The concept of gender has been introduced in the humanities and social sciences to denote the many complex ways in which differences between the sexes acquire meaning and become structural factors in the organisation of social life. Gender has thus taken on the role of a category for analysing and interpreting the exclusively social conformation of male and female roles, and has thus been applied to women and men as broad and articulated ensembles, traversed by class, cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, age, etc. differences. This meaning of g. has found fertile ground for development in the context of field studies and feminist and women's movements, which, recognising its undoubted heuristic scope, have problematised its function as a category. Indeed, g. recalls identity as an individuating character in a strong sense, where the concept of identity is among the most debated in contemporary Western feminism, i.e. in the context in which g. or gender studies have been most vital and innovative. Feminism, as a movement and as a theoretical reflection, is constitutive of gender studies, which began precisely on the feminist long wave. The realisation of the pervasive subordination of women to men, with its impact on female g., has in fact triggered a wide and capillary application of the category of g., involving the normative and performative models of masculinity. The relationship between g. and identity in the patriarchal and "logofallocentric" tradition (➔ feminism) is grafted onto sex, understood in a biological and naturalistic sense, as the matrix of a complex of signs identifying the male and female subject. Simone de Beauvoir dedicates a chapter of the first part of The Second Sex (1949) to this meaning of gender, consolidated with the developments of modern science, that of destiny, which for women is marked by an inferior, subordinate and dependent gender identity in relation to men, who are considered the prototype of humanity.
GENDER AS A CATEGORY
In the various research contexts in which it is used today, the category of g. problematises naturalistically understood sexual identity, where g. stands for the behaviours associated with or attributed to sexual identity, i.e. the conditioning exercised by society and culture on the conformation of male and female roles. More directly, g. causes one to follow the lines of behaviour considered appropriate to one sex or the other, with sexual orientation directing desire in a heterosexual and/or homosexual and/or transsexual sense. Thus, g. identity means the set of behaviours associated with being female and male, which help to define belonging to the male or female g., also in terms of individual self-perception. In all its strands, gender studies challenges the assumption of gender as an ontological datum and the essentialist understanding of gender based on the rigid and unchangeable link between the biological sexual apparatus (nature) and the identity associated with it (culture). In short, as constructivist and deconstructivist theories developed since Foucault have shown, g. tends to conform to the cultural models, values, education and knowledge that shape the apparatuses of power, and is thus shaped by language. Much of contemporary feminism has drawn on this theory, which undermines the notion of human nature and sexuality as a legacy of a theological/metaphysical culture based on normative heterosexuality, regulated by the male/female 'sgemba' binary. Feminists are interested in the fact that the system can be unhinged by its own categories. The sexual binary, in enforcing the heterosexual norm, defines a transgression by naming perversions in order to banish them, thereby reactivating desire in that very direction, since perversions are not mere acts, but the source of desires involving heterosexuals of both sexes. Hence the short-circuit between g., sexuality and desire. In this reinterpretation of Foucault on g., feminism, especially lesbianism, notes how Foucault himself omits female desire by not giving it a way to express itself. Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Donna Haraway have proposed some provocative ways of rethinking sexual subjectivity in relation to gender. For Butler, sexual and gender identities are performed through language, gender has no origin, nor is it a status or a 'doing' that can be ascribed to a subject prior to the action (Gender Exchanges, 2004), but arises through imitation and is constructed as a disguise. Women must present themselves as women in order to become feminist political subjects, i.e. capable of acting as a function of the liberation of desire, participating in the act of g. in order to dislocate its norms.
Starting from the critique of dualistic conceptions of g. (male/female, nature/culture, sex/gender, body/identity, etc.), which concealed identities that could not be pigeonholed into binary schemes, feminists have come to question gender identity tout court.
Today, the greatest heuristic utility of the category of g. appears precisely in the study of the various fields and forms of relationality, combination and hybridisation between male and female. In fact, the research carried out in new fields and in an increasingly analytical way on the construction of the g. identity and its various conformations has urged the overcoming of a more or less tendentious identity closure and self-referentiality of the feminist and homosexual movements, which, beyond the internal tensions, were exposed to the risk of excluding what the social sciences indicate as forms of collective subjectivity. This risk has also been run by sectoral g. studies: on women (women's studies and women's history), men (men's studies), gays and lesbians (queer studies) and g. changes (transgender studies). From this point of view, queer studies and transgender studies have proved to be more innovative and proactive, not least because they refer to situations in which the non-coincidence of gender identity with biological sex arranges a series of differentiated relationships between gender identity and sexual identity. Where homosexuality is a sexual orientation towards one's own sex, which may or may not be combined with transsexuality as a desire to change one's sex to match one's g., the transgender person intends to acquire g. characteristics other than his or her own; and this proliferating map of possible intersections, while disorienting, makes one understand the strength and indomitability of desire. The scenario that unfolds is that of a mobility and variety of conjunctions, detachments, connections of articulated and complex identities, in which the body, as a psychophysical unit, is the source of mutations and transformations. However, the research also shows some reappearances, in modified forms, of strong identity needs linked to physical-biological genitality, as in the case of the figure of the transsexual, who reaffirms the identity role of the body and physical genitality in order to validate his choice of g., so that the figure of the transgender can testify to a fear of indeterminacy, to the point of almost defining himself as a victim of binary heterosexuality. In the dissolution of g. identities in constant transformation, bodies materialise that count because we clothe ourselves with them in the game of 'masquerade' (Butler), and also because of their resistance to being reduced to a surface, to nothing more than 'skin'. Contemporary genetics and neo-evolutionary biology have helped to bring the body back into play, and the figure of the transsexual also challenges g.'s theory with the centrality it assigns to the body and which the manipulation of the body, even for procreative purposes, helps to ratify. In this way, sex seems to regain influence over g. by dampening the drive of gender studies. The relationship between feminism and g. studies is complicated today by the fact that the latter has in many ways become autonomous from the former and tends to include feminist, women's and women's history studies. However, the opposite is also true, since the category of g., if understood in its foundational sense, seems to be in crisis in the face of developments in new technologies, which are instead at the centre of feminist theoretical elaboration. Even before these issues arose, various feminist theorists expressed criticisms of certain modes of the g. approach, essentially converging on its lack of ductility, which makes it inadequate to grasp the uniqueness of sexual individuality and/or its continuous metamorphoses. Philosophical feminism, in its most recent postmodern declination, has invested a great deal in overcoming identity categories, even to avoid falling back into the logic of the same, and in the creative experimentation of multifaceted identities, in continuous making and unmaking (passing). It seems preferable to use the term subject followed by the attribute nomad, which in any case contributes to the destabilisation of the genre. The attempt is therefore made, as in the case of Rosa Braidotti (a theorist of the nomadic subject who refers to the feminist epistemologist Sandra Harding), to propose a conceptualisation of identity and subject capable of escaping the shoals of essentialism and constructivism in order to enhance the expressive and transformative potential of every human life.