Gender Expression: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
How do we demonstrate masculinity or femininity? In this lesson, we'll talk about gender expression, which is a term for how we display our gender to others. It's the way we outwardly express whether we internally identify as male or female.

Gender and Gender Expression

What is the difference between men and women? What do clothes, hairstyles, or the decision to wear makeup have to do with gender? In this lesson, we'll talk about the idea of gender expression, which refers to the ways that humans choose to display their gender to the world. But before we go any further, we should clarify some different terms that may seem really similar but actually mean different things.

First of all, gender is a socially constructed way of seeing a person as either male or female. In other words, it refers to the characteristics that society and culture define as either masculine or feminine. Wearing pink or blue, your occupation, or the role you're expected to have in society (like raising kids) are examples of things we assign to different genders. Gender is different from biological sex, which refers to the different anatomy of men versus women. Gender can vary a lot depending on one's culture. For instance, in Western culture (places like the U.S.), we tend to think of men as physically strong and less emotional than women. These are culturally specific ways of thinking of men versus women. Gender identity is something internal to an individual. It's whether we think of ourselves as a man or a woman. This could reflect our biological sex but it doesn't have to. Let's talk about how gender expression is related to this.

What is Gender Expression?

Gender expression is a bit different than gender identity. If gender identity is how we think of ourselves internally, gender expression is how we display this to the world. Gender expression refers to things like dress, attitudes, and behaviors that we choose to display. Now, this is different than simply the idea of gender. Remember that gender refers to the culturally assigned characteristics or beliefs. We might not always agree with the gender assigned to us and the characteristics expected of us. Gender expression is our own choice rather than something imposed on us. (We should note, though, that this doesn't mean there is not societal pressure to conform to gender norms or that there aren't consequences for expressing our gender any way we want.)

Gender expression includes things like how we choose to wear our hair, or the outfit we decide to wear. It might also be the way we choose to act in different settings. Gender expression may or may not match with our culturally assigned gender. In other words, a person who society identifies as a man might wear typically feminine clothing and makeup. Sometimes this aligns with societal expectations of us but sometimes it might not. A drag queen is an example of the ways that gender expression can be different from our biological sex. A man might dress up in a wig, high heels, and heavy makeup, displaying characteristics we typically associate with women.

Drag is an example of using clothes to express a gender that might be different than our anatomical sex
gender expression; drag queen; gender identity

Let's take some examples to illustrate how gender expression works.

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