Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality Reviews

  • Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality. Reviewed by Anne Bolin. Dept of Sociology, Elon College. 1992. The Journal of the History of Sexuality. 2 (3). Pp. 497-500

Holly Devor’s Gender Blending is a pathfinding study that creates a new frontier in sex and gender research. In this work, the author explicates the quadruple helix of sex (“biological status”), gender (“social status as either a man or a woman”), sex identity (personal acceptance “in a particular sex category as either a male or a female”), and gender role (“those actions, thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs which distinguish one as a member of a gender category, i.e. masculinity and femininity”) (p. vii). Devor presents these four components of gender articulated within a pervasive and dominant North American gender schema, the shared belief that gender is “natural” and binary.

Gender, from its abstract conceptualization as both recursive and reflexive, emerges clearly as a lived struggle for the fifteen gender-blending females who are at the core of the research. The population is characterized by their presentation that “incorporates elements . . . from both the standard masculine gender role and the standard feminine gender role . . . [so that] people who do not know them personally often, but not always” mistake the gender-blending women for men (p. viii). For the majority, “mistakes had been an everyday occurrence, to the point where they no longer automatically expected to be correctly identified as females by strangers” (p. ix).

Devor more than meets her goal of establishing parameters for the category of gender blending; she also identifies commonalities and patterns in the experiences of her population through the in-depth case history method. Her research population is transformed from a categorical group into individuals whose voices and lives are richly interwoven throughout the last half of the book. Devor ‘s intent to consider some of the theoretical, personal, social and political meanings and implications of a blended gender status” (p. viii) results in an innovative and integrative contribution to sex and gender research. Her theoretical construction is a dynamic interlocking of the individual as situated within a system of patriarchal assumptions and definitions and the interplay between the individual, the family, and the dominant gender schema of society. Gender blenders operate as a window on our western gender schema, which supports “a sexist society by propagating an ideology of an innate and entirely pervasive, sex determined social structure” (p. 147).

Devor is concerned with the social constitution of gender as a ramifying system of inequality, the experience of gender blending as a lived phenomenon—incorporating the male standard yet critical of it—and the contradiction between the gender attribution process and the extant dominant gender schema. A thoroughly feminist and postmodern discourse, her work is deconstructive in that it seeks to question both the mundane and the scientific discourse that takes biology (sex) as central in the definition of gender.

In the first three chapters, the author exposes the “incorrigible propositions”—unwaveringly held beliefs (p. 155)—inherent in western scientific paradigms as well as the dominant gender schema of North Americans. “Sex is seen as wholly determining gender and largely determining gender role. It is presumed that there are normally two, and only two, sexes. . . . Sex is believed to so strongly determine gender that these two classifications are commonly conflated to the extent the terms are used interchangeably” (p. 46). While the schema proceeds from physical sex (female/male) to gender status (girl/woman, boy/man) to gender role (femininity/masculinity), the actual process of attributing gender in daily encounters occurs in reverse, with an individual’s masculinity/femininity leading to the attribution of womanhood/manhood by an audience-at-large, with the presumption of concordant genitalia (not readily visible). In this light, “gender is a social product produced . . . in dynamic interactions and given meaning through the cognitive framework of the dominant gender schema” (p. 149).

Devor questions the literature on gender anomalies that links gender identity and gender role behaviors to chromosomal or hormonal factors, and she explores various theories of gender acquisition including psychoanalysis, social learning, and cognitive development theory. Devor sets the stage for the remainder of the book with a discussion of gender schema theory, focusing on the ramifications of male privilege in the western gender schema and subsequent implications for the process of the attribution of gender in daily encounters. Gender blenders were mistaken as a result of the presence of male symbols and the absence of clearly marked femininity in their presentation of self. “When there is a doubt as to the gender of an individual people have a pronounced tendency to see maleness” (p. 49).

The next four chapters represent the bulk of the research findings. The reader witnesses the gender-blending females’ family lives and early socialization, their histories of tomboyism, and their resistance to conventional femininity and its implicit heterosexuality. Devor presents a compelling argument concerning the social attributes of sex identity. In a period in history where arguments espousing the biological basis of homosexual and lesbian choices have gained a certain prominence, Devor’s analysis is refreshing and insightful. She balances the importance of gender role and identity in shaping sexuality. Of the fifteen women (most of whom had tried heterosexuality), only four remained heterosexual, while eleven were exclusively lesbian at the time of the research. That Devor did not make this the consolidating feature of her research is to her credit and reiterates her interpretive scheme of a sexuality built upon and consolidated around gender identity/gender role. Devor details for the reader the dilemmas and coping strategies of the gender blenders, who were puzzled, angered, and empowered by the attribution of maleness. She concludes her presentation of the “possibilities” for altering the dominant schema with these words: “Gender, as we now think of it, is an artifact of sex. Were gender to become divided from sex, it would begin to lose its meaning and it would become impossible to use gender as a basis for sex discrimination” (p. 154).

Gender Blending is notable on several grounds. Devor’s approach is multidisciplinary; it synthesizes the relationship of psychodynamic processes within a broader sociocultural matrix so that the reader moves easily between the individual and society, the micro and the macro level of analysis. She presents the heterogeneity of her population (illustrated artfully by the author’s photographs of the participants) while highlighting their similarities with descriptive detail. Finally, Devor’s work challenges conventional clinical typologies of transsexualism and transvestism by presenting gender identity as dynamic and socially embedded in a complex web of meanings and interactions. Holly Devor has presented a well-researched and theoretically stimulating work of great significance for the field of sex and gender studies.

  • Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality. Reviewed by Meredith M. Kimball, Simon Fraser University

Holly Devor has explored the social meaning of gender in an interesting and unusual study. The book explores the experiences of 15 gender-blending women. All 15 women have had frequent experiences of being mistaken for men for at least five and usually 10 or more years. These mistakes usually occur in public places, frequently with clerks in stores, but also, with more serious consequences, with police and others who require proof of identity.

Although the number of women studied is small and gender-blending as defining by Devor is a rare phenomenon for most women, these women’s experiences are pivotal for understanding the social construction of gender. As the subtitle of the book implies, it is through the experiences of gender-blending women that we realize the limits of the common assumptions that biological sex is dichotomous and forms the basis for the assignment of social gender in our society. Devor argues that gender cues associated with masculinity and femininity form the basis for inferring biological sex rather than the reverse.

Indeed most of us, including the women Devor interviewed, assume that to be biologically female is sufficient to determine our inclusion in the social category “woman.” The experiences of gender-blending women show that biological femaleness is not sufficient for some women who chose to present themselves in traditionally masculine ways. An interesting example of this phenomenon is that three of the women who first experienced being mistaken for boys in childhood and adolescence, and all six whose gender-blending experiences began or escalated in their early twenties, reported that the mistakes began just after they cut their hair short.

Devor does an excellent job of showing us, through the experience of the women in her study, the importance of gender in our social and emotional lives. The women reported both very positive and very negative consequences of gender-blending experiences. On the positive side, these women found that being mistaken for a man in public offered them a physical safety that they did not otherwise feel. Furthermore, several reported increased respect from others and self-confidence when they were mistaken for men. These women’s descriptions of how it feels to walk down the street at night when one is thought to be male provide some of the most powerful data I have encountered which illustrates the importance of gender in determining our experience of the world. On the negative side, these women experienced the fear more feminine women have of men in public situations. Often other women would cross the street at night to avoid walking past them. More seriously for the gender-blending women, women’s public bathrooms were places where they were often unwanted, feared, removed by force and humiliated. And some of them reported highly degrading and humiliating experiences when they were forced to prove their physical sex to police officers or other authorities. In spite of the negative experiences, all of the women felt the advantages of being mistaken for a man outweighed the disadvantages. As Devor clearly points out, this is not surprising in a patriarchal society.

This book is very readable and, except for the last chapter, free of jargon. The author has included her own excellent photographs of gender-blending women throughout the book. These photographs provide the reader with visual images that not only supplement but also enrich the written text. This book could be used by undergraduate as well as graduate students, and anyone interested in the development and construction of gender in our society would find Devor’s book useful.

The book is divided into two parts. The first three chapters explore the biological, psychological and social bases of gender. They provide very good critical reviews of the existing academic literature. The chapter on biological bases is particularly well done and provides the researcher, teacher and student with up-to-date and critical information in this most controversial of areas. These first three chapters could easily be used as a text for an undergraduate course in psychology, sociology, or women’s studies on the development of gender. The fourth, fifth and sixth chapters explore the early childhood experiences, sexuality, and everyday adult experiences of gender-blending women. These chapters form the basis of a descriptive study that would make an excellent text for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses on the social construction of gender.

The last chapter describes Devor’s theoretical model of the social creation of gender. I found this chapter weaker than the others because of Devor’s increased use of jargon and the presence of confusing diagrams that were not explained in detail in the text. Her argument that the creation of gender is complex, that it depends critically on feedback from the social world, and that it occurs at both the level of individual behaviour (microsocial) and social institutions (macrosocial), is true. What is problematic is that the reader who, until now, has been enlightened about the construction of gender may well become confused. A more detailed explanation of the most complex diagram (The Social Construction of Gender) with specific examples from the gender-blending women would help to make the theory clearer.

Overall, this is a very good book and I would recommend it to a wide range of readers interested in issues of gender and identity. The experiences of the gender blending women, which Devor elucidates so clearly, bring to the forefront what remains in the background for most women. In the process of making prominent what most of us take for granted, these women have a great deal to teach us. By sensitively and intelligently describing these voices to us, Devor has made an important contribution to the study of gender.

Order this Book