Gender norms are weird.

Apr 3 JDN 2459673

Field Adjunct Xorlan nervously adjusted their antenna jewelry and twiddled their mandibles as they waited to be called before the Xenoanthropology Committee.

At last, it was Xorlan’s turn to speak. They stepped slowly, hesitantly up to the speaking perch, trying not to meet any of the dozens of quartets of eyes gazing upon them. “So… yes. The humans of Terra. I found something…” Their throat suddenly felt dry. “Something very unusual.”

The Committee Chair glared at Xorlan impatiently. “Go on, then.”

“Well, to begin, humans exhibit moderate sexual dimorphism, though much more in physical than mental traits.”

The Chair rolled all four of their eyes. “That is hardly unusual at all! I could name a dozen species on as many worlds—”

“Uh, if I may, I wasn’t finished. But the humans, you see, they endeavor greatly—at enormous individual and social cost—to emphasize their own dimorphism. They wear clothing that accentuates their moderate physical differences. They organize themselves into groups based primarily if not entirely around secondary sexual characteristics. Many of their languages even directly incorporate pronouns or even adjectives and nouns associated with these categorizations.”

Seemingly placated for now, the Chair was no longer glaring or rolling their eyes. “Continue.”

“They build complex systems of norms surrounding the appropriate dress and behavior of individuals based on these dimorphic characteristics. Moreover, they enforce these norms with an iron mandible—” Xorlan choked at their own cliched metaphor, regretting it immediately. “Well, uh, not literally, humans don’t have mandibles—but what I mean to say is, they enforce these norms extremely aggressively. Humans will berate, abuse, ostracize, in extreme cases even assault or kill one another over seemingly trivial violations of these norms.”

Now the Chair sounded genuinely interested. “We know religion is common among humans. Do the norms have some religious significance, perhaps?”

“Sometimes. But not always. Oftentimes the norms seem to be entirely separate from religious practices, yet are no less intensively enforced. Different groups of humans even have quite different norms, though I have noticed certain patterns, if you’ll turn to table 4 of my report—”

The Chair waved dismissively. “In due time, Field Adjunct. For now, tell us: Do the humans have a name for this strange practice?”

“Ah. Yes, in fact they do. They call it gender.

We are so thoroughly accustomed to them—in basically every human society—that we hardly even notice their existence, much less think to question them most of the time. But as I hope this little vignette about an alien anthropologist illustrates, gender norms are actually quite profoundly weird.

Sexual dimorphism is not weird. A huge number of species have vary degrees of dimorphism, and mammals in particular are especially likely to exhibit significant dimorphism, from the huge antlers of a stag to the silver back of a gorilla. Human dimorphism is in a fairly moderate range; our males and females are neither exceptionally similar nor exceptionally different by most mammal standards.

No, what’s weird is gender—the way that, in nearly every human society, culture has taken our sexual dimorphism and expanded it into an incredibly intricate, incredibly draconian system of norms that everyone is expected to follow on pain of ostracism if not outright violence.

Imagine a government that passed laws implementing the following:

Shortly after your birth, you will be assigned to a group without your input, and will remain it in your entire life. Based on your group assignment, you must obey the following rules: You must wear only clothing on this approved list, and never anything on this excluded list. You must speak with a voice pitch within a particular octave range. You must stand and walk a certain way. You must express, or not express, your emotions under certain strictly defined parameters—for group A, anger is almost never acceptable, while for group B, anger is the only acceptable emotion in most circumstances. You are expected to eat certain approved foods and exclude other foods. You must exhibit the assigned level of dominance for your group. All romantic and sexual relations are to be only with those assigned to the opposite group. If you violate any of these rules, you will be punished severely.

We surely see any such government as the epitome of tyranny. These rules are petty, arbitrary, oppressive, and disproportionately and capriciously enforced. And yet, when for millennia we in every society on Earth have imposed these rules upon ourselves and each other, it seems to us as though nothing is amiss.

Note that I’m not saying that men and women are the same in every way. That’s clearly not true physically; the differences in upper body strength and grip strength are frankly staggering. The average man is nearly twice as strong as the average woman, and an average 75-year-old man grips better with his left hand than an average 25-year-old woman grips with her right.

It isn’t really true mentally either: There are some robust correlations between gender and certain psychological traits. But they are just that: Correlations. Men are more likely to be dominant, aggressive, risk-seeking and visually oriented, while women are more likely to be submissive, nurturing, neurotic, and verbally oriented. There is still an enormous amount of variation within each group, such that knowing only someone’s gender actually tells you very little about their psychology.

And whatever differences there may be, however small or large, and whatever exceptions may exist, whether rare or ubiquitous—the question remains: Why enforce this? Why punish people for deviating from whatever trends may exist? Why is deviating from gender norms not simply unusual, but treated as immoral?

I don’t have a clear answer. People do generally enforce all sorts of social norms, some good and some bad; but gender norms in particular seem especially harshly enforced. People do generally feel uncomfortable with having their mental categories challenged or violated, but sporks and schnoodles have never received anything like the kind of hatred that is routinely directed at trans people. There’s something about gender in particular that seems to cut very deep into the core of human psychology.

Indeed, so deep that I doubt we’ll ever be truly free of them. But perhaps we can at least reduce their draconian demands on us by remaining aware of just how weird those demands are.

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