Doing gender

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In sociology and gender studies, "doing gender" is the idea that in Western culture, gender, rather than being an innate quality of individuals, is a psychologically ingrained social construct that actively surfaces in everyday human interaction. This term was used by Candace West and Don Zimmerman in their article "Doing Gender", published in 1987 in Gender and Society. According to this paper, an individual's performance of gender is intended to construct gendered behavior as naturally occurring. This façade furthers a system through which individuals are judged in terms of their failure or success to meet gendered societal expectations, called the accountability structure. The concept of doing gender was later expanded by authors such as West and Fenstermaker in the book Doing Gender, Doing Difference.


The concept of "doing" gender came from conversations of gender from sociology and gender studies. The specific term "doing gender" was used in West and Zimmerman's article by the same title, originally written in 1977 but not published until 1987.[1] West and Zimmerman illustrate that gender is performed in interactions, and that behaviors are assessed based on socially accepted conceptions of gender. Rather than focusing on how gender is ingrained in the individual or perpetuated by institutions, West and Zimmerman emphasize the interactional level as a site where gender is invoked and reinforced. They begin by differentiating sex from sex category and gender. In this piece, sex is the socially agreed upon criteria for being male or female, usually based on and individual's genitalia at birth or chromosomal typing before birth. Sex category is the assumed biological category, regardless of the individual's gender identification. This is "established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one's membership in one or the other category".[1]:127 Gender, in this context, is the degree to which an actor is masculine or feminine, in light of societal expectations about what is appropriate for one's sex category.[2]

Doing gender according to West and Zimmerman "is to advance a new understanding of gender as a routine accomplishment embedded in every day interaction".[1] Essentially, West and Zimmerman argued that gender is something that humans created. As humans, we have categorized and defined many aspects of life. If someone was not in favor of their gender role or did something that was not deemed "correct" for that gender this person would be committing an act of social deviance.

Gender is described as 'omnirelevant,' as it is apparent and relevant in almost every interaction. In their article, West and Zimmerman use examples such as bathrooms, sports, coupling, conversations, professions and the might have been[clarification needed] division of labor to illustrate the ways in which gender is prevalent in many taken for granted activities. West and Zimmerman employ the example of a professional woman in a male-dominated field, through which it becomes apparent that the woman will have to make decisions as to whether or not she should engage in "unfeminine" behavior that would otherwise be an integral part of her identity.[2]

Another component of this theory is gendered assessment of behavior. In the above example, the woman is engaging in behavior that will be assessed as either masculine or feminine by her co-workers. According to West and Zimmerman, this woman will be evaluated based on how her actions compare to accountability standards of the sex category she belongs to. Deviations from these expectations do not have an immediate effect on the accountability structure itself. Instead, failures to meet these standards are attributed to the individual rather than to the rigidity of recognized categories. With this theory, West and Zimmerman stress the importance of social interaction in maintaining the gender structure. Because individuals "do" and assess gender in interaction, gender is visible in a wide variety of activities such as conversation.[2]


The idea that gender is something that individuals actively 'do' was largely inspired by the social psychological approach taken by Erving Goffman (1976) in Gender Display.(p. 129) Goffman theorizes that humans make the assumption that each has an "essential nature," which can be interpreted by reading "natural signs given off or expressed by them" (p. 75). One of the most basic natures that can be assumed from interpreting these signs is one's masculinity or femininity. Not only is gender often determined by others relatively easily, but this determination often establishes the ways in which individuals interact with one another. Goffman asserts that, because we habitually function within such scripts, they are taken to be further evidence of essential natures. He coins the term "gender display" as a way to conceptualize the ways in which individuals act in a gender appropriate manner. However, these performances are optional and vulnerable to disturbance, as inappropriate gender display can just as easily be invoked as socially accepted ones. Goffman asserts that there is a "scheduling" of gender displays around activities, so that the activities themselves are not interrupted by gender displays. For instance, colleagues may interact in a gendered manner during their lunch hour, rather than while they are working together on a project. West and Zimmerman take issue with this piece of Goffman's perspective, claiming that this masks the ways in which gender displays permeate nearly all social situations in that individuals cannot avoid being interpreted as masculine or feminine.[2]

In the media[edit]

Media has a powerful influence over many aspects of modern life. The way gender is expressed and perceived by audiences varies from culture to culture. The language within a culture as "the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis [states], notes how language influences our perceptions and thus shapes our reality."[3] As language evolves within a culture and new language is added, the gender identities are influenced and categories change. The influence of language and the significance it has often communicated over media and the gender categories people use to place gender roles in, may change or add new categories. There are other areas that gender roles and differences stem from, "some researchers suggest that gender differences result from a variety of factors including socialization and biology…gender roles are often manifested through communication and culture (Goffman, 1976; Lauzen et al., 2008; Wanta & Legett, 1989; Williams & Best, 1990; Wood, 2009)."[4]

Gender is something that is always out there whether we are mindful of it or not: "Gender identity and gender roles are a significant part of everyday life."[4] On top of this, gender roles help us make sense of our environment, they influence relationships and our own views. Since the social aspect of life is such an essential part and needs to be fulfilled, we are exposed to gender roles frequently and sometimes unconsciously, absorbing it if it fits with the category that society has influenced us to perceive it as.[4] "In contemporary media and culture, women's and men's social desirability and gender often been defined in terms of their bodies. For women this has often involved comparing themselves to and even replicating the 'thin ideal'."[4] These views like the 'thin ideal' are reinforced through media with advertising, actors, and Photoshop touchups. On the other end, men have been shown images of being extremely fit and muscular, usually in a pose that expresses power, and the cultures values of what 'masculinity' is for a culture. "Gender-based definitions of success frequently revolve around presenting or developing their bodies as strong, youthful, active and physically dominant."[4] These roles are promoted by society, with visual displays and traits assigned to specific gender roles.[4] "Goffman (1976) accounts for these traits in his research of magazine and newspaper photography, finding women to be pictured in more submissive positions while men are depicted in more elevated positions."[4] These depictions of gender are growing in certain trending shows and movies. Lauzen and colleagues (2008) examined gender roles in television, "they found male characters on prime time television were more likely to inhabit work roles, including blue collar, white collar, and extracurricular activities, while women were portrayed in more interpersonal roles involving romance, friendship, and family."[4] The way gender roles are portrayed in TV can spill into everyday life. Another area that 'doing gender' is being expressed is in video games: "Female characters are represented as highly sexualized while male characters possess exaggerated strength, are hyper masculine, aggressive, and, with the exception of showing hostility, lack emotion."[4] The way gender roles are represented in video games adds another influence that society has to take in and this can make people think that these fictional depictions can be obtained. This then creates perspectives used to categorize gender roles and as we see others 'doing gender' we want to believe that we should be looking like these characters in games or actors in advertisements and T.V. "A number of studies, for example, have demonstrated extensive 'gender-swapping' in 'avatar' creation for online gaming and in text based CMC."[4] The increase in video games and in especially online environments allow people to step into other gender roles, by 'doing gender' that may be different in how they present themselves in real life. These online environments allow users to shape their roles in gender.

Social media and dating[edit]

The rise of social media networks allows people to communicate globally and manage how others perceive them and how they choose to express their gender.[4] The increase of digital content in today's technology has influences over gender roles, "Digital formats…represent exciting possibilities for individuals who can explore the freedom of presenting a physical self that might differ from the one they present or perform in everyday life or form socially-defines expectations."[4] People will put themselves into a role to look as though they fit in and to avoid embarrassment in case they violate a social norm.[4]

Responses and critiques[edit]

Judith Butler has written extensively on this topic, using the term "gender performativity".[5] She explains the same idea of doing gender by explaining gender as a set of performantive actions that people learn and attempt to recreate through actions and presentation.[6]

The concept of doing gender has been critiqued by scholars who assert that it does not take human agency and acts of resistance into account.[7]

In order to illustrate the possibility of change, several works have been published in which researchers claim to document an 'undoing' or 'redoing' of gender. Francine M. Deutsch, in "Undoing Gender" (2007), examines how the concept of doing gender has been employed in research. Deutsch uses examples of studies that use West and Zimmerman's work to illustrate how normative gender ideals are apparent in a variety of contexts. This, she argues, contributes to the invisibility of gender transgression and does not work towards West and Zimmerman's goal of eliminating gender inequity. In order to facilitate the undoing of gender, Deutsch suggests that "The study of the interactional level could expand beyond simply documenting the persistence of inequality to examine (1) when and how social interactions become less gendered, not just differently gendered; (2) the conditions under which gender is irrelevant in social interactions; (3) whether all gendered interactions reinforce inequality; (4) how the structural (institutional) and interactional levels might work together to produce change; and (5) interaction as the site of change" (p. 114). By focusing on these areas, Deutsch asserts, it is easier to find practical solutions to problems cause by gender inequity.[8]

Catherine Connell (2010) presented the idea of "redoing gender" as well as "doing transgender" in her work, "Doing, Undoing or Redoing Gender?: Learning from the Workplace Experiences of Transpeople". Connell posits that transpeople may redo gender by altering normative ideas of gender in their interactions, but may simultaneously participate in the doing of gender in other ways. Connell coins the term "doing transgender" in order to provide a way to examine how transpeople must make sense of the disconnect between sex, gender and sex category, which they may obscure or actively express in interactions.[9]

In January 2009, the academic journal Gender and Society published a West and Zimmerman Symposium, in honor of the concept of doing gender. Nine short articles were composed for the symposium, including a piece by West and Zimmerman. Several authors argued that the doing gender framework did not allow for agency, intent or consciousness. Other authors argued that biology needed to be focused on when considering doing gender, in order to understand what role the body plays in gender assessment.[1][10][7][11][12][13][14][15][16]

West and Zimmerman responded with an article titled "Accounting for Doing Gender", in which they restated their original argument, with an emphasis on accountability. In this, they argued, the doing gender framework does not hide agency, but contextualizes it. Because individuals' gender will be interpreted based on the accountability structure, the effectiveness of their resistance may not serve to "undo" gender. The authors contend that gender may be "redone" but never "undone", as accountability structures may change but gender will not disappear.[1]

Doing difference[edit]

Doing difference is a concept[1] that grew out of the authors' earlier idea of "doing gender", presented at the American Sociological Association in 1977 by Candace West and Don Zimmerman and published in Gender and Society in 1987.[2] In 1995, Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker sought to extend the idea of gender as an ongoing interactional process into the realms of race and class.

They begin by asserting that the intersection of these three fundamental ways to categorize social difference cannot[clarification needed] simply be thought of in a mathematical or even strictly hierarchical sense. That is, simply plugging in these concepts as variables in a multiple regression model to predict life success in a particular society provides a simplified way to look at their relative effects, but would fail to provide an adequate basis for even understanding, lesser yet altering systemic inequalities based on race, class, and gender. For instance, poor black women in the United States face immense social disadvantages, but to place them at the bottom of some abstract listing of vulnerable populations tells us little about how race, class, and gender interacted in their biography and social milieu to constrain and direct their lives. Their analysis of these core differences from the standpoint of ethnomethodology turns the focus away from individual characteristics. Instead, they are understood processually as "emergent properties of social situations" which simultaneously produce systematically different outcomes for social groups and the rationale for such disparities.

The authors assert that the reason race and class were not adequately considered in earlier works is because the feminist movement has historically been the province of white middle class women in the developed world who were not sufficiently affected or attuned to the nature of these corollary oppressions. Furthermore, few women outside this privileged lot were able to gain access to institutions of higher education, which might have permitted them to engage in the academic discourse and activity about such shortcomings. Even if they had, the gatekeepers within the academy and at leading journals made this unlikely process even more difficult. Perhaps overt racism and classism (and sexism) is less apparent today in these institutions, but the tendency remains for those in positions of power to view the world in a way that discounts the experience of marginalized groups.

The central theme of "difference" here is meant to illustrate how the concepts of race and gender have been falsely conceived as biologically bound predictors of behavior and aptitude among those who are a certain skin color or sex. The commonalities within these somewhat arbitrary categories often exaggerated and the behavior of the most dominant group within the category (e.g. rich white men or women) becomes idealized as the only appropriate way to fulfill one social role. This conceptualization is then employed as a means of excluding and stigmatizing those who do not or cannot live up to these standards. This process of "doing difference" is realized in constant interpersonal interactions that reaffirm and reproduce social structure. Experiencing the world through the interaction of these "essentialized" characteristics and especially through dominant group's frame of reference (power interests) produces a pattern of thought and behavior that reproduces these social inequalities.

Social science research has rendered dubious any claim that race can simply be conflated with color, or gender with genitalia, or even class with paychecks. Class may not seem as prone to ideas about natural social differentiation, but within capitalist societies, it is often assumed that one's economic situation is a more or less direct indication of one's capacity to achieve. Since women and people of color taken are more often poor, natural disadvantage is at least tacitly assumed by many. Given the general observation that powerful groups seem to rely heavily on these ideas of natural subordination, many liberationist thinkers came to the conclusion that this essentialism would be a prime rhetorical vehicle to subvert. Thus, the deconstruction of role theory and functionalism within sociology was a central theme from the 1960s onward. This still left a somewhat gaping theoretical vacuum, one that continues to be felt by people struggling with this challenge to fundamentally alter their social cosmology.

Social constructionism has assumed the major explanatory role in these discussions by positing that the meanings of these supposedly ascribed statuses are in fact situationally dependent on the sort of social context in which we employ them. That is, race, class, and gender aren't just objective scientific facts, but dynamic processes of culturally constructing cues for moral behavior (for which one can be held personally accountable) in a particular circumstance. It is these constantly occurring processes, not some divinely decreed grand plan, which reproduces social structure. Individuals "do difference" when they acknowledge (knowingly or unknowingly) how their categorization renders them socially accountable to acting in a particular way in a situation. However, when individuals recalibrate "doing difference" to produce alternative ways to conceptualize interaction patterns, it amounts to social change.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f West, Candace; Zimmerman, Don H. (February 2009). "Accounting for doing gender". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 112–122. CiteSeerX doi:10.1177/0891243208326529.
  2. ^ a b c d e West, Candace; Zimmerman, Don H. (June 1987). "Doing gender". Gender & Society. 1 (2): 125–151. doi:10.1177/0891243287001002002. JSTOR 189945. Pdf.
  3. ^ McGrath, Karen (2014). "Teaching sex, gender, transsexual, and transgender concepts". Communication Teacher. 28 (2): 96–101. doi:10.1080/17404622.2013.865764.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Rose, Jessica; Mackey-Kallis, Susan; Shyles, Len; Barry, Kelly; Biagini, Danielle; Hart, Colleen; Jack, Lauren (2012). "Face it: the impact of gender on social media images". Communication Quarterly. 60 (5): 588–607. doi:10.1080/01463373.2012.725005.
  5. ^ Judith Butler (June 2011). Your Behavior Creates Your Gender (Video). Big Think. Retrieved 4 May 2016.
  6. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). "Performative acts and gender constitution: an essay in phenomenology and feminist theory". In Case, Sue-Ellen (ed.). Performing feminisms: feminist critical theory and theatre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 278. ISBN 9780801839696.
  7. ^ a b Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador (February 2009). "The figure of the transwoman of color through the lens of "doing gender"". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 99–103. doi:10.1177/0891243208326461.
  8. ^ Deutsch, Francine M. (February 2007). "Undoing gender". Gender & Society. 21 (1): 106–127. doi:10.1177/0891243206293577. Pdf.
  9. ^ Connell, Catherine (February 2010). "Doing, undoing, or redoing gender? Learning from the workplace experiences of transpeople". Gender & Society. 24 (1): 31–55. doi:10.1177/0891243209356429.
  10. ^ Jurik, Nancy C.; Siemsen, Cynthia (February 2009). ""Doing gender" as canon or agenda: a symposium on West and Zimmerman". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 72–75. doi:10.1177/0891243208326677.
  11. ^ Smith, Dorothy E. (February 2009). "Categories are not enough". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 76–80. doi:10.1177/0891243208327081.
  12. ^ Risman, Barbara J. (February 2009). "From doing to undoing: gender as we know it". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 81–84. doi:10.1177/0891243208326874.
  13. ^ Messerschmidt, James W. (February 2009). ""Doing Gender": the impact and future of a salient sociological concept". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 85–88. doi:10.1177/0891243208326253.
  14. ^ Jones, Nikki (February 2009). ""I was aggressive for the streets, pretty for the pictures": gender, difference, and the inner-city girl". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 89–93. doi:10.1177/0891243208326676.
  15. ^ Kitzinger, Celia (February 2009). "Doing gender: a conversation analytic perspective". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 94–98. doi:10.1177/0891243208326730.
  16. ^ Connell, Raewyn (February 2009). "Accountable conduct: "Doing gender" in transsexual and political retrospect". Gender & Society. 23 (1): 104–111. doi:10.1177/0891243208327175.

Further reading[edit]