But Don't Masculinity and Femininity Make Sense to Most of US? - Masculinity and Femininity: Gender Within Gender

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

But Don't Masculinity and Femininity Make Sense to Most of US?
Masculinity and Femininity: Gender Within Gender

Bem's social constructionist view raises an interesting paradox, spelled out clearly by Janet Spence and Camille Buckner in 1995. To some extent, masculinity and femininity are just concepts, whether originating in the fertile minds of research psychologists or in the collective mind of society at large. But—and here is the paradox—they are concepts that make sense to an awful lot of lay people. Why do research psychologists have such a hard time defining and measuring these traits when they seem obvious to the rest of humanity?

To illustrate this point, stop right now and forget everything you have read here so far. Answer the following question based on your own experience: Do you believe that some men are more masculine than others and that some women are more feminine than others? If you answered "yes" to this question, then try to answer a second, perhaps more difficult, question. What is it that, makes some men seem more masculine than others and some women seem more feminine than others? Is it their appearance? The way they dress and move? The way they talk? Their hobbies and interests? Is it their sexuality? The way they relate to friends and lovers? Or what? This is the central question posed by research on lay conceptions of masculinity and femininity: What defines the vague but intuitively appealing concepts of masculinity and femininity?

Components of Masculinity and Femininity

A number of studies have suggested that there are at least several different components to lay people's conceptions of masculinity and femininity, For example, Anita Myers and Gale Gonda (1982) asked more than 700 visitors to a science museum in Toronto, Canada, to provide their commonsense definitions of masculinity and femininity. Interestingly, their subjects did not emphasize the instrumental and expressive traits commonly measured by recent M and F scales. Rather, they listed physical appearance and traits (e.g., muscular, wears makeup, deep voice), traits other than instrumentality and expressiveness (e.g., soft and fragile, macho, tough), biological characteristics (e.g., bears children, has certain hormone levels), sexuality (e.g., not gay, virile, seductive), and social roles (e.g., acting the way society expects men and women to act). Similarly, in a series of studies conducted at Purdue University, Kay Deaux and Laurie Lewis (1983, 1984) found evidence that lay people's conceptions of gender, masculinity, and femininity have many components, including roles (e.g., mother), occupations (e.g., truck driver, nurse), physical appearance (e.g., muscular, dainty), and sexuality (e.g., heterosexual, homosexual). Again, these components are in addition to personality traits such as instrumentality and expressiveness.

Carnegie Mellon psychologist Vicki Helgeson (1994a) found still further evidence that lay people's conceptions of masculinity and femininity are multifaceted. Helgeson observed that a group of college students and their parents defined masculinity and femininity in terms of interests (e.g., feminine women are seen to be interested in family affairs, music, and art, whereas masculine men are seen to be interested in sports, work, and cars), and in terms of personality traits and physical appearance. Interestingly, Helgeson also found that masculinity has more negative meanings when applied to women, and femininity has more negative meanings when applied to men. For example, masculine women were seen as aggressive, alcohol consuming, ugly, fat, and not very caring; and feminine men were seen as thin, insecure, shy, delicate, and weak.

One noteworthy finding from studies on lay judgments of masculinity and femininity is that women are judged more than men based on their physical appearance. Attractive women are judged to be more feminine, whereas unattractive women are judged to be more masculine (Lippa, 1997, 1998c). Another finding is that lay people tend to see masculinity and femininity as opposites (Deaux, 1987); that is, the more we judge a person to be masculine, the less we judge him or her to be feminine, and vice versa. Thus, people's everyday conceptions of masculinity and femininity (which are not necessarily true, but they are what people think to be true) are more like the bipolar either-or approach to M-F than like the two-dimensional approach.

Masculinity and Femininity as Fuzzy Concepts

In the past few decades, psychologists have proposed that masculinity and femininity are fuzzy concepts (Deaux, 1987; Maecoby, 1987, 1998; Helgeson, 1994b). This means that masculinity and femininity are defined by multiple attributes, and the categories defined by these concepts (e.g., feminine people and masculine people) do not have clear-cut boundaries. To more clearly understand the meaning of fuzzy, consider the fuzzy category of fruits. What defines a fruit? A fruit is part of a plant with multiple attributes (e.g., develops from a flower, has seeds, has sweet flesh, grows above ground, hangs on a stem). Not all fruits have all attributes, however. An avocado is a fruit, for example, even though it is not sweet. Sometimes there are ambiguous cases that are hard to classify, which exist near the boundaries of fuzzy categories. Are tomatoes fruit? Peanuts? Fuzzy categories may be characterized by prototypes, that is, ideal examples of the category, which possess virtually all of the defining characteristics of the concept. An apple, for example, is a prototypic fruit.

We can apply these concepts from cognitive psychology, which studies human thought processes, to the study of masculinity and femininity. if masculinity and femininity are fuzzy concepts defining fuzzy categories, then it seems reasonable to ask the question: What are the defining attributes of masculinity and femininity? The studies described earlier help answer this question Masculinity and femininity are defined by people's appearances, nonverbal mannerisms, social roles, occupations, hobbies, interests, sexual behaviors, biological characteristics, and personality traits. The notion of a prototype suggests that some people provide better examples of masculinity and femininity than others, Marcel Proust, for example, is, to my mind, a good prototype of a feminine man.

The concept of fuzzy categories raises another interesting question. Are some of the attributes that define masculinity (or femininity) more central than others? What do you think? What would most influence your judgment of whether a man was masculine? Would it be his personality traits (he's dominant and aggressive), his occupational preferences (he wants to be a jet pilot), his hobbies (he plays football and fixes cars in his spare time), his social roles (he's president of the Chamber of Commerce and a father of four), his appearance (he often wears jeans and flannel shirts; he's muscular), his sexuality (he's heterosexual and chases after women), his social relationships (he has a wife; he spends a lot of time with male friends playing sports), or what? just because masculinity and femininity are multifaceted does not mean they do not exist or that they are meaningless. It simply means they are complex.

Is there in fact a core to masculinity and femininity? My hunch is that there is, and that it is to be found in gender-related interests (occupational preferences, hobbies, and everyday activities), gender-related appearances (nonverbal mannerisms, dress, grooming), and perhaps sexuality (sexual orientation). As a psychologist long interested in measuring people's masculinity and femininity, I know that the first component (interests) is easier to measure via questionnaires than the last two (appearances and sexuality), and so I frequently focus on interests in my research.

There are two additional reasons why I focus on gender-related interests as a route to measuring masculinity and femininity. First, considerable research indicates that gender-related interests develop very early in life, certainly by the time children are toddlers and often before their gender self-concepts and stereotypes have much of a chance to develop (Huston, 1983; Ruble & Martin, 1998). Second, gender-related interests develop well before adult sexual orientation becomes apparent. However, children's gender-related interests are strongly related to their adult sexual orientation (see Chapter 4). Boys who grow up to become gay men have more feminine interests than boys who become heterosexual men, and girls who grow up to become lesbian women have more masculine interests than girls who become heterosexual women (Bailey & Zucker. 1995).

Do gender-related interests provide the royal road to measuring masculinity and femininity? Perhaps. This leads us to a third, more recent approach to measuring masculinity and femininity. It is my own approach, and I got to choose its name: gender diagnosticity.