The Game


A traditional dilemma about gender/sex concerns ‘nature/nurture.’ The way that this is often characterized is as follows: Is gendered behavior determined by biological make-up? Or is it determined by environment? By the latter people often mean: Is gendered behavior determined by early childhood upbringing? In other words, is gender ideology inculcated or "programmed" at an early age (men don’t cry, women are emotional)?


Rather than focusing on early childhood upbringing (and the psychological state of the individual), I want to focus on the here-and-now (and larger social contexts). I want to consider the way in which our behavior is constantly controlled by the social context. For example, remember the day I performed the little piece: I played the accordion in class. Normally professors don’t do this. It is “inappropriate”. It is an unspoken rule that professors should not play musical instruments in class for no particular reason. This rule is part of “The Game” which governs our life everyday.


Consider gender. It is entirely possible for a man to wear a dress to school. However, if he does so, there will be consequences. He will have to answer questions, face ridicule, etc. He will have violated a rule of The Game.


By considering these examples (and exploring some of your own) you can see that much of our life is structured by rules that we take for granted. We don’t even think about them. In this class, I want to think about them.


I don’t want to say that all of reality is determined by culture (i.e., I don’t necessarily accept the view that ALL of reality is “socially constructed”). Perhaps it is. But this seems to be a very bold, surprising claim that is hard to maintain without good arguments.


Yet it does seem obvious to me that A LOT of our gendered behavior is governed by cultural rules. You can “spot” something cultural by noticing value judgments (good, bad, too much, not enough) and rules (“you ought to do such and such”). Values and rules like this don’t exist “out there in nature.” And they provide ample material for us to discuss. 


It is interesting, however, that the Game often tries to hide itself by pretending that it is “natural.”  In other words, one of the cultural rules is that rules are to be treated as governed by “nature.” For example, a woman may go to electrolysis because she has been led to believe that her facial hair is “not natural” (i.e. that she is not supposed to have facial hair). Yet we can tell this is a cultural idea since there is a rule involved (“women aren’t supposed to have facial hair”) as well as an evaluation (“there is something wrong with women who have facial hair”). But the expression "not natural" also makes it seems that this does not happen "in nature." But some women do have facial hair ("naturally"!!). Ironically, when she goes to the electrolysist to have it removed, she is represented as making herself look how women "naturally look." But she is doing it through cultural intervention! 


NOTE: In teaching this class, I find that students get into a ‘battle of the sexes’. Suddenly it becomes boys vs. the girls. But I am not interested in who did what to whom (at least not in the first instance).


I am interested in The Game.

I am not interested in playing The Game (although it’s hard to avoid).

I am interested in stepping back and thinking philosophically about the rules of The Game. I am interested in the unspoken rules which govern the interaction between men and women.