I was riding the bus today thinking about a paper I’m writing and John McCain (two totally unrelated topics), and it occurred to me that a good way to explain gender as a “social construction” is to think of John McCain and his reputation as a maverick. To wit:
As many of you probably know, John McCain recently asked Barack Obama to postpone the presidential debate that was to be held yesterday so that he could travel to Washington to help fix the economy, as if he had any influence on the standing committee that was actually debating the Paulson bill. Coincidentally (?), the day before that happened, Sarah Palin was interviewed by Katie Couric about, among other things, the $700 billion bailout proposal. When Couric asked Palin to defend her statement that “John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business,” despite his having a thirty-something year record of opposing governmental regulation of Wall Street, Palin replied, “Well, he’s…known as the maverick” *shrug*.
Palin’s use of mcCain’s maverickness is what’s at issue here. McCain doesn’t do things because he’s a maverick, he is known as a maverick because he does things. He got his reputation as a maverick because of his tendency to do things that are unpredictable based on his past behavour. Palin’s use of his maverickness to explain his behaviour is a good example of how social constructions that are posited as causal forces help to make the world easily intelligible. By appealing to McCain’s being a maverick in order to explain his behaviour, which is to say, by positing his maverickness as prior to his behaviour, rather than subsequent to it, Palin (unconsciously) precluded the need to interrogate the actual reasons that McCain was flip-flopping on the economy, or failing that, explain her inability to comprehend his platform. McCain is a maverick, and mavericks do things that are unpredictable. It’s what mavericks do. It all makes perfect sense.
But McCain’s being a maverick doesn’t explain his behaviour, it’s a result of his behaviour. Gender is often used the same way. Gender doesn’t cause people to do things, it is a result of people doing things. Gender isn’t prior to people’s behaviour, it’s subsequent to it. The use of constructed concepts as causal mechanisms is a phenomenon that McCain used to his full advantage: by asking to postpone the debate so that he could go “save the economy,” he avoided having Palin’s cringe–inducing interview plastered all over the front pages on Thursday morning, no real explanation necessary. After all, suspending a campaign is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a maverick.