The word ‘gender’ is a polysemic and multidimensional term.

The term ‘gender’ as a grammatical expression goes back to the Latin ‘genus’ and the Greek ‘γένος’ (genos). Protagoras (Greek philosopher from the end of the 5th century BC) already used this term with a specific value, distinguishing it into:

ἄρρην (Latin ‘masculinum’) for the masculine gender.

ϑῆλυς (Latin ‘femininum’) for the feminine gender.

σκεῦος (literally ‘instrument’) for the neuter gender

Its complexity and versatility make it a conceptual tool of great relevance in contemporary debate.

In linguistics, the term gender refers to the classification of nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter. This distinction, although present in many languages, is not universal and varies greatly from one linguistic culture to another. For example, Indo-European languages such as German have a neuter gender, while other languages such as Hungarian do not distinguish grammatical genders at all. This use of the term ‘gender’ reflects how linguistic structures influence the perception of reality, highlighting how linguistic categorisation can shape thought.

In sociology and gender studies, the term acquires a profoundly social and political dimension. ‘Gender’ is distinguished from ‘sex’ to indicate not so much biological characteristics, but rather the roles, behaviours and social expectations constructed around male and female identities. Gender studies explore how these constructions influence power dynamics, access to resources and life opportunities. Queer theory, for example, challenges rigid binary categorisations of gender, proposing a more fluid and inclusive view of gender identities.

In biology, ‘gender’ is a term used in the scientific classification of organisms. It ranks above species and below family in the taxonomic hierarchy. A well-known example is the genus Homo, to which Homo sapiens, our species, belongs. This classification is fundamental for understanding the evolutionary relationships between organisms and for organising biodiversity in a systematic way.

In the field of the arts, the term genre refers to the categories that distinguish works of literature, film, music, etc. For example, the mystery novel, romantic comedy and drama are all distinct genres that follow specific conventions. These classifications help the audience to orientate themselves in the vast panorama of artistic productions, but can also limit artistic creativity and experimentation.

From a philosophical perspective, the concept of gender is explored in terms of identity, normativity and power. Contemporary philosophy distinguishes between ‘sex’, which refers to biological characteristics, and ‘gender’, which concerns socially constructed roles and identities. Simone de Beauvoir, in her famous book ‘The Second Sex’ (1949), states that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’, emphasising that gender is a social construction rather than an inevitable biological condition.

The performative theory of gender, proposed by philosopher Judith Butler, argues that gender is not a set of fixed characteristics, but a ‘performative act’. According to Butler, gender identities are constantly created and recreated through everyday acts, discourses and practices. This perspective highlights the fluidity and dynamism of gender, suggesting that gender identities are not static but can change over time and space.

Furthermore, the philosophy of gender explores the intersections of gender, power and social justice. Theorists such as Bell Hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw have highlighted how gender interacts with other identity categories, such as race, class and sexuality, to create unique experiences of oppression or privilege. This intersectional approach shows how gender cannot be understood in isolation, but must be analysed in the context of a wider network of social relations and power structures.

Michel Foucault, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, has explored the relationship between gender and power in depth in his work, particularly in the trilogy ‘History of Sexuality’. His analysis challenges traditional conceptions of sexuality and highlights how power permeates and structures sexual discourses and practices.

In the first volume, ‘The Will to Know’ (1976), Foucault examines the ‘history of sexuality’ in the West, proposing a new understanding of power. Contrary to the repressive view of power, which sees it as an entity that simply prohibits and suppresses, Foucault introduces the concept of ‘productive power’. This type of power does not merely deny or prohibit, but produces discourse, knowledge and truth. In other words, power not only prohibits certain sexual practices, but also creates the categories through which we understand and define sexuality.

Foucault argues that, since the 17th century, Western society has seen a proliferation of discourses on sexuality, not its repression. Institutions such as medicine, psychiatry, criminology and education have contributed to an increasing focus on sexual behaviour, classifying, analysing and regulating it. This process has been termed ‘biopolitics’, a term Foucault uses to describe power strategies that aim to control and manage human life on a biological level.

One of the central examples in Foucauldian analysis is ‘confession’, a mechanism through which sex has become an object of discourse and knowledge. In Western Christian societies, religious confession prompted individuals to verbalise their sexual desires, contributing to the creation of knowledge about sex that could be analysed and controlled by ecclesiastical and, later, secular authorities.

Foucault also explores the role of ‘surveillance’ in the control of sexuality. Surveillance is not just an activity of the authorities, but a process through which individuals internalise social norms and regulate themselves.

This concept ties in with his famous work on the ‘panopticon’, a prison model designed to create a sense of constant surveillance, which leads individuals to behave as if they are always being watched. Similarly, in modern society, surveillance of sexual practices leads individuals to conform to dominant norms on sexuality.

Another significant contribution of Foucault is his critique of the notion of fixed sexual identity. He argues that sexual identity categories, such as ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, are relatively recent social constructions that serve to organise and control populations. This idea has profoundly influenced gender studies and queer theory, promoting a more fluid and dynamic view of sexuality.

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