This essay is about gender. Specifically, it is an attempt to reconcile a two different perspectives on gender, which in our current cultural moment seem to be in unnecessary conflict. It is not particularly about sexual orientation, which in the context of this essay is seen as quite independent.
Note: as it turns out, much of this discussion evokes the work of author and spiritual teacher David Deida, in particular his The Way of the Superior Man, which attempts to lay out a vision of an essentialist masculinity without precluding personal gender expressions. I had not read this book when I wrote this.
I. The Gender Binary
We often hear about a “gender binary”, in which there is Female, and there is Male, and every individual is one or the other. In terms of biological sex, for at least 98% of the population, this is generally true. In terms of gender (an individual’s self-identification with the social roles associated with the sexes), we run into difficulties.
There is a large social pressure for individuals to assume one of two gender roles: that of “male”, and that of “female”. In many circles it strongly preferred, if not outright required, that the individual assume the gender role associated with their biological sex.
While many in our society seem content to assume their expected gender roles, this setup leads to a number of problems:
- Traditional gender roles are not equal in terms of social prestige and influence
- Many individuals feel misaligned with the roles expected of them
In practice, the first problem leads to the feminist movement for equal treatment under the law and opportunity in myriad social spheres (work, home, public life, and so on). The second leads to LGBTQ activism and agitation for the same.
In times past, those who felt out-of-place within that binary were seen as having mental issues; those days are fortunately long past and the educated opinion (at least among social progressives) is unanimous in condemning the gender binary as a poor model of the human experience.
It is worth noting also that while the cultural conversation of the last few decades has been focused on the ways that binary gender expectations harm women and queers, we are lately coming to realize the ways in which gender expectations have been harming men, for whom rigid expectations often lead to emotional isolation, depression, and suicide.
II. Gender Essentialism and the Divine
The idea of “gender essentialism” is that there are certain innate characteristics of “males” and “females”, captured by statements such as “men are more assertive” and “women are more nurturing”. While pervasive in mainstream culture, gender essentialist thinking has been criticized among progressives and feminist thinkers going back to Simone de Beauvoir, mainly on the grounds that it perpetuates harmful binary-based stereotypes and denies individuals (primarily women) their right to self-determination.
Curiously, many who embrace “new age” spiritual practices (often also progressives) often appeal to the idea of the “Divine Feminine” and the “Divine Masculine” energies, which those communities conceive as archetypes pointing to very same gender essentialist ideas they seem to reject. Each energy is associated with some traditionally gendered traits, such as wisdom, intuition, and empathy for the feminine and intelligence, logic, and action for the masculine. In this more abstracted context, the Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine are seen as primal energies which, in order to achieve a more harmonious society, must be understood separately and then brought together into a balance.
An important aspect of this understanding is that these energies are opposing, in that no person or situation can contain both of them entirely. To embody more of the feminine essence is to embody less of the masculine, at least in that moment. This is similar to the way in which we work to balance “freedom” and “security” in society: we would like to have aspects of both, but since more of one means less of the other, we accept that we cannot have both completely in every situation.
Here we find our puzzle: we reject gender essentialism when applied to individuals, but embrace them when posed as spiritual abstractions.
What can we make of this? One wrong answer is to take the “social construct” argument to the logical conclusion and conclude that there is no “male” and “female” and that every individual has a wholly unique gender expression beyond description, comprehension, and categorization. Our minds can understand things only in terms of other things, and thus this reasoning is solipsistic, destructive, and atomizing.
Another wrong answer is to condemn the new age philosophy for being insufficiently woke. It is not an accident that the idea of complementary opposites appears again, and again, and again in our spirituality and our philosophy. If these ideas continue to appear, it is because they provide a language for describing a deep and constant aspects of human experience.
III. The Gender Dialectic
This essay’s thesis is (perhaps unsurprisingly, for anyone familiar with this blog) to suggest that gender, instead of existing as a discrete binary, exists instead as a dialectic between two complementary but distinct opposites. What we would like to suggest is the (far from novel idea) that while we can discuss the “masculine” and “feminine” as abstractions (which are “real” in that they capture universal shared experiences), every individual exists as a composition of these essential energies.
For example, a biological male could have a strong masculine energy and a weaker feminine energy. Or, he could have a strong feminine energy and a weaker masculine. Or he could have them in something closer to a balance. The same is true for biological females.
Creating the cultural room for individuals to experience their gender as a unique mix of “essential” energies allows us to have our cake and eat it to: we can acknowledge the cultural reality (or even the necessity) of gender archetypes while giving individuals the freedom to exist as they are.
A biological female who is dominant and assertive? Great.
A biological male who is soft-spoken and empathetic? Carry on.
There is no conflict between the individual’s gender expression and the essential gender binary, as long as we realize that every individual is a mixture of these essential energies. Individuals will generally be attracted to those whose energies are complementary: for someone with a strong masculine energy, they will likely prefer someone with a strong feminine energy, and vice versa. Someone with a more balanced energy will likely click with someone else who is fairly balanced. This makes sense: recall that the idea of gender energies is that they ultimately must be brought into balance. A strong masculine would balanced with a strong feminine, while a close balance would need another close balance.
It’s an open question as to whether biological males have on average stronger masculine energies (the same for biological females), although it would make a lot of sense if this were the case, due to relative presence of sex hormones during development. The technical term for this would be “bimodal distribution” of gender energy. I was going to mock up an image for this but then I found one in literally a circa-2005 biology textbook . Here, we’ll take the the x-axis as the mix of essentialist psychic qualities, and the y-axis as the frequency of that mix.
A related open question is whether it is possible to lean into an energy, and enhance its expression in a person. This is ultimately a re-expression of the classic “nature vs. nurture” debate, and so the answer is most likely yes… to an extent. Casting our eye at current events, we can interpret the ascendence of Jordan Peterson in part as a reaction to a widespread (and currently unmet) male desire for a guide through this process.
The point of this essay was to argue that there is no inherent conflict between essentialist ideals of “masculine” and “feminine” with the complex individual experience of gender.
One main takeaway from this is that it is wholly inappropriate to draw any conclusions about someone based on their biological sex. Even if some “essentialist” characteristics legitimately affect suitability for different roles in society (empathy, dominance, etc), these characteristics can be possessed by those of either sex. It is of the utmost importance to give individuals every chance to self-determine.
Another main takeaway is that there is no “right” or “wrong” gender composition; but your particular composition will likely determine what types of things you might enjoy and who could be a good partner for you. In the words of the oracle of Delphi, know thyself. The quicker you find your way to your place and your people, the happier everyone will be. That said, we are constantly in flux, and it is likely possible to move, intentionally or not, through the dialectic of gender, until we find ourselves in a place of ease.
Of course, this simple, schematic view is a gross simplification of the myriad dynamics in play in individual gender and in interpersonal relationships. We are more than a point on a line, and even accepting the existence of abstract gender “energies” only leads to more questions about what exactly they represent and how they interact. There is more to people than their composition of essentialist energies, and more to relationships than their alignment. The purpose of this essay was to argue for moving past the “binary or nothing” attitude and embracing the idea of gender as mixture. One one hand, it may seem like this argument is too trivial or simplistic to even be worth making; yet, looking out at the ongoing discussions about gender today, and especially our struggles to describe a new masculinity in a world of liberated women, it seems like it may yet be useful.