Femininities & Masculinities

"Femininities" and "masculinities" describe gender identities (see Gender). They describe socio-cultural categories in everyday language; these terms are used differently in biology (see below).Because femininities and masculinities are gender identities, they are shaped by socio-cultural processes, not biology (and should not be essentialized). Femininities and masculinities are plural and dynamic; they change with culture and with individuals.

Points to keep in mind:

  • In everyday language, femininities and masculinities do not map onto biological sex. In any one culture, certain behaviors or practices may be widely recognized as “feminine” or “masculine,” irrespective of whether they are adopted by women or by men. Femininities and masculinities are not descriptors of sexual orientation.
  • Femininities and masculinities are plural—there are many forms of femininity and many forms of masculinity. What gets defined as feminine or masculine differs by region, religion, class, national culture, and other social factors. How femininities and masculinities are valued differs culturally.
  • Any one person—woman or man—engages in many forms of femininity and masculinity, which she or he adopts (consciously or unconsciously) depending on context, the expectations of others, the life stage, and so forth. A man can engage in what are often stereotyped as “feminine” activities, such as caring for a sick parent.
  • Cultural notions of “feminine” and “masculine” behavior are shaped in part by observations about what women and men do. This kind of “gender marking” tends to discourage women or men from entering “gender-inauthentic” occupations (Faulkner, 2009).
  • Femininities and masculinities are learned. Messages about “feminine” and “masculine” behaviors are embedded in advertising, media, news, educational materials, and so forth. These messages are present in a range of environments, from the home to the workplace to public spaces. 

Note on biology: Although the terms “feminine” and “masculine” are gender terms (socio-cultural categories) in everyday usage, they carry different meanings in biology. Masculinization refers to the development of male-specific morphology, such as the Wolffian ducts and male reproductive structures. Feminization refers to the development of female-specific morphology, such as the Müllerian ducts and female reproductive structures. In order to become a reproductively functioning female, for example, both feminization and demasculinization are required, and vice versa for males (Uhlenhaut et al., 2009).

Works Cited

  • Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures: Part II—Gender In/Authenticity and the In/Visibility Paradox. Engineering Studies, 1 (3), 169-189.
  • Uhlenhaut, N., Jakob, S., Anlag, K., Eisenberger, T., Sekido, R., Kress, J., Treier, A., Klugmann, C., Klasen, C., Holter, N., Riethmacher, D., Schütz, G., Cooney, A., Lovell-Badge, R., & Treier, M. (2009). Somatic Sex Reprogramming of Adult Ovaries to Testes by FOXL2 Ablation. Cell, 139 (6), 1130-1142.