The “standard” model (for gender)

Okay, I thought I should post this summary, its hardly going to be exact because I’m not brilliantly read in the area (I’ve picked it up piecemeal from reading the odd theory or activist book), but its got some useful concepts in that are handy for discussion (oh and yeah, I’m aware that a lot of these areas can overlap quite happily :) My view of the model starts from the “bottom” if you will and builds layers on “top” of the proceeding layers, although theres debate about how they interact, I think some people see them as more a floating cloud of qualities. This is a really fast write up so lacking citations, although those can be provided if required. And yes this was pretty much written up to back up my comments posted in response to a recent post over on But anyway, this is the “standardish” model for gender theorists as of about nowish probably, unless I’ve missed something:

Oh, and before I forget, time for the fun last minute disclaimer: It’s only a model and The map is not the territory while its not a bad theory its certainly not going to cover everyone all the time, especially if people think each of these things is static and unchanging.

Physiological Sex
So the physiological sex includes the Karyotype (chromosonal makeup), primary and secondary sexual characteristics, current hormonal make up, past hormonal make up, and a shed load of other factors (by many accounts 300+), it represents the physical bodily displayed sex. The typical broad categories are male, female and intersex.

Subconscious Sex
This is the idea that the brain has a subconscious knowledge and map of the physiological sex it is expecting, this includes primary and secondary sexual characteristics, as well as hormonal balance (interestingly in cis people treated for some cancers by giving them cross-sex hormone treatment they tend to become anxious, depressed and dysphoric about their bodies). Common categories include: male, female, masculine, feminine, none or mixes of the above.

Gender Identity
The core of the persons gender identity is what doesn’t really change despite all the layers above it, this tends to be their sense of self and is usually in line with the subconscious sex.

Gender Expression
The expression is how someone expresses their identity, through mannerisms, speech, body language, etc. This can include common things like masculine, feminine, or mixed expression.

Gender Presentation
The presentation is how someone presents themselves to the world, usually this will be in line with their identity to give everyone else the maximum number of cues to help them read the person as they wish to be read. Often Expression and Presentation layers are mixed up, and the overlap is pretty big. The classic example is “wearing a dress” which in modern western society is gendered female.

Gender Roles
The kind of behaviours and norms that a person engages in that are gendered, this includes a whole bunch of societally created bits and bobs.

Societal Gender Map
Sort of floating on top of this person-by-person model is the big mass of wibbly-wobbley-gendy-wendy stuff that is societies map of how gender “works” and is applied. This is all those expectations that people carry around about other people and how they should feel, look, act and interact. This is a place where intersectionality tends to happen – when being in a number of different categories interlock to produce better/worse outcomes than they would on their own i.e. white, cis, masculine, straight men tend to get more societal privilege, although stepping away from gender a number of factors such as social class, criminal status, culturally coded beauty standards, physical and mental health all have a big role to play.

Okay and stepping away from the model a bit, here’s some random aside.

Cis and Trans
Both from the prefixes normally used in organic chemistry where trans is “across” and cis is “on the same side”. Basically if you have a split in the expectations at one of the layers then you can probably call yourself trans of some kind (but this is a choice thats up to you), if all your layers line up and don’t cause you distress then you’re probably cis. For example if your physiological sex is “male” and your subconscious sex is “female” then chances are you’re trans, and if you presentation is “masculine” then you can be a trans female butch or tomboy, but expect flack from society.

Feminism and All This Stuff
Classically the targets for feminism have been starting at the top of the model and working back down as time goes on as far as I can tell, starting attacking the societal map and roles, and also presentation and expression (and also skipping identity to go to physiological sex and assert autonomy there). Recently third wave/trans-feminism is carrying things down to identity and subconscious sex.

Your sexuality is typically considered who you want to have sex with (or don’t want to have sex with), and often based on the kinsey scale of “heterosexual” to “homosexual”, needless to say this is typically based off your gender identity in relation to the other persons. But sexuality is really complicated as soon as you step off the typical way these layers all line up.

(edit: 2013-01-14) Passing and Reading
If you hang around trans people you’re likely to hear the phrase “pass” a lot, this is a phrase that has its origins in the US during the times of (worse) racial segregation where those members of various ethnic groups who could “pass” as, or appear to be and act “white” gained access to privilege in society. For a trans woman to “pass” is for observers to believe she is cis and hence allow her cis privilege. Passing is normally thought of as being a binary thing, you either pass or you fail, which of course isn’t true as its situationally dependant.

These days a lot of people are trying to replace the word pass with that of “read”, which changes the focus of interpreting gender presentation onto the observer, so that they may read you as female, or male or something else. The advantage of this is that (a) its not so binary dependant in terms of pass/fail and also (b) Someone can read you as a woman, without necessarily reading you as cis, which avoids that whole giant can of worms (see also Pass/Fail – Natalie Reed and Whipping Girl – Julie Serano).

Further reading – You may also like:
The Genderbread Person v2.0
Wikipedia’s Gender Category

Comments, corrections and better examples welcome :)

14 thoughts on “The “standard” model (for gender)

  1. bodybag_pilgrim

    The one thing I’d suggest is switching instances of ‘normal’ to ‘typical’ – in areas like this I get antsy about defining the most common as ‘normal’ as ‘abnormal’ carries negative connotation.

    1. mostlyfoo

      That’s more than slightly on purpose I think :) Being as people have been arguing about how to best define such things for… er… at least a few thousand years I hardly think I can sum it up being as I don’t really understand it myself. I tried to leave a comment but I think its big enough to turn into an entry.

      1. mr_jez

        I know it was deliberate, for goodness sake! It’s the elephant in the room! All gender models I’ve encountered are extrapolated from this idea of masculine and feminine categories, and yet people are deeply reticent to say anything about them, let alone in concrete terms. I don’t understand it, you don’t understand it, do we know anyone who does claim to understand it? I think this says a lot about the post-War construct of gender.

        1. mostlyfoo

          Well I think its more that most of the gender theory I read is post modern stuff edging into queer theory, so defining them more as a multitude of definitions :)

          There are plenty of people who are working on ideas of what is masculine/feminine but mostly I read about people discussing how little bits of their own versions of these ideals is being expressed, or mixing bits of them, so it kind of skews things in terms of what information I talk about I think, also as you say its interesting that people are reluctant to talk about them directly, instead preferring to infer.

          Interestingly there’s the theory of oppositional sexism that’s expressed by Julia Serano, suggesting that most sexism operates by creating an artificial binary and preferring one side over the other (and also asking people to pick a side and stick to it), defining them in opposition to the other. At the minute western culture largely seem to favour masculinity over femininity and hence behaviours that we read as masculine are preferred, so being physically able, emotionally stoic and communicating in a more direct blunter way. These are seen as “strong” and hence values we read as feminine are seen as “weak” and derided.

          Realistically all I can really offer is that there seem to be some values on a per-culture basis that may or may not be useful, I find it kind of interesting to read old stories that seem to have hints of what it is to be male or female, and what characteristics are good and bad, theres little bits scattered throughout the bits of the Edda and Mabinogian that I’ve read, which also give awesome insights into the fact that of course our values of what is each of these catagories changes (the emotional displays of many classic heros would be read these days as feminine and hence weak). As well as more modern sources like The Good Men Project (recently under fire), The Chap Movement and on the other side third and fourth wave Feminist and sex-positive kink bloggers give some hints as to their interpretations.

          Anyway this is getting kind of rambly :)

          1. mr_jez

            I guess there is a lot of material to natter about next time we have a chance to muse over a cuppa!

            In the interim, I have to comment on this…

            At the minute western culture largely seem to favour masculinity over femininity and hence behaviours that we read as masculine are preferred, so being physically able, emotionally stoic and communicating in a more direct blunter way. These are seen as “strong” and hence values we read as feminine are seen as “weak” and derided.

            I don’t associate being physically able with masculinity. Do you perhaps mean ‘physically strong’, or am I missing something here? More importantly, I certainly don’t see emotional stoicism and direct communication as currently preferred in current Western culture, quite the reverse. Recent decades have seen a huge shift towards the open expression of emotions, and towards the obfuscation of communication.

          2. mostlyfoo

            Sorry distracted by stuff and then failed to get back to this.

            Anyway, ‘physically strong’ didn’t quite cut it for me, although strength is something I think seen as masculine I think its subordinated to a more general quality of being able in general, not quite sure how to justify it with sensible argument but its been noted before apparently as well as with ideas of masculine stress, that one of the stressors is not prevailing in situations requiring bodily activity.

            While I agree that there is a currently (another, because its constant) cultural drift towards more emotionally accessible and indirect male communication I still get the impression that these things aren’t quite common place yet.

            On reflection this comment doesn’t really add much beyond a couple of cites and an agree to disagree sadly.

  2. impysh

    So, a little late here, but you may find this article on gender interesting – it is arguing against the idea of ‘abolishing gender’ by framing it as a colonising impulse. Along the way it goes through a quite nice explanation of gender as an epistemology- a way of knowing – and refers to different gendered divisions, such as hijra and two-spirit.

    1. mr_jez

      Interesting, thanks. I don’t really see gender as something that can be imposed or abolished, just a construct (or perhaps a range of related constructs) that some folk find appealing, useful and/or necessary to their journey; an epistemology in the sense that it is an orientation in relation to experience.

    2. mostlyfoo

      Indeed, I occasionally see it argued as a “We should totally abolish gender rarrrgh!” but personally I agree with the paragraph towards the end of that article:

      I’m up for hearing other concept of how we can overcome gender as an oppressive force, redefine it, change it, or morph our epistemological understanding of it. But I have a hard time supporting the abolition of gender within all epistemologies and frameworks. I’m not even sure if abolishing gender within a Western epistemology is possible, but working within my own understanding and cultural framework seems a far better approach than attempting to abolish a concept that I not only feel people identify with on a deep level within my own culture, but also exists in so many variant forms within and outside of Western culture, that attempting to abolish it means colonising the world with my understanding of gender first.

      Abolishing gender really seems like an impossible task, I mean how would you? And why would you? It seems like saying “Well this concept doesn’t work for me, so lets brainwash a few million people who don’t have a problem with it into agreeing that its silly”


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