Gender performance

Cheerleaders, drag kings, and the rest of us

Authored by: Joshua Gamson , Laura Grindstaff

Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415474450
eBook ISBN: 9780203891377
Adobe ISBN: 9781134026159


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Social theorists have long noted that people aren’t simply male or female but rather they “do” gender. Thus, gender is neither a fixed nor an essential property of the self but an outcome of ongoing performances in various interactional and institutional contexts. Gender, along with other axes of social difference, helps constitute the culture of everyday life and is central to the implicit codes that guide “normative” identities and practices (Kessler and McKenna 1978; West and Zimmerman 1987; Butler 1990; West and Fenstermaker 1995). Sociologists have further noted that gender is a system, a social structure with concretized categories and hierarchies—most notably a patriarchal hierarchy in which men dominate and from which men benefit. Consequently, people don’t import gendered selves into neutral institutions; rather, institutions themselves are gendered in their policies, practices, and ideologies (Connell 1987; Acker 1990; Martin 1990; Lorber 1994; Messner 2002). Martin (2003) has usefully distinguished between “practicing gender”—the micro level talk and action that signifies gender, but often fleetingly and/or unintentionally—and “gendering practices”—the institutionalized ideas, structures, and repertoires of conduct that help to organize gender in more or less systematic ways. The interplay between the doing of gender and the gendering of institutions is complex: each informs and shapes the other, the former reminding us of the possibilities of agency, creativity, and resistance, the latter reminding us of the macro structures that shape—and often constrain—individual conduct.

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