“Masculinity” and “femininity” are terms which encompass broad categories of behaviour deemed appropriate for and typical of those categorised as male and female respectively. These definitions are somewhat recursive as masculinity is defined as behaviour typical of males (or more specifically, men) and men are then expected to behave in masculine ways. The terms are also defined in opposition to each other, in that masculinity is whatever femininity is not, and therefore men are expected to behave in “not-feminine” ways. But neither exists as an objective standard outside of society and “vary across cultures and change over time” (Cameron 2007: 23); “Manhood does not bubble up to consciousness from our biological makeup; it is created in culture” (Kimmel 2001: 267).
One example of this is the prevailing idea that pink is a feminine or girly colour, while blue is more appropriate for boys. This seems obvious and self-evident to many people today but “at one point, pink was considered more of a boy's color, as a watered-down, bold, dramatic red … blue was considered more for girls” (Frassanito and Pettorini 2008: 881).
But such is the power of this cultural indoctrination in the modern world that explanations for it have been advanced on the basis of evolutionary biology; “the hunter-gatherer theory proposes that female brains should be specialized for gathering-related tasks … to facilitate the identification of ripe, yellow fruit or edible red leaves” (Frassanito and Pettorini 2008: 882). If this were sufficient explanation for the modern gender bias in colour preference then its relatively recent manifestation would make no sense, yet evolutionary psychologists continue to propose it.
Ryan and Jethá (2010: 32) propose that such theories, based on modern social facts, “[tend] to generate narratives closer to self-justifying myth than to science [and] project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past”, making the unfounded assumption that contemporary cultural norms are in fact culturally neutral and the result of objective biological facts.
If male and female were clearly delineated categories into which every person fit without exception or ambiguity and masculinity and femininity were merely the unavoidable result of being male or female then there would be no variation across cultures and time periods and the reasons proposed by evolutionary psychologists would be uncontroversial and undisputed. As this is clearly not the case, the truth must be more complicated.
Cameron, Deborah (2007) The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kimmel, Michael (2001) 'Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity', pp. 266-287 in S. Whitehead and F. Barrett, The Masculinities Reader. Maldon: Polity Press.
Frassanito, Paolo and Benedetta Pettorini (2008) 'Pink and Blue: The Color of Gender' in Childs Nervous System 24 (8): 881-882.
Ryan, Christopher and Cacilda Jethá (2010) Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Harper.