How is gender a social construct?
In sociology, there is a distinction between sex and gender even though these terms are used interchangeably in common language. Sex is a biological fact while gender has to do with how people of given sex are supposed to act according to a given culture’s set of values.
Sex is objective, not a social construct. It is a matter of anatomy. But gender has to do with what our society says men or women should be like. In the US, males and females have certain roles assigned to them by society. This is gender. Our society constructs masculinity and femininity in specific ways. Men are supposed to be tough. They are supposed to be less emotional. Women are supposed to be less aggressive and more sensitive. These are aspects of gender that our society has, in a sense, made up. They are not inherent to male and female biology.
Thus, gender is a social construct. It is a set of expectations that society devises and assigns to people on the basis of their sex.
To be born a man or a woman in any society is more than a simple biological fact. It is a biological fact with social implications. Women constitute a distinct social group, and the character of that group, long neglected by historians, has nothing to do with feminine "nature." "Gender" is the term now widely used to refer to those ways in which a culture reformulates what begins as a fact of nature. The biological sexes are redefined, represented, valued, and channeled into different roles in various culturally dependent ways. An American anthropologist has put it well: a "Sex/gender system [is] a set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality in to products of human activity, and in which there transformed sexual needs are met."
"Woman" is a creation of the masculine gaze. Before we can see how women thought of themselves and of their relations with men, we must find out how they were seen by men. The masculine conception of woman gave rise to idealizations and norms that strongly influenced the behavior of women, who lacked the power to challenge the male view of their sex.
Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, c. 1638.
Miss America 2002: Katie Harman
Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures, p.19: In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is style accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness....
/p. 20: An active/passive heterosexual division of labour has similarly controlled narrative structure. According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man's role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen. The man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle....As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look.
Excerpts from John Berger, Ways of Seeing