Aaron Devor, Reflection on Becoming Members of Society
Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meanings of Gender is an article written by Aaron Devor. The author was born a female but chose to adopt the name Aaron and live as a man and discuss the challenges he faced in this process.
In this article Devor talks about gender identity and the differences between men and women. He believes that gender identity is not all about physical attributes. Gender identity is a lifelong process, and at some point, people and especially children should be able to define or state their identity based on what they see, based on what they learn and based on what they notice from those who around them. Devor suggests that society or parents should develop their children’s mind in order to help them understand gender. For example, parents can help their children identify gender by traits such as clothes or hairstyle. Aside from the parents, society in general can help a person define his or her gender identity.
In this informative article Devor mentions that “very young children may learn the words which describe their gender and be able to apply them to themselves appropriately.” (194). Based on what Devor said, children can slowly define their gender by using the language. For example, in any language some verbs are different between male and female, so when children start to realize these differences after a awhile they, would be able to define gender easily.
According to what Devor says in the following quote can be applied to people in Saudi Arabia in many ways: “very young children learn their culture’s social definition of gender and gender identity at the same time they learn what gender behaviors are appropriate for them.” (194). When a boy is born in Saudi Arabia for instance, at an early age the boy can go out with his mom to parks, parties, and malls. But beginning at age of five or six the child might go out with his father more than with his mom, and the reason for that is to learn more and more about his gender by the age of nine or ten, the child would then be able to better understand the difference between male and female. A girl for instance might go out more with her mom, and start helping her mom with house work, to be able to learn about these gender differences easier.
Devor also mentions that a lot of aboriginal traditional cultures have more than two gender categories to express various genders and this is true also in many languages that have masculine, feminine and neuter gender, like Romance languages. Also, when children learn about gender differences when they are small, these differences are based on the style or length of hair, or clothes, not on physical traits. This can make children believe that gender identity is not fixed and “that people may change their gender with a change in clothing, hair style, or activity.” (195)
Devor describes how children guess the gender of dolls based on their hair length and clothes, not on the physical attributes. As they become older, children learn to think more like the adult members of society, and see themselves like the adults do, based on physical attributes.
In the article, Devor states that children’s ideas about themselves and their identity are rooted in a deep need to understand the society around them. This means that if children don’t understand these expectations of society, they can not be truly a part of their society. This is why it is important for children to learn the differences early, to have a clear idea of their own identity. To be a part of society, a person has to have an image of himself or of herself as an individual, but also as a member of society. This is why Devor states that children learn at an early age that they see themselves in one way but society can see them in a different way.
The relationship between the identification as an individual, the “I”, and the identification in relation to others, the “me”, generates the complexity of a person. A person has to “monitor their own behavioral impulses and censor actions which might earn them social disapproval or scorn” (196) and this is why the “me” is important in the construction of the self. Of course, not everybody in society has the same importance for a person. For instance, we might behave differently with friends and family than with complete strangers. We change our behavior to make our friends and family proud or happy, but we don’t really give the same importance to the opinion of strangers. Family and friends, called by Devor “significant others” have a greater influence on our behavior and help build our identity as people.
Devor continues to talk about the difference in the roles of masculine and feminine characteristics. These differences help us separate the masculinity and the femininity. In general, the traditional masculine characteristics are usually categorized as being mainly dominance and tendency to violence and this is why it’s considered normal for boys to fight among themselves and be more dominant. Feminine characteristics are submission and a tendency to discuss and find a peaceful solution in case of conflict.
These definitions are considered by Devor not “as being in a hierarchical relationship to one another but rather as being two different approaches to the same question.” (196) For instance, in a difficult situation a boy might be more aggressive and try to solve the problem directly. A girl might choose to negotiate and discuss the problem and find a peaceful solution.
Discussing the activities and expressions used differently by the two genders, Devor reaches the conclusion that “many aspects of masculinity and femininity are the result, rather than the cause, of status inequalities.” (197) He suggests that inequality comes from the popular conception of the men and women roles and the differences between them. For instance, a man who does an activity generally performed by women might be laughed at by other men. Also, a woman who performs an activity that is considered to be masculine may be considered to do a poor job. A lot of activities are done equally well by men and women, but some activities are considered suitable only for men or only for women, depending on the case.
Also, some roles are considered to be something you are born with. For instance, a woman is naturally more gifted to care for children, because of her role as a mother. Devor also talks about the historical view that to be feminine is to be weak and needing protection from a man. This is not true in modern society, where it is proved that women can be strong and independent, but this is how society saw women in the past.
This way, Devor shows the reader that gender identity can be interpreted in different ways, not only through physical characteristics and historical role, and is a lifelong process.
Devor, Aaron. Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meanings of Gender.