A Difficulty of Describing Gender in Antiquity

To speak of effeminacy as a gender-‘‘deviant’’ trait presumes, of course, a gender ‘‘norm’’ by which an individual’s status could be measured. Defining this norm, however, is a complicated matter, in part due to the tendency to read into the past modern Western perceptions of gender, that is, to presuppose—usually on the basis of an essentialist, transcultural definition of gender deriving from observed differences in external genitalia—a fundamental continuity between antiquity and the present. Recent scholarship has called into question this supposition of continuity, underscoring instead the fundamental alterity of ancient concepts of gender and, moreover, the inextricable link between such gender systems and their particular sociocultural contexts. In other words, scholarly approaches have increasingly viewed gender as a fluid, contextually determined phenomenon, and as such, an issue that is more a matter of ideology than simple biology.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 146-147.

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