The paper "The Cultural Relativity of Gender" is a good example of a literature review on gender and sexual studies. What people usually expect from men and women as their gender roles are not natural because their society passes these gender expectations on to them. As an answer to the first question, culture defines gender roles because gender norms and expectations are products of cultural values, attitudes, and practices regarding womanhood and manhood, and when these latter factors differ, gender roles vary as well. Gender becomes an issue, moreover, when it delimits or burdens individual desires and capabilities.
People are born into a society that molds gender roles. Ann Swidler (2001) argues that culture embodies the central force that shapes people’s attitudes and behaviors in her book, Talk Love: How Culture Matters. She states that “[c]ulture develops capacities for action…,” as it organizes how people make sense of and act on their social institutions and social roles and responsibilities (Swidler, 2001: 130). Many people think that gender is natural, and, in connection, the division of roles between men and women are natural. However, they overlook the power of culture in shaping their assumed-as-natural gender roles.
One way of understanding the significance of culture in shaping behaviors would be examining the concept of the American Dream. For those who believe in it, the American Dream is a path towards one’s identity. Michèle Lamont (2000: 129) describes the aspirations of the male working-class in The Dignity of Working Men: “By affirming their belief in the American Dream, they proclaim their identification with the scared values of their society and their full membership in it.” If people can grow up knowing that they have an American Dream, they can also grow up in a society that tells them their gender roles. These roles become so embedded in their mind that they may come to accept them as natural.
The reality is that gender is so culture-bound that, when culture differs, gender roles fluctuate as well. Lamont (2000) illustrates working-men who have aspirations for economic stability and good interpersonal relations. She does not even include here gender yet, which determines that men have the greatest burden in reaching a certain level of material comfort. Culture, however, is the one that dictates the roles and aspirations of both men and women. Other cultures, for instance, do not have the same gender roles. In the “Introduction” of the New Modern Chinese Women and Gender Politics: The Centennial of the End of the Qing Dynasty, Ya Chen Chen (2014: 2) illustrates early matriarchal societies in China, where women acted as the primary breadwinners, so they became the household heads. These women portrayed traditional Western masculine roles and responsibilities. In other words, they have reversed what some people know as the natural way of being a man and being a woman. The existence of societies where gender roles are reversed or varied prove that gender is not natural or normal, but a product of cultural values, beliefs, and practices.
Gender becomes an issue, moreover, when it delimits or strains individual capabilities. The Dignity of Working Men demonstrates the large social pressure for men to attain material wealth and social status. Men who do not prefer such a lifestyle would be branded as social outcasts. This reaction against social rebels is expected because as C. Wright Mills (1959) explains in The Sociological Imagination, “[a]n issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.” Those who believe in the normalcy of their gender codes would most likely resist and exclude those who threaten their values. What they fail to consider is that their gender roles are not inclusive of all gender variances, which constrains individual desires and abilities. Women who prefer to be masculine through being aggressive in their behaviors and competitive in the corporate world, for instance, have experienced being “looked down” for not fitting their gender. Thus, gender is not only culture-bound but can produce social oppression and inequality.
Culture shapes gender. Gender roles influence gender norms and expectations. Differences in culture result in gender variances. Hence, culture is supreme, unless the individual rejects it when he/she no longer wants to fit into it.