Sex and Gender Roles, Critiques of




Robinson, Kathryn

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John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


The term “sex roles” refers to the social functions that are ascribed to individuals based on their sex. Sex roles was initially the dominant paradigm to explain sexual inequality in second-wave feminism; its feminist scholarship was role theory. Role theory focused on practices of socialization into male and female roles, for example, different expectations and behaviors toward male and female infants. Both women’s liberation and the burgeoning women’s scholarship inspired by the movement sought to challenge dominant assumptions of the “naturalness” of sexual inequality as merely expressions of biological difference. The oft-quoted statement from Simone de Beauvoir that “one is not born, but becomes a woman” was the foundation text of this period ([1949] 1953, 249). The positive contribution of role theory was the growing awareness of diversity in male and female roles across cultures and historical periods and the possibilities for changing roles and expectations. Anthropologist Margaret Mead had foreshadowed the sex-roles approach in her influential book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies ([1935] 1959). Although she did not use the terminology of sex roles, her idea of socialized sex temperament that differed and contrasted between these societies rejected the “naturalness” of socially expressed sex differences and laid the ground for the idea that differential male and female behavior was socially and culturally constructed. But role theory emphasized bimorphic sex differences, neglecting both similarities between the supposedly divergent sexes and diversity within sex categories. In rejecting the determining power of biological difference, it also ran up against the question of what basis individuals were sorted into one category and not the other. And the implicit answer was the ontology of biological sex difference.






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The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology

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