Much stress there is a difference between gender and sex. And there certainly is. Sex is essentially biology, the male and female manifestations or to put it more plainly, the physical parts that come with being male or female. Gender, on the other hand, are the social norms, roles and ideals tied to one’s identity, usually ascribed on which of those physical parts you own. It’s a “social construct,” something that is not founded in the actual physical make-up.
William Shakespeare’s famous “transvestite drama,” Twelfth Night effectively exemplifies gender as a social construct. After all, the play is focused on, among other things, on a young female fraternal twin named Viola who decided to cross-dress to gain a job and entry into Duke Orsino’s court. After all, a girl’s gotta eat, and since she’s been separated from her believed-to-be-dead twin brother after a nasty shipwreck, she’s got to find work.
In Shakespeare’s time, cross-dressing (with the exception of on stage, as male actors played female characters all the time) was a big no-no. Women, of course, were expected to maintain and adopt strict norms regarding femininity, appearance and behavior. To willfully put on a pair of Elizabethan breeches when you’re supposed to be wearing pounds upon pounds of layered skirts was an absolute scandal.
Naturally, Shakespeare’s play was considered to be morally corrupt in this regard, portraying women departing from their strict gender roles. Yet, feminist scholars are quick to point out that it speaks to the lack of freedoms or agency women had at the time. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we see exactly how oppressive and damaging a patriarchal society can be for a woman’s psyche; Ophelia- who prescribed to prevalent notions of appropriate feminine behavior- found herself a pawn in the hands of the men in her life, felt trapped by her circumstances, and eventually committed suicide. Through time and literature, we have seen women who, unlike Ophelia, went against society’s expectations in order to assert their beliefs or claim a measure of the happiness they deserved and faced grave rejection, opposition and societal condemnation as a result of it. Sophocles’ Antigone, Henry Adam’s Esther and Kate Chopin’s Edna are all good examples of this.
In Shakespeare’s world, If a woman found herself to be without a living, she had to impersonate a man to survive (or get married, which also happens at the end of the play). More importantly however, the whole performance of Viola as the Justin Bieber-ish (ladies love him and “his” slightly androgynous physique) Cesario speaks to gender as a performance. After all, the actor who played Viola on stage during the time was a man, making the whole performance a man acting like a woman acting like a man. If that doesn’t bend gender, nothing will. Gender, therefore, becomes something that can be mimicked and mimicked well, especially in the case of Viola-as-Cesario, who is so skilled at acting like a man she happens to attract the attention of Olivia, the same countess the Duke is romantically pursuing.
This notion of gender as a performance is also present in another classic piece of literature nearly 400 years after Shakespeare penned Twelfth Night.
That piece of literature is Harper Lee’s famous classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. In the novel about Southern racism, morality and justice, we are guided by a tomboy Scout, who has grown up largely free from the female norms of propriety and politeness usually thrust upon typical Southern belles. She mostly has her father, the wise, just lawyer Atticus Finch, to thank for that. Scout is like Viola, in a sense, that both their behaviors defy what their sex demands their gender to be. Viola is supposed to be wearing women’s clothes and acting like a woman, as is Scout. Scout is also supposed to be polite, prim and proper-not the rough-and-tumble, pugnacious tree-climbing tween she is. She abhors femininity, in fact. It is something she chooses to object to, something she considers beneath her for most of the novel. Shakespeare’s Viola doesn’t come out so directly against gender or being a woman (it is the Elizabethan era, after all) but her choice to dress as a man suggests a rejection of the feminine norms and demands society has placed on her.
Both Viola’s and Scout’s rejection (however temporary or forced upon) of such norms clearly support this theory of gender as a performance. For both characters, it is something one can do or behave like and switch in an instant-unlike one’s sex, which nowadays can be changed but not as easily or painless. Consider Scout’s ruminations on how the town’s ladies-including her aunt-don a semblance of polite propriety and strength after the tragic death of the falsely convicted Tom. During that time, Scout mimics her Aunt Alexandra in assuming a polite decorum, offering mourning ladies food like a good hostess. She says: “After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.” Gender performance, indeed.