About Central

The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama is recognised as ‘world leading’ both for its arts research and as a provider of professional training for the creative industries. In 2016 Central’s research team continued their collaborative partnership with Tonic Theatre and embarked upon the second phase of Advance, building on the research established with Advance in 2014. Read more about Central’s role in Advance 2016.

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What do we mean by gender?

By Dr Lisa Woynarski, Advance Research Associate, Central’s Research Team

Advance is about supporting the UK performing arts sector in achieving gender equality. But what do we mean by gender? Although this may seem like a straightforward question with a relatively simple answer, there is a long history of trying to understand what gender is and how we express it and interact with it.

‘Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.’
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990, p. 33

Judith Butler, a prominent gender theorist, writes about gender as a performance in Gender Trouble. Gender is different to sex, and is not essential or biologically innate. Gender is reproduced through the repetition of performative acts and codes at both an unconscious and conscious level. These acts are normalised and therefore can appear ‘natural’ but are actually culturally learned from the time a baby is born. They form the stereotypical qualities often associated with particular gender roles.

  • Gender is the social construction of identity often assumed to be based on biological sex and tends to exaggerate biological differences. However, gender and biological sex are not necessarily linked. Gender is often designated as man/women but also includes a whole spectrum from gender non-conforming to gender queer to transgender and more.
  • Sex is often a biological categorisation assigned at birth based on reproductive potential and is frequently designated as male or female.
  • So-called masculine or feminine qualities are not innate or dependent on biological sex. I.e. people assigned the biological sex ‘male’ at birth, does not necessarily mean they will exhibit masculine qualities.
  • Gender then is not what you are or what you have, but rather what you do – or how you perform – at different times and in different contexts.

“Everyone performs or expresses gender in some way… These ideas of gender inform Advance and open up a space for the possibility of change.”

Everyone performs or expresses gender in some way – whether they perform ‘traditional’ gender roles or not – so the question becomes what form that performance will take (not whether or not to do it). Butler writes that a person can choose their own gender identity because gender is constructed through performative acts. Gender is contextual, fluid and variable. Rather than linking biological sex to gendered bodies, which is then often linked to sexual desire, gender becomes flexible.

  • Gender is a spectrum rather than a binary (man/woman).
  • For example, transgender people perform or express a gender identity different than the one associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Cisgender people perform or identify with the same gender they were assigned at birth.
  • There are also people who identify and express themselves as non-gender (no gender), non-binary (not man or woman), gender neutral, gender queer or gender non-conforming.
  • This spectrum of gender is known as gender-expansive and is also fluid as people seek out identities, gender performances and roles that represent their individualities and that are not socially constructed in ‘traditional’ or binary ways.
  • Gender-expansive people often face different forms of discrimination or inequalities than cisgender people.

These ideas of gender inform Advance and open up a space for the possibility of change. Thinking of the performance of gender means there is room to adapt, subvert and reject gender differences we have been socialised to adhere to. This may be one way of addressing the material inequalities based on gender and the reductive stereotypes associated with all genders. A statement like ‘women express their emotions more freely than men’ is not a statement about an essential quality innate to women, it is a generalisation about the way women and men have been socialised and have learned different behaviours, often on an unconscious level. When we refer to gender equality in the Advance context, we mean the ability to access careers and opportunities free from discrimination, oppression or bias (unconscious or not) based on gender identity or expression.

Lisa Woynarski
Advance Research Associate

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble, New York, Routledge.

+ Read Lisa Woynarski’s article “What is Intersectionality?”
+ Read about Central’s role in Advance 2016