August 26, 2019

Beyond the Binary and “Doing Gender”

Jessica poling author photoBy Jessica Poling

Sociology Ph.D. student, Rutgers University

Gender has become more intensely interrogated by many people who criticize the social expectations that accompany femininity and masculinity. The beauty industry, for example, has repeatedly come under fire for the unrealistic (and often financially burdensome) ideals it sets for women. Others have noted that women are held to unequal expectations when interacting with male peers, such as maintaining a “polite” and accommodating demeanor.

The emergence of the term “toxic masculinity” acknowledges the restrictions that accompany masculinity and the negative effects it has on both women and the men beholden to it. There is thus a growing acknowledgment that gender shapes how we live our daily lives, sometimes in harmful ways. While we still seem far away from completely throwing away the shackles of femininity and masculinity, there is a growing consciousness that gender impacts us and the way we move about the world.

However, these conversations are largely confined within the gender binary, neglecting how non-binary (persons who identify with neither male nor female identities) or gender fluid (persons who fluctuate between gender categories or express multiple at once) individuals actively construct their gender identity on a daily basis.

Gender scholars have long distinguished between sex (the physical differences between men and women) and gender (which broadly refers to the social definitions that distinguish the masculine and feminine). Simone de Beauvoir, for example, famously observed that the hierarchy between men and women is result of the social meanings of gender categories rather than simply the physical distinctions between them. Contemporary gender scholars have expanded this conversation to illuminate how gender acts as a social institution that impacts individuals at the micro (identity), meso (interaction), and macro (structural) levels.


Research has also attended to how individuals conform to gender categories in their everyday lives. Candace West and Don Zimmerman famously coined the term “doing gender” to explain how individuals actively construct their gender identity in interactions with others. Given that others continually categorize us in our social environment, we actively try to embody and enact masculine or feminine qualities so that others read us in the way we desire. For example, people may perform femininity or masculinity through dress or their mannerisms. Therefore, gender is not psychologically innate or simply imposed on us by institutions-it is an active project enacted in everyday life.

While insightful, these conversations are more complicated when we consider the growing number of gender categories that have recently emerged in the public consciousness. For example, a study on Minnesota LGBTQ youth recently found that roughly 3% of participants do not identify with binary gender categories. Facebook now allows users to select from a whopping 56 gender identities for their personal profiles. While the fight for LGBTQ rights is far from over, such reports indicate the growing visibility of genderqueer identities.


Conversations about the construction of gender are complicated when we move beyond the binary. West and Zimmerman, for example, do not imagine a world in which people might wish to conform to a non-binary gender. Consequently, how do individuals construct gender identity when they do not want to conform to a binary gender category?

Harry Barbee and Douglas Schrock have recently taken on this question in their article, “Un/gendering Social Selves: How Nonbinary People Navigate and Experience a Binarily Gendered World”. Barbee and Schrock investigate a process they term “un/gendering social selves,” meaning how non-binary people define and present themselves in their daily lives to avoid binary classification from others.

While there is an abundance of literature regarding how individuals deliberately try to fit themselves into binary categories, the authors argue that there is a notable lack of research on non-binary people who actively seek to avoid binary classifications. The authors address these questions using in-depth interviews with 17 non-binary identifying individuals.

Their respondents reported two tactics used to “un/gender” themselves in their interactions. First, they reflected on how they actively participate in “un/gendering embodiment.” Prior gender literature has reflected on how individuals “embody” gender differences by actively manipulating their appearance to distinguish their gender from another. Barbee and Schrock’s participants described manipulating their appearance to neutralize any gender signifiers that could be read on their bodies. For example, participants discussed consciously choosing their clothing, accessories, or makeup so that their appearance does not solely fit into one gender category.

Participants also spoke of “un/gendering” their word usage. Many participants reflected on their choice to adopt gender neutral names and pronouns. Others also spoke of actively changing their speaking voice in certain social contexts as too not come across as too masculine or feminine. While many of Barbee and Schrock’s participants felt that these processes allowed them to feel liberated and like their authentic selves, many also reported that these processes are sometimes emotionally burdensome and make them vulnerable in some public spaces.

Barbee and Schrock’s conclusions give us a new way to think about the construction of gender. By identifying how individuals “un/gender” embodiment and discourse, the authors illuminate that individuals still actively and thoughtfully construct their gender even when those individuals do not conform to binary gender categories. Consequently, like West and Zimmerman originally theorized about men and women, non-binary individuals must also carefully “do gender” even in their efforts to neutralize their gender identity.

While there is a growing acceptance of the multiplicity of gender identities, there is still much work to be done in the public and academic domains. Emerging perspectives on genderqueer identities should lead us to consider not only how we can add to existing gender theory, but also how we also might rethink those foundational perspectives to expand beyond the binary.



This article mainly pretains to how the world views genders and the stereotypes that each gender is suppose to uphold. These stereotypes can be "toxic" as the article says because we're suppose to live this certain way. For the people who don't live this certain way it leaves the subject open for debate. All over you look an see advertisement of what ideal gender is suppose to look like. As we evolve the world becomes more aware of the changes.

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I have always felt very comfortable with my gender and didn’t have to do a lot of self-discovery to realize that I’m a cis-gendered woman. In years prior and even today, I do like to challenge the typical stereotypes of what a woman is expected to be, in how I dress and act, but I still do many things in my life that make me fit into my gender’s norm. One way that I really found myself to be a beautiful young woman was to experiment with more makeup, which is typically a feminine thing to do. I don’t wear makeup often, but when I do, it reminds me and reassures me of my femininity and gender. Also, another thing that always makes me feel beautiful and sure of my gender identity is when I put on a skirt and I automatically feel a lot more certain of myself. Typically, skirts are a major part of being viewed as a woman, and they make me feel like a woman.

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