Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?
The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.
As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.
That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.
The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.
In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.