue that this is due to the greater value assigned to “masculine” traits or behaviors compared to “feminine” ones, and/or beliefs that “tomboyism” is temporary. At least one study indicates that parents across various social locations celebrate and encourage their preschool age daughters to engage in gender nonconformity, such as wearing sports-themed clothing and participating in traditionally male activities. However, other research indicates that in part due to peer and parental pressures, “tomboys,” or female children with “masculine” traits or behavioral tendencies, frequently either abandon these tendencies in adolescence, or adopt a more feminine performance but retain many masculine skills and traits. Pressures to conform to gender norms increase with age, and often manifest in these children being “instructed or shamed to conform to traditional femininity – in dress, appearance, posture, manner, interests, and dating.”
Ethnographic research in preschools has also contributed to the body of knowledge related to gender policing. This research has suggested that teachers give their students gendered instructions about what to do with their bodies. Across several schools, teachers gave boys explicit bodily instructions more frequently than girls, indicating that boys’ bodies are policed more often than girls’. However, this may be because teachers were more forceful with their instructions to girls, who were also usually quicker to follow instructions, thus teachers did not need to repeat themselves as often. Teachers were also more likely to direct boys to cease behaviors (e.g. running, throwing objects), whereas they were more apt to instruct girls to alter them. For example, girls were given directive bodily instructions such as “talk to her, don't yell, sit here, pick that up, be careful, be gentle, give it to me, put it down there.” As a result, a wider range of potential activities is available to boys than girls, because although they are dissuaded from some, they are not directed to engage in specific activities as often as girls are. According to Martin, the scholar and sociologist who conducted this research, "Gendering of the body in childhood is the foundation on which further gendering of the body occurs throughout the life course. The gendering of children's bodies makes gender differences feel and appear natural, which allows for such bodily differences to emerge throughout the life course.”
Adolescence is a developmental stage in which peer groups are especially important, and peer relationships take primacy over familial relationships. It is also a stage during which gender policing amongst peers becomes increasingly common. Adolescents have already been introduced, during childhood, to normative gender expressions and social expectations therein by elders. These expectations are then reinforced during adolescence, largely by peers gender policing one another. In this (and every) stage of development, gender policing is especially prevalent in explicitly gendered environments, such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams.
Dude, You're a Fag, a book by CJ Pascoe, examines masculinity and gender policing in high schools through ethnographic research. Pascoe largely focuses on high school boys’ use of the fag epithet to establish their own masculinity by questioning or challenging others’. In this context, the use of the fag epithet is a form of gender policing, frequently applied to boys who lack heterosexual prowess or are deemed inadequately masculine or strong. According to Pascoe, "[the fag identity] is fluid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitive enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it"
During adulthood, gender policing generally becomes more subtle. However, for an individual whose gender is perceived as ambiguous, blatant forms still exist. These range from curious inquiries by children (e.g. “Are you a boy or a girl?”) to gender policing in bathrooms (discussed in the following section). People who are gender-normative in appearance experience primarily behavioral gender policing, such as reminders to act in a more (or less) feminine or masculine manner. Men are more often dissuaded and shamed for feminine behavior than women are for masculine behavior. It is theorized that this is due, at least in part, to the higher societal value of masculinity.
Transgender, androgynous, and gender ambiguous individuals
The severity of gender policing is often proportional to the extremity of non-normativity. For example, transgendered individuals are likely to be victims of the most extreme and violent forms of gender policing. Research regarding conformity pressures and gender resistance among transfeminine individuals (those who are assigned the male sex at birth but identify as more feminine than masculine) indicates that these persons experienced “intense and pervasive” pressures to conform to traditional masculinity, and feared exposure of their gender identity would result in physical danger or loss of legal, economic, or social standing. Thus, transgendered individuals must often choose between self-preservation and expressing their self-identified gender.
Gender policing is especially prevalent in bathrooms due to the increased salience of gender in explicitly gendered environments (and the forced binary of “men” and “women”). While this issue is frequently encountered by transgender and genderqueer individuals, to a lesser extent, it is also experienced by persons with androgynous or gender ambiguous appearances. For individuals with non-normative gender identities, the choice of which bathroom to use is often laden with “anxiety, ambivalence, and anticipated harassment.” It is not uncommon for gender-normative people to alert security of the presence of transgender (or androgynous) individuals in a bathroom, regardless of whether the bathroom they are using conforms to their sex or to their gender identity. According to Judith/Jack Halberstam, the main distinction between gender policing in the women’s room and in the men’s room is that in the former, not only trans women, but all gender ambiguous females are scrutinized, whereas in the latter, biological males are less frequently deemed out of place. Further, compared to trans women in the women’s room, trans men in the men’s room are likely to be less scrutinized because men are less vigilant about intruders than women. However, a trans man in the men’s room is more likely to be met with violence if he does not succeed in passing.
- Kane, E. 2006. "No Way My Boys Are Going to be like That!" Parents' Responses to Children's Gender Nonconformity. Gender and Society, 20(2), 149-176.
- Carr, C. L. 1998. Tomboy Resistance and Conformity: Agency in Social Psychological Gender Theory. Gender and Society, 12(5), 528-553.
- Martin, K. 1998. Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools. American Sociological Review, 63(4), 494-511.
- Dude You're A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (2007), by C.J. Pascoe.
- Gagné, P., & Tewksbury, R. 1998. Conformity Pressures and Gender Resistance among Transgendered Individuals. Social Problems, 45(1), 81-101.
- Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules (2011), edited by C. Bobel and S. Kwan.
- Female Masculinity (1998), by Judith Halberstam.