The Gendered and Gendering Institutions

When describing something that influences your gender, most people would assume that your “sex” or our biological identification given to us at birth would be the most definite source; however there are multiple factors and processes that contribute to one’s gender identity. The multitudes of institutions that assist in the socialization of an individual vary from person to person, but are all beneficial in creating a sense of gender. According to Michael Messner, there are two types of institutions, the gendered and the gendering.

The gendered institution is described by Messner as “an institution constructed by gender relations. As such, its structures and values (rules, formal organizations, sex composition, etc. ) reflect dominant conceptions of masculinity and femininity” (p. 133). The gendering institution can be described by Messner as an institution that constructs the current gender order and genders people’s bodies and minds, it creates the masculine and feminine identities.

These institutions are both detrimental to the construction of gender and personal identity; for me the involvement in CYO sports at a young age and the household in which I grew up (all girls) allowed me the freedom to develop an identity of my own outside the traditional masculine/feminine identity. As an 10 year old girl joining an all girls basketball team for the very first time, my parents thought this would be a helpful and constructive pastime for me to be involved with as a distraction from their divorce.

Already struggling with personal issues at home, this institution became a very prominent source of development. The rules and expectations of this particular institution were that if we could work as hard as the boys, we could eventually be as good as the boys. My team was strong and extremely competitive, and certain values were instilled in us by our coaches at a young age. Being resilient to injury, maintaining a competitive attitude against teammates and opponents, and not displaying emotion were all values that I had picked up from being involved with a contact sport.

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The idea that an all girls sport is incorporated with femininity simply because the team is made up of girls just does not ring true. Instead, we were seen as more masculine simply because of values that we had picked up from being involved in the sports complexity. I began placing importance on things such as working out and practicing basketball instead of playing with dolls and playing dress up, going against the traditional role of a female adolescent. From third grade, to eighth grade, I continued as an active participant in the institution.

Practice everyday after school for 5 days a week, with league games on the weekends; basketball slowly consumed my childhood. I believe that being involved in a contact sport as competitive and aggressive as basketball, I was gendered with a more masculine approach rather than a feminine one. Certain tenants of the masculine gender are traditionally associated with sports; like being strong, being competitive, and displaying emotions of anger only, most of these which I picked up in my 5 years of participating in sports.

While other girls my age were involved in activities like Girl Scouts, dance classes, and music lessons, I dedicated all my free time to my sport of choice. This was the most gendered institution I had participated in at such a young age and really shaped the differences between masculine girls and feminine girls. From here, I had a solid idea of which end of the spectrum I fell under and how although I may differ from the other girls, there was nothing wrong with me. I chose to work out while girls my age chose to shop at the malls, I wore a short, hassle free haircut, while others girls had hair down past their shoulders.

Christmas meant new equipment and sports apparel instead of the traditionally asked gifts of dolls and makeup. I still to this day see a reflection of that in my daily practices of gender. Jeans and t-shirts take priority over dresses and heels, I spend maximum of 30 minutes to get ready for the day while my extremely feminine roommates take a minimum of 2 hours. I still find myself watching and participating in sports, although not as passionately as I once had, but it is always in the back of my mind.

I believe that I relate easily to the male sex because I understand their topics of interests that a lot of other girls my age do not. While I do identify as a girl, my interests, style of dress, laid back attitude, and casual appearance seem to identify more with the masculine identity. Whether this is due to the institution of sports or biological genetics, is a completely different argument. While basketball had an extremely big influence on my gender identity, growing up in a house of predominantly women; myself, my mother, and my two sisters, had an extreme impact on me, and how I viewed femininity.

My Mother, extremely proud of us all, held no reservations, no expectations of gender, and was open to anything we wanted to try as children to establish an identity for ourselves; a true gift in which not everyone is exempt to. Growing up in a household that was flexible and fluid about personal identity and gender, I found this to be an extremely influential gendering institution. The expectations of the household were pretty fair and straightforward, the chores must be completed by Sunday nights, didn’t matter who did them as long as they got done.

Curfews never changed, if you were coming home it had to be by midnight and if you were staying at a friend’s, call to say goodnight. These simple yet constructive guidelines allowed a certain flexibility to make my own decisions yet always take responsibility for them, the freedom to deviate away from the rules was there but somehow I never wanted to. Living in a home of all girls, there was always a certain aspect of masculinity missing from the house; who will kill bugs, who will mow the lawn, change the light bulbs, unclog the toilets, fix the broken things?

These small but important tasks I began to take on for myself. Slowly but surely taking on the role of “the man of the house”. Despite the sense of togetherness in our home, I always felt like the odd man out, displaying predominantly masculine emotions towards personal issues while my mother and sisters had no problem letting their tears and emotions spill. To this day I do not feel fully comfortable with “opening up” or crying in general, I would rather let them sit in the pit of my stomach and shake it off and this is considered a trait of a male.

The lack of rules and rituals regarding feminine gender allowed me to fluctuate between the two until I found one I was comfortable with, a happy medium. Through my involvement in multiple structures and institutions, I believe that my gender came from a process of social agency, which is the ability of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices. Active participation in a gendered institution like Catholic Youth Organization Basketball, provided me with structure to be strong and confident even as a young girl.

Although it went against social norms of femininity, I knew from a very young age that I was not the typical girl. Sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum, was the gendering institution of my family life. I was taught to be a polite and kind member of society, with no labels or expectations of gender attached to it. My mother always told me that as long as I was kind and civil to people, it should not matter how I dress or whom I choose to love. From all this, as a 21 year old openly gay woman in an institution as big as a California University, I found that while the endered and the gendering institutions are incredibly important in developing an identity for ourselves, I believe that even without strict and precise constraints of gender, one may develop and begin to flourish on their own. References Lorber, Judith. 2009. “The Social Construction of Gender. ” Pp. 112-118 in Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology by Estelle Disch. Boston. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Messner, Michael. 2009. “Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities. ” Pp. 119-135 in Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology by Estelle Disch. Boston. McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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