In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “most of the laws, norms, rights, and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” Throughout human societies, imagined orders and hierarchies define the way that humans interact and relate to one another. These hierarchies matter in terms of how people understand their role in the world, understand what is good and evil, and understand how they should behave. However, these hierarchies are not necessarily grounded in any scientific fact or objective reality. They are often influenced by chance historical events and myths that societies adopt as they develop. Some myths are helpful for development. Some myths lose their grip and cease to function in a helpful way over time. And other myths never manage to get beyond a fringe group.
Often, the status quo that is produced by chance events and myths become entrenched and defended as natural. Those who stand to benefit from the status quo, and those who do not wish to believe that their lives are driven by myths, will argue that biology, economy, or other seemingly objective sciences inevitably produced the society and culture in which they live. But this is a mistake. We can see that throughout time and space human societies have differed in many important ways. There is far more variation possible than we often recognize. “Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities,” writes Harari. Whatever organization we choose to adopt, for whatever reason we choose to adopt such organization, can be defended as natural. Harari continues, “whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
This can be seen in the ways in which cultures and societies relate to concepts of gender. Biology is often used to define men and women as purely XY and XX, as having male anatomy and female anatomy, and as occupying certain roles that are determined and entirely influenced by biology. But if Harari’s quote from earlier is correct, much of the way we think about masculinity, femininity, and gender is not based in biology, but in human constructs. Perhaps our sex chromosomes and the biological differences that our genes reliably produce (in most individuals) is the basis for the differences we see in how we understand gender, but that doesn’t explain why the picture of manliness changes so much throughout time or why so many people don’t seem to fit with the dominant gender roles of any given period.
Harari contrasts a picture of King Louis XIV of France with a picture of Barack Obama. Both men are in poses of masculine domination, but the pictures could not be more different in how they demonstrate masculinity. King Louis XIV is wearing tights, has a long flowing wig, is dressed in something like a ball gown, and is even wearing make-up and high heeled shoes. President Obama, on the other hand, is wearing a dark relatively fitted suite. He has little jewelry on and the only thing with any shine are his polished black dress shoes. He sits on the desk in the oval office with a confident, yet calm look on his face. The masculinity presented in each photo could hardly be more different.
Our ideas about gender are not set in stone and constantly change and evolve. Technology, global relationships, and the type of labor that is rewarded in society can all influence what is manly, what is feminine, and what is acceptable within both spaces. Throughout history the way masculinity and femininity have been defined has hardly been stable, and has hardly been fair. “Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal,” Harari writes to describe the inequalities that women have faced throughout much of history. There is no reason this inequality has to exist. It is not truly biologically based, though men and women typically do have predictable biological differences, and there is no reason we have to consider such discrimination natural. The biological possibilities of he and she are greater than what we usually realize and accept.