Gender performance: How does Behavior create gender?

Where does Gender come from, and how is it defined?

In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Philosopher Judith Butler presented the ground-breaking theory of gender performance as a way of explaining how gender roles work. 

In this article, we will be exploring how each of us performs our Gender through a set of actions. Bringing awareness to our performance around Gender can help you understand your masculinity and femininity. 

What is gender performance?

Gender performance is the theory that Gender is something that is expressed through actions and daily practices. Gender is performed through a set of “stylized acts” that define people as Masculine or Feminine. Such as what they dress, the way they speak, or other behaviors.

The idea is that Gender is not tied to biology.

It’s instead a group of traits that we, as a society, have deemed Masculine and feminine. 

You are then defined by the gendered acts you perform. Such as liking sports to be seen as masculine or putting on makeup to be seen as feminine. 

These behaviors aren’t automatic or inherent. People adopt them, either voluntarily or through social conditioning or pressure.

This quote by Judith Butler explains why Gender is a performance:

“Because Gender is not a fact, the various acts of Gender creates the idea of Gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction… through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (From the paper: Performative Acts and Gender Constitution by Judith Butler). 

Once I became aware of gender as a performance, I could see it playing itself out in my daily life. A good example is that as a man, I can tell it is expected for me to ask out a woman if I am interested. Even if I prefer to be asked out, to perform my Gender, I always have to make the first step. 

Another example is as a boy I was constantly aware of other boys trying to show off how masculine they were by being the “alpha.” As soon as I met another guy in high school, they would try and prove their Gender by entering into a competition to show who was dominant. It didn’t matter what it was (sports, girls, intelligence).

This is a great example of how men try and perform and/or out-perform their masculinity around others. 

Gender performance example

Society has created a set of behaviors that are considered Masculine and Feminine.  The set of traits are then used as a template to judge how masculine or feminine a person is. Looking at what these traits/expectations are will help us understand how gender is performed.

Examples of how Gender is performed:

  • Fashion: Clothes, footwear, hairstyle, facial/body hair
  • Shaking hand: Stronger handshake seen as dominant and masculine
  • Body language: how people walk, hand gestures, and how people sit
  • Title: being called Mr., Ms., Mrs.
  • Hobbies: Sports, music choices, ballet
  • Role in social events: Homecoming queen, best man, priest, baby shower attendee

Gender performance can also be seen at a micro and macro level. 

There are tons of small socialized behaviors that are seen as more Masculine—things like opening the door for someone, smiling at strangers, and a host of small acts. 

There are also lots of big social behaviors that can be seen as acts of Gender. Such as caregiving being viewed as feminine or hard work being seen as masculine. 

A good example is the following hands. Which one would you say are more feminine or masculine?

They are actually the same hands. 

Gender Performance and Stereotypes

It’s important to recognize that many of the examples I shared as masculine and feminine are stereotypes.

That’s because a stereotype is a widely held and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. So in this case, all the stereotypes we have around Gender are what society has proclaimed to be masculine or feminine. 

These are, however, stereotypes. Men or women don’t have to fit the oversimplification of what their gender role should be. 

Quite the opposite is true. 

We are all unique and shouldn’t let society pressure us to act a certain way to fulfill its strict definitions. Understanding this can help you see how you are performing your Gender and if it serves you or not. 

The real work is discovering how you differ from the imaginary and unattainable stereotypes and instead find confidence and acceptance of your unique identity. 

Gender performance and biology

How we perform Gender, or at least how we are expected to, is often assumed to be the same as our biology. 

Some call this “assigned gender at birth.”

Many people will assign a set gender role to someone based on their biological sex. Such as men should be stoic, hard-working, love sports, confident, and so on. 

The problem is this “standard” is just not realistic. 

No one is 100% masculine or 100% feminine. We are inherently more grey than that. 

In fact, Carl Jung, father of analytical psychology and Traditional Chine Medicine, believed that everyone has both masculine and feminine energy within them. 

For instance, I have always been a very emotionally expressive person. When I was younger, I was told not to cry during a movie and that I needed to “man up.”

The reality is I have some traits many see as feminine, and it confused them that I wasn’t striving to perform the Gender they put me into due to my biology. 

Over my life, I have accepted these parts of myself. I am embracing and integrating my feminine aspects as much as my masculine ones. 

In me lives a range of expressions. 

Looking at how you perform Gender can help you uncover the different aspects of yourself. Try to take time to explore what others’ expectations of you are and if that fits you. Be open to the idea that you probably don’t fit this imaginary mold of one Gender and instead have a mixture. 

Understanding that will help you accept yourself and find confidence in your uniqueness. 

Gender changing throughout history

The definition of Gender has also changed throughout the ages. What was seen as masculine in one era or society is seen as feminine in another. 

A great example of this is the change of fashion over the decades. 

The Sun King or Charles II was often depicted with high-heeled shoes, tights, and flowy gowns – which today would be seen as feminine. 

The Sun King or Charles II

Or how about the color pink?

In 18th and 19th century England, pink was a common color for boys to wear. Blue was actually seen as a softer and more feminine color.

Henry Fiennes Pelham Clinton (1750–1778), Earl of Lincoln

Societies definition of what is Masculine or Feminine has changed over the years.

This demonstrates that Gender is performative and not inherent. 

I actually see this as empowering. Knowing that the definition of Gender has changed gives me permissions to discover what masculinity means to me instead of just basing it on the current cultural trend. 

In Conclusion

As a kid, we try and learn how to fit into society. We are conditioned to believe that we need to act a certain way due to our Gender.

The problem is when these stereotypes come into conflict with our personalities —we can feel weird or out of place if we don’t fit society’s norms.

We can begin to internalize these social pressures and begin to limit ourselves to fit in. Spending a lot of time and mental energy to make sure you aren’t too “bossy” or too much of a “sissy.”

It’s exhausting!

That is why it’s important to understand Gender is a performance, more than an inheart norm.

It’s helpful to understand what cultural pressures exist and how we have been socialized. It’s the first step for you to break out of whatever mold doesn’t fit your unique personality. 

It’s ok if you don’t fit the gendered stereotypes. 

More than that… it’s normal. 

No one fits the quintessential Masculine or feminine because we are more complex than that.  

There is a lot to learn by exploring your Masculine and Feminine traits. Integrating these aspects of yourself will help you find self-acceptance.

I am dedicated to helping others with this work at HeroRise by creating the Masculine Archetype Deck and other tools for exploring identity

Check them out and my other Blog Articles.

Isaac Cotec
Isaac Cotec
Creator of HeroRise, Isaac Cotec has dedicated his life to empowering others through art and creativity. He is a scholar of the subconscious and has studied the power of symbolism to help create enduring change.

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