The differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and the issues that surround them are found at the heart of most of the key features of Cultural Studies – representation, identity & subjectivity, ideology, power and social construction to name a few.
The sex/gender distinction is widely used among cultural theorists and post-feminists as it is considered a useful analytical tool for studying the differences and / or similarities between men and woman when looking at such key features, with Evans suggesting that ‘the thesis that gender politics were absolutely central to the very project of representation’ (Evans, 1997:72: / Cultural Studies Theory and Practice: Barker,C.2006, p. 307).
Initially the differences between gender and sex lie in the academic interpretation of their meanings – Barker suggests that ‘sex’ refers to the ‘biology of the body’ the physical markers that distinguish male from female, while ‘gender’ concerns ‘the cultural assumptions and practices which govern the social construction of men, women and their social relations. ‘ (Barker, C. 2006, p. 440).
He goes on to say that ‘Gender is a matter of how men and women are represented and performed’ this would suggest that gendered differences – those that society associates with being masculine and feminine – have no necessary biological component, rather it is socially agreed upon and constructed conduct and the meanings that cultures assign to that conduct, that make up the area of gendered difference.
This is very relevant to Cultural Studies as it concerns representation within society and identity and presents the issue of whether it is the biological attributes of sex that defines the individual as male or female or the cultural influences of society and gender. Definitions and ideas of gender and sex and what it is to be a man or a woman, like identity and nationality, is unstable and ever-changing.
Cultural Studies is concerned with the topic as it is constantly being re-shaped and culturally constructed by ideas of social identity and nationality with Barker commenting that ‘what is means to be gendered remains a cultural question’ (Barker, C. 2006 p. 284). Many Cultural Studies writers such as Butler and Nicolson reject essentialism theories / evidence that state there is an inherent relationship between gender and sex, arguing that they are ‘social and cultural constructions that are not to be explained in terms of biology or to be reduced to functions of capitalism’ (Barker ,C. 2006 p.282)
Barker maintains this argument by commenting ‘the influence of biology has been rejected in favour of understanding masculinity and femininity as cultural constructions’. (Barker, C. 2006, p. 284) Theorists such as Moira Gatens, which emphasise cultural construction and socialization processes, consider the body to be passive and that the social characteristics of the sexes are seen as being the same for boys and girls at birth – it is then the social constructs of male and female characters that influence individuals as they grow up – contributing to the representation and behaviour of men and women.