Describe functionalism as it relates to gender issues.

Expert Answers
kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Functionalism-- sometimes called "structural functionalism--" is a theoretical framework which considers mental states as defined by their enactment or performance. In other words, you are what you do. Such a theoretical framework implies a unity of mind and body and that the mind is made real through the body's action or physicality. As it relates to gender identity, functionalism can either pose a problem or a solution.

Social scientists believe that gender identity is something which is formed and felt in the mind but expressed through the body. From a functionalist perspective, gender identity is performed in order to be manifest. Here's where things get a little tricky- much of identity is based on the understanding of a shared set of symbols or indicators as to what someone does and does not identify with. Gender identity in particular is bound up in a set of indicators which have been previously established and are re-created through culture. The possible problem I mentioned above is this: what if someone's felt gender identity (mental state) doesn't match up with their expression? And here's where functionalism offers an answer: one could simply change their expression to match their mental state.

Depending on which culture one has been raised in or become a part of, there may be a variety of means of expressing gender. Gender can be performed through body language, spoken language, clothing and bodily adornment, choices of food, hobbies, mannerisms, or even profession. These are some of the things which we say make up "gender roles." In the Western World, most people believe in or operate on a binary system of gender. That is, there are two genders (man and woman) and what one is, the other is not. In reality, most people do not feel that they fit entirely into one binary gender or the other. This can be a source of frustration, especially when one finds that one aspect of their identity conflates them with other aspects of identity. A man from the United States who enjoys knitting might be perceived as having a feminine hobby, and therefore is conflated with the negative attributes ascribed to femininity, such as weakness. 

Functionalism demands that gender identity be unified in mental state and physical expression in order for one to be at peace with their identity. Again, depending on the culture one lives in, this may or may not be a practical goal. Some cultures conflate physical anatomy (especially genitalia) with gender identity, and people who do not conform to the performed identity associated with their genitals may suffer. 

Social scientist Judith Butler has written extensively on performative gender identities, emphasizing the distinction between biological sex and socially enacted gender. Many social scientists, like Butler, agree that gender exists as a constellation of many behaviors which serve to help humans categorize and negotiate our social interactions with one another.