The Gender Box(es)

18 June 2023

Gender is a controversial topic these days. To some, gender is an oppressive system designed to keep women down: people go around saying "girls are made of sugar and spice and boys are made of snips and snails," and pretty soon you’re making 80 cents on the dollar.

To others, though, gender is an important part of their sense of self. They identify as a woman, as a man, as non-binary—and that helps them live the life they want to live. And to do that, you don't have to endorse all the discrimination. You can identify as a woman and be a feminist; you can be out there marching for equal pay, as a woman.

Then again, you've probably seen plenty of self-identifying men out there at the Women’s March. You clearly don't need to be a woman, or even to have a particular theory of gender, to care about justice. So some would argue that we can do without gender—and indeed we should. Gender, they say, is a kind of prison. As soon as you’re born, they stamp it on a piece of paper. Then it’s on your passport. Then it’s on your medical card. It determines where you can go and what you can do, and—in many parts of the world—who you can marry. Every time we obsess about gender, we’re just making the bars of the prison stronger.

That said, it’s clearly not as much of a prison as it used to be. These days it’s easier than ever to change your gender, and many people are signing up to do that, which may just go to show how important and affirming the concept of gender can be. Maybe the world is a more beautiful place because people are different and get to express their differences—gender differences included. Think of that great Emma Goldman line: “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” 

Critics might say that changing one's gender is just moving from one cell to another in the prison, and leaving the system in place. (Maybe they'd cite Baudelaire's wonderful line: “this life is a hospital in which every patient desperately wants to change beds.”) And they might wonder why we care so much about gender—why we take it to be at the core of our identity. We don’t usually think of our hair color as making us the special person we are, or the fact that we’re five feet nine, or which hand we use to write with. So why think that about gender?

I’m not sure we have a good answer, but we're excited to talk about it with this week's special guest, author of the new book What Even Is Gender?—it's regular co-host Ray Briggs!

Comments (6)

stridedude's picture


Friday, June 16, 2023 -- 12:59 PM

As retired physician, I am

As retired physician, I am fortunate to be reasonably well versed in biological and embryological science. One discovers, that all developing humans start out as females. In order for an embryo to develop as both a genotypic as well as a phenotypic male, the rapidly dividing embryonic ball of cells needs to have special receptors on its surface to respond to the normal testosterone surges that occur in the environment of the uterusas pregnancy progresses. If, an XY embro ( i.e. a genetic male ) lacks these hormone receptors, it will develop into a female on the outside ( breats and vagina ), without the internal female organs: no uterus or ovaries . These people are therefore incapable of having children, and may resemble males in their musculature. Does such an " intersex " person therefore compete in sports as a male or a female ? No such an easy question, as this type of a binary approach to gender, although applicable over 98& of the time, is inadequate to classify the rest. And, so much for the biblical story of the creation of a woman from a male's rib. I'll see the rest of you blasphemers in hell .......

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JP's picture


Wednesday, June 21, 2023 -- 8:07 PM

However changeable and multi

However changeable and multi-faceted it may be, Is gender independent of others---a property intrinsic to an individual, and independent of other people? It seems to me it can only be described/defined in relation, or by comparison, to others. I'd surely like your thoughts!

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 22, 2023 -- 8:32 AM



It is both. There is nothing independent of biology and socialization.

If it seems to you otherwise - where is the counter-example of a person who lives independent of their biology? There are plenty of examples to show your view, and each is a biological disaster. Humans are inherently social. Nature can not so easily be excluded and put to the test.

A trans-human could transcend biology and still seem human. I doubt these trans-humans would be human in any meaningful way.

Life is often not what it seems. There are many examples to point out to convince one of this. I can't find any human who exists independent of their body to attribute gender exclusively to that independence.

What you are alluding to is my most significant concern with the account given in this show. There is a social aspect to gender that is not a matter of choice. I doubt there is an essence to gender, either. It also is more than just performative. Unfortunately, nature-nurture problems seem intractable when applied to every case.

Briggs and George apply liberty to solve the problematic use cases, which seems wrong due to the issue you raise.

Best to you,


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tonyakilkenny's picture


Thursday, March 7, 2024 -- 7:49 PM

I totally agree with you

I totally agree with you

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baber's picture


Monday, June 26, 2023 -- 6:02 AM

Gender is conformity to sex

Gender is conformity to sex roles--social norms and expectations about the 'appropriate' psychological and behavioral traits of men and women, boys and girls. There is no intrinsic, phenomenal what-it-is-like of gender. If you don't believe me, try introspecting. And even if there were, there would be no way in which one could compare one's supposed what-it-is-like to the what-it-is-like of others or compare the what-it-is-likes of individuals who identify as male and individuals who identify as female.

Gender is oppressive to men and women alike because the curves for the psychological characteristics identified as 'masculine' and 'feminine' overlap. Girls and boys in the gender-appropriate tails of their respective curves are happy and grow up to be 'normal' men and women without intervention. Children in the great bulge of their curves can be 'adjusted' to their gender-appropriate roles. Girls and boys in the gender-inappropriate tails cannot be adjusted and live tougher lives than necessary as gender misfits.

Gender transition is not a solution for us misfits--particularly if we are 5-foot zero tall, enthusiastically heterosexual, and could not pass for male no way no how--and are happy with our bodies even if we might prefer them to be a little slimmer. It is, of course, easier to fix people than to fix social norms but it might be worthwhile to give the latter project a try and to aim for trivializing sex and ending gender.

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Willy Warfrat's picture

Willy Warfrat

Thursday, October 5, 2023 -- 10:00 AM

I have a technical question

I have a technical question about the new language of gender. I tuned in to one of your shows recently & heard a person speak who was referred to, by others, with plural pronouns, but when speaking, that same person used first person singular ("I"
not "We") to refer to themselves when presenting their thoughts.
I thought to myself: How do I know which of these personalities is speaking now? Is there a lexicon or grammar primer for those such as moi, who are old & using fossilized brains, to make it more intuitive as to which words to use, when, like, y'know, when to speak spontaneously, & when to just clam up?? Or even when to capitalize the different pronouns!
Thank you.

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