The Social Self and Gender Identity

11 April 2013. Reformatted in 2018.

Situating the Self: Meadian Reflexivity and the Practice of Gender

In “The Social Self,” the classic sociologist George Herbert Mead defines the self as a duality: the “I” and the “me.” This duality is a dialogue between the self that perceives itself and recognises itself as an agent, and the form of the self that arises through interactions with others:

The “I” is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the “me” is the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized “me,” and then one reacts toward that as an “I.” (Mead, Mind, Self, and Society)

The “me” absorbs; the “I” reacts, reshapes, and reflects. The relationship between “I” and “me” is a “an attitude of observing oneself in which both the observer and the observed appear,” in which people are both aware of their individuality, as well as the ways others construct the way they appear within the world when interacting with them (Mead, “The Social Self”). Mead defines the “I” as the self-perceiving entity—that is, an agent with free will, consciousness, and identity. In contrast with the “I” is the “me,” or the “self” that is constructed by interactions with other people. Others’ perceptions, social cues, cultural influences, and other external factors shape Mead’s “me,” in a similar fashion to the Freudian superego, which is defined by external forces that influence an individual’s behaviour. The division of the self that Mead presents stands in opposition to the conventional idea that identity is unitary, an indivisible entity that does not waver depending on a particular social context.

The construction of the “me,” a patchwork of social interactions, cultural mythologies, ingrained stereotypes, and public acts that one internalises, forms the basis for interactionist theories that treat society and its traits as conglomerations of several micro-level interactions, as opposed to some of the larger, overarching theories favoured by thinkers like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Symbolic interactionism, the sociological school of thought spearheaded by Mead and

his intellectual descendants, posits that the self—and the society formed by this congregation of individual selves—is constructed through social interactions, internalised symbols, and the formation of identity over time. It is an evolutionary practice, rather than a static, immutable form of identity formation. The symbolic-interactionist conceptualisation of sociological theory has been instrumental in the development of modern sociological thought, particularly where “micro-level” social phenomena are concerned.

One area in which symbolic interactionism has been particularly salient is within analyses of gender roles and the formation of gendered identities throughout space and time. Judith Butler, a cultural analyst who focuses on the complexities of gender, gender identity, and sexuality, draws from the tradition of conceptualising one’s identity as being composed of both an internal and internalised aspect; as being both subject and object from one’s own point of view. For instance, she characterises gender and sexuality as being cultural norms and expectations being applied to people’s bodies: “[…]it is through the body that gender and sexuality become exposed to others, implicated in social processes, inscribed by cultural norms, and apprehended by their social meanings” (Butler 20). For Butler, as for Mead, identity—as represented by the body for her—is as much created by socialisation as it is by one’s inherent self-perception. She goes on further to state that “to be a body is to be given over to others” (Butler 20). Butler’s “body being given over to others” is a corporealised form of Mead’s “me,” a construction of the self that is influenced by others’ interactions and symbols. Butler characterises gender as being performative, of creating a presentation that is influenced by how one perceives oneself, and by how one internalises gendered messages throughout culture. Butler disclaims the interpretation of gender as a direct model that people directly attempt to emulate—she prefers to separate the norm itself from the direct expression and interpretation of those norms, and treats the norm itself as though it were a Platonic ideal—however, she identifies the norm as a means by which cultural power is established and expressed, and these norms are indeed carried out through social interactions and through gendered behaviour, which dovetails with Mead’s symbolic interactionism (Butler 48). Additionally, gender is a complex mixture of socialised internalisations, rather than simply being defined by physicality: “Gender is the apparatus by which the production and normalisation of masculine and feminine take place along with the interstitial forms of hormonal, chromosomal, psychic, and performative that gender assumes” (Butler 42). It is the internalisation of social norms as much as it is one’s physical shape, one’s own self-perception, and one’s presentation of a particular gender identity—or identities, as the case may be. In essence, gender is as much “me” as it is “I”; it is the confluence of individualised selfhood and socialisation. While one’s gendered experience certainly involves reflection and direct agency, it is also the absorption of cultural narratives and norms. It is a dialogue, the constant back-and-forth between individual self-definition and external impositions, influences, and tensions.

Transgender Identity, Symbolic Interactionism, and the Difference between “I” and “Me”

The complexities of gender as a social self in the Meadian sense are particularly evident where transgender identity formation is concerned. It is a site of self-interpretation and the adoption and reshaping of cultural norms, of identifying differences between the “I” and the “me,” and dispelling the tension between the two selves that Mead describes in his work. Transgender identity can be conceptualised as an initial or emergent difference between the social self, or “me,” and the internally perceived “I.” The “me” consists of the culturally assigned gender that a transgender person is exposed to growing up; of Butler’s “production and normalisation of masculine and feminine.” For instance, someone assigned a male social role at birth is likely to be taught to be tough, rather than sensitive; to prefer war games over household tableaux; and to prefer boisterous, playful activities, rather than sedentary ones. When a transgender person becomes aware of their internal gender identity—some are apprised of this at a very young age, while others come to an understanding of their self-schema in adulthood—they often realise that the “me” that society perceives no longer matches their individual self-perception, and they work to alter the social self with which others interact. They reject the initial “me” assigned to them, and recognise that their social self must be brought into line with their individual self-perception. Their “I” stands in sharp contraposition to their preexisting social selves, and the disharmony between these forms of self leads to gender dysphoria, or the subjective sensation that the gender that one is recognised as does not dovetail neatly with one’s own individual self-perception. The dissonance between the socially constructed and imposed gender and one’s internal self-perception creates a profound discomfort with one’s physical embodiment, or the social roles that are concomitant with the body that they present to the rest of the world. In order to create congruence between the warring “I” and “me,” transgender people often opt to modify their physical appearance, move throughout the world as the gender with which they identify, and change their official documents to reflect their true identities, rather than the ones that were imposed upon them at birth. The “production and normalisation of masculine and feminine” influence transgender people’s perceptions and self-definitions.

When offering an example of the tension between “I” and “me,” Butler discusses the case of David Reimer, a man who was raised as a girl owing to a medical accident that affected his genitalia. Doctors had decided that he should be raised as a girl in order to be “socially acceptable,” and mooted the idea of giving him vaginal surgery as a teenager—which he vehemently refused— in order to make him more attractive to partners. His own personal self-perception throughout his upbringing was male, and after he was asked whether he wished to have the neo-vagina operation, he remarked that it was “shallow” for people to define others simply by what was “between their legs” (Butler 71). Butler remarks that Reimer “makes a distinction between the ‘I’ that he is, the person that he is, and the value of what he is or is not between his legs” (71). For Reimer, his maleness is determined by his self-recognition and interpretation of his own identity; he does not centre his maleness in the penis. Similarly, transgender people view their identity as being something that proceeds from their individual selfhoods, rather than something that is defined by genitalia, chromosomes, or secondary sexual characteristics. While Reimer’s case is not a typical transgender narrative—Reimer identifies with his sex assigned at birth—the tension between one’s upbringing and personal identity can be considered analogous to more typical transgender histories. Indeed, the relationship between Reimer and more typical transgender narratives does have some empirical evidence associated with it; a Spanish study found that there were some cortical similarities between untreated transsexual subjects and non-transgender members of the gender with which they identified (Zubiaurre-Elorza et al).

The Creation of a New “Me”

As transgender people realise that their social self needs to be brought into line with their individual identity, they begin to reevaluate their relationship to public gender, and the social interactions that define the way in which they present their gender. Many transgender people, particularly those who are strongly invested in bipolar gender roles or those who wish to avoid unnecessarily social scrutiny of their gender identity and expression, consciously or subconsciously internalise the behaviour of people who share their gender identity and have had upbringings that are congruent with that gender.

A qualitative study by Douglas Shrock, Lori Reid, and Emily Boyd investigated the relationship between symbolic-interactionist theory and the changing social presentations of transgender women—that is, people who were initially assigned male, but came to develop a female self-schema. For the transgender women profiled in Shrock, Reid, and Boyd’s study, transforming their physical appearance and social behaviour involved the internalisation of a “generalised other” in order to learn the female socialisation that they did not learn in childhood (Shrock, Reid, and Boyd 327). They transform the “me,” or social self, from a male model to a female one, causing the “me” to become more congruent with the “I” they perceive internally. These trans women observed the behaviour of cisgender—that is, non-transgender—women, overwriting their older male socialisation with a new social identity that reflects their internal reality. They relearn how to walk, how to speak, how to address others in public, how to dress, how to gesture. They are “similar to young girls learning to become women,” but taking on these lessons later in life (Shrock, Reid, and Boyd 322). By adopting the “generalised other,” both through conscious social retraining and through finding comfort through feminine expression, they bring their reflected social selves—and the bodies in which their social selves are housed— into congruence with the way they have come to understand their personal identities. Schrock, Reid, and Boyd’s “generalised other” is the “me” that Mead describes, a representation of external forces that exert an influence over how one interprets oneself as an object. By changing the way in which “me” is manifested—through finding a new means by which “me” is modelled—the transgender women profiled in this study change the bounds of gendered expression to something that is more fitting.

Transgender identity is a complex combination of “I” and “me,” of social interpretation and internalisation, of self-discovery and -redefinition. It is about both being and doing gender; it is about expressive self-determination and the absorption of social roles, identities, and cultural mythos. Mead’s introduction of symbolic-interactionist theory through the duality of “I” and “me” creates valuable distinctions between the agent-self and the object-self, and Butler’s view of gender being a fundamentally socialised, performative role as well as something that one perceives inside oneself draws from the principles established by earlier thinkers who noted the distinction between socialised behaviour and internally derived behaviour, and the constant back- and-forth interaction between the two forms of selfhood.

Works Cited