Volume 2 of Teaching Oceania Series, Gender in the Pacific

Greg Dvorak
Delihna Ehmes
Evile Feleti
James Perez Viernes
Teresia Teaiwa
Tevita O Ka'ili

Key to appreciating the complexity of gender in the Pacific Islands and many other areas of the world is the fact that, while sex refers to an individual’s anatomy at birth, gender is a social and cultural construct that informs an individual’s personal and social identity along with the role(s) an individual plays or performs in society. Although many people believe that gender roles and identities are biologically determined or even bestowed by God, most contemporary scholars agree that they are in fact socially constructed. In other words, cultures and societies—not biology—define and reinforce gender, gender identities, and gender roles. What’s more, the qualities a society considers representative of male, female, and other genders (sometimes called third genders, genders that do not conform to a simple male-female binary) are actually determined and reinforced by what that particular society considers appropriate and acceptable for each. As a result, what one society accepts as male/masculine or female/feminine could be completely different in another. This also means that gender identity does not always match a person’s biological sex in the ways a society might expect or demand. In response, individuals may alter their appearance or activities to more closely match the gender with which they identify. Significantly, a large number of Pacific Island cultures embrace these individuals and their unique expressions of gender identity, and the realities and issues of gender in the region far exceed European stereotypes familiar from Western art or literature, which have often focused on idealized and sexualized representations of Pacific bodies.

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Submitted by Jennifer Danford
May 2, 2023
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