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Engendering Sympathy: Why care about Gender Studies?

Gender is all around us—from the clothes we wear to the institutions we inhabit. Individuals are all seen as having a gender and are thrust into this system that dictates everything from one’s appearance to their behavior. This on its own is reason enough to warrant the study of gender, to see how it is given—or not given shape—how it produces us, and how society influences it.

Sex versus gender

To first discuss gender, its less ambiguous cousin, sex, must be discussed as well. In normal conversations, the two tend to be used interchangeably, whether due to pleasantries or convention. The distinction between the two, however, is extremely important.

Dr. Johann Vladimir Espiritu, an Associate Professor from De La Salle University’s Literature Department who teaches courses on literature; art appreciation; and gender and queer studies, says, “Gender is a social construct…and it changes or moves along with time and sociopolitical contexts. David Halperin, in his article ‘Is There a History of Sexuality?’ states that while sex is non-historical—because it has always existed along strictly defined biological categories—gender is not.”

Sex and gender are both intimately tied to a person’s identity; not belonging to a privileged position in either tends to negatively affect one’s prospects in things ranging from their wage to their safety. Sex involves chromosomes and an individual’s genetic predispositions toward certain medical conditions, while gender is a more fluid topic for it encompasses the way individuals present themselves, the ways by which they identify themselves along various identity spectra, and the way in whichinteract and negotiate with social norms surrounding gender.

Both also make for polarizing topics. A casual glance at social media shows how one’s gender identity or their sexuality can clash with the norms held by society. Popular discourse about these topics are intense and passionate, but just talking about it uncritically isn’t enough. To get somewhere, we need a starting point from which we can educate ourselves. This is where gender studies steps in.

Gender studies

Gender studies has a wide range of definitions that have a variety of nuances according to certain institutions. For instance, Whitman College defines gender studies courses as courses that “use the concept of gender to analyze a wide range of disciplines.” Its conceptual roots can be found in critical theory, sociology, and political science, as well as having precursors in early feminist texts, such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft and The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.

“Gender Studies is the perfect avenue through which one can learn about SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression),” Espiritu says, elaborating on how he teaches the course in the University. “I expand the course a bit to also talk about feminist and queer studies so there’s a lot of focus on LGBTQ+ criticism and literature.” Gender studies takes a critical look at how each person interacts with and performs their gender, analyzing the inequalities and imbalances between the sexes and the genders.

Gender studies is far from an ivory tower discipline. Studying a core part of human identity provides a practical framework on how to treat diverse identities from diverse cultures. “We need this course so we can understand one another, so we’d know that it’s not right to disapprove of someone’s identity just because it’s different from yours,” explains Espiritu as he emphasizes the necessity for respect and understanding in today’s society. “We need this course because in it, we further realize that it is our obligation to be kind to people of all identities.”

An example of gender studies being performed can be seen in the essay Queering Rodrigo Duterte, from the anthology A Duterte Reader. In it, John Andrew Evangelista uses the lens of gender studies to analyze contemporary political discourse, particularly the actions of the President. According to Evangelista, Duterte appeals to the masses by performing roles of masculinity and appearing bold and brash through his words, leading to him being relatable to the masses. In the same essay, Evangelista goes on to explain that for women like Sen. Pia Cayetano and CEO of the Mindanao Commission on Women Irene Santiago, his behavior makes them believe that he is genuine in his efforts to protect the rights of women.

Gender studies gives us the lens through which we can see how dominant systems shape our political structures, our popular discourses, and our collective conduct.

A more equitable future for all

Understanding how gender works can offer a different perspective on aspects of our lives that are normally taken for granted. Gender studies is vital in helping understand how to make a more equitable society for all. “We are laden with several double standards,” Espiritu explains. “The Philippines is still a highly patriarchal country that, over the generations, has recently learned to be more tolerating of women and the LGBTQ+ community, but there’s no denying that the straight male figure still holds the most unquestioned position and privilege in our social structure.”

To study and understand gender is not to place one gender above the other, or to prioritize a certain group above everyone else. It means questioning the social structures we take for granted and asking who they affect and how they affect them, as well as looking at the hidden structures that shape our society, asking if there’s any way to make things more fair, more just, and more impartial.

The world is slowly but surely inching toward a more balanced stance on gender. But until we get there, there’s no room to rest and be silent. As Espiritu succinctly puts it, “We need to keep repeating the urgent need for kindness and acceptance, and we need to keep repeating that as long as equality isn’t existent, there’s really no stopping.”

Blair Clemente

By Blair Clemente

Emily Lim

By Emily Lim

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