We map our world by categorizing its contents and its happenings – putting together diverse particulars into a single category – and relating the categories they create. One of the basic things language does is allow us to label categories, making it easier for them to figure in our shared social life, to help guide us as we make our way in the world. Gender categories like those labeled by man and woman, girl and boy play a prominent role in the social practices that sustain a gender order in which male/female is seen as a sharp dichotomy separating two fundamentally different kinds of human beings and in which gender categorization is viewed as always relevant.
Gender categories do not simply posit difference: they support hierarchy and inequality. We have practices, both linguistic and non-linguistic, that tend to conflate the gender-specific category labeled man with the generic category of human being, for which English also sometimes uses the same label, as in book titles like Man and his place in nature. We also have labeling and other categorizing practices that tend to derogate women as women and to either overlook or disparage gender and sexual minorities. And both men and women are mapped onto a variety of other socially important categories, many of which interact significantly with gender. Gender also interacts with just which parts of the terrain get mapped, which categories get noticed, elaborated, and labeled. This chapter explores some of the complex ways in which categorizing and labeling – along with controversy over categories and their labels – enter into gender practice.