Origin and Definition

he current form of the word gender can be traced back to late Middle English (1300-50), which adopted the word gendre from Old French.[1] Gendre is based on the Latin term genus, meaning “birth,” “family,” or “nation.”[2] The evolved form gender has been used since the fourteenth century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of nouns and pronouns considered feminine, masculine, or neuter.[3] This grammatical function of gender is still in current use; for instance, the French language differs feminine nouns from masculine by using either a la or le before each. During the fourteenth century,gender came to mean a class of things that was distinct due to shared characteristics. It is at this time that the word began to refer to the social and cultural differences between sexes. At the time, however, that definition wasn’t quite as popular.[4] Throughout the centuries, this definition has finally gained prominence and is the most common meaning for gender today. In other words, the modern definition of gender refers to the categorization of males and females based on the outward manifestation of sex through actions, characteristics, and societal roles.[5]

Sex v. Gender

Although scholars and dictionaries assert that gender means “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”,[6] people often confuse the term gender with the term sex. They make the understandable mistake of using them interchangeably, when in reality, the two terms have very different definitions. While gender is based on social and cultural ideas, sex, on the other hand, depends on the distinct biological differences between males and females.[7] For example, when we say a child’s gender is female, that can mean, in her society, that she wears dresses, plays with dolls, and is more prone to crying than males. But when we say a child’s sex is female, that means that biologically, she holds all the parts and aspects of a female, such as having a uterus and two X chromosomes. For the most part, it is acceptable to use gender and sex interchangeably in informal speech (most people wouldn’t notice the difference), but in written and formal contexts, it is always best to distinguish them by their correct definitions.

Definition is Contingent

Even defining gender as the roles attributed to different sexes does not create a concrete understanding of what distinguishes one gender from another. For instance, to say that a person’s gender is male if a person is attracted to women does not accurately characterize everyone with male sexual organs as masculine, as there are many people with male sexual organs who are also attracted to those with male sexual organs. It is this dependency on time and culture with regards to the definition that mainly affects young adult literature.

The American Psychological Association states that “gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.”[8] As this definition suggests, what defines masculinity and femininity is contingent on the culture. For instance, in America, a large muscled person is considered masculine (regardless of their sex being male or female). However, in Japan, masculinity is defined by daintiness and flexibility.[9] This example demonstrates that how we perceive gender depends on what culture we come from. Therefore, a novel written in Japan will characterize gender differently than one published in America.

Likewise, what defines gender is also contingent on time. For example, European men of the 17th century wore heels, wigs, makeup, and jewelry.[10] This was the height of masculinity because it demonstrated their wealth. However, today in the 21st century, if a man were to wear heels, a wig, makeup, and jewelry, he would be considered feminine. Therefore, the ways in which gender is defined depends on time as well as culture. This dependence on time is apparent in young adult literature. For example, the portrayal of females in Louisa May Alcott’s mid-19th-century young adult book, Little Women,[11] is drastically different from modern literary portrayals of females. Alcott’s novel is fraught with definitions of being a “lady,” which are constantly contested by the protagonist, Jo March, who believes that she should have been born a boy. In fact, her mother at times refers to her as “my boy Jo,” and her male friend often calls her “my dear fellow.” They believe she is masculine because she is opinionated, jolly, and blunt. By modern standards, being characterized as opinionated, jolly, and blunt would not distinguish Jo as masculine, as they did in Alcott’s time. Today, females are actually stereotyped as an opinionated sex, and if they’re jolly and blunt, no one will say they’re masculine. Thus, we see that the malleable nature of gender is apparent through examining its handling in young adult literature.

Some of the issues about gender in young adult literature arise from the fact that gender is so often not discussed explicitly. Instead, the gender constructions portrayed in young adult novels are considered inherent. Laura M. Robinson, a critic of young adult literature, stated, “Gender remains an implicit assumption, creating an implicit ideology that is . . . extremely powerful because it presents specific gender roles as simply the way things are, as common sense, and thus encourages the reader to accept them uncritically.”[12] There are ways that this portrayal can reinforce positive characteristics, but it can also reinforce or enforce negative ones as well. The issue at hand isn’t necessarily the attributes themselves but the way that the literature treats them as inherent. Even so, books like Murdock’s Dairy Queen and Beam’s I Am J are starting to change that problem, making gender a more prominent and directly addressed topic in young adult literature.

Examples: Young Adult Literature about Gender

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce[13]

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan[14]

Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford[15]

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock[16]

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman[17]

I Am J by Cris Beam[18]

Luna by Julie Anne Peters[19]

The Maze Runner by James Dashner[20]

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides[21]

Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach[22]

Works Cited

  1. Jump up “Gender.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  2. Jump up “Gender.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  3. Jump up “Gender.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  4. Jump up “Gender.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  5. Jump up “Gender.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  6. Jump up “Gender.” Merriam-Webster. Springfield: 2015.
  7. Jump up “Sex.” Merriam-Webster. Springfield: 2015.
  8. Jump up “Definition of Terms: Sex, Gender, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation.” The Guidelines of Psychological Practice (2011): 18-20. American Psychological Association, Feb. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
  9. Jump up Cochran, Susan Sims, “Exploring Masculinities in the United States and Japan” (2009). Dissertations, Theses and Capstone Projects. Paper 53.
  10. Jump up “Seventeenth-Century Clothing.” Encyclopedia of Fashion. Advameg Inc., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.
  11. Jump up Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. Print.
  12. Jump up Robinson, Laura M. “Girlness and guyness: gender trouble in young adult literature.” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 1.1 (2009): 203+.Literature Resource Center. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.
  13. Jump up Pierce, Tamora. Alanna: The First Adventure. New York: Simon Pulse, 1983. Print.
  14. Jump up Levithan, David. Boy Meets Boy. New York: Ember, 2003. Print.
  15. Jump up Crawford, Brent. Carter Finally Gets It. New York: Hyperion Books, 2009. Print.
  16. Jump up Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Dairy Queen. New York: Graphia, 2006. Print.
  17. Jump up Goodman, Alison. Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.
  18. Jump up Beam, Cris. I Am J. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.
  19. Jump up Peters, Julie Anne. Luna. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004. Print.
  20. Jump up Dashner, James. The Maze Runner. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009. Print.
  21. Jump up Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002. Print.
  22. Jump up Herbach, Geoff. Stupid Fast. Naperville: Sourcebooks Fire, 2011. Print.