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as men. This reaction to gender stereotyping implies

an internalized sense of a division between

male and female, a sense which is powerfully present

in de Beauvoir’s account of her childhood,

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958 [trans. 1959]).

What de Beauvoir tells readers about in this, the

first volume of her four-volume autobiography, is

the process of becoming a girl, and the way in

which the acquisition of that identity inhibits

various kinds of activity. The book provides an

excellent example of the complex way in which

children acquire a sense of the social implications

of their physical sex; it is not just for de Beauvoir

that the passage to an adult sexual identity is

riven with difficulties and contradictions. But

what de Beauvoir encounters in her childhood

and adolescence is a contradictory set of social

expectations about her possible gender. As a bourgeois

girl in France in the first half of the twentieth

century, de Beauvoir, like others of her class, is

not expected to entertain educational ambitions,

still less to study a subject – philosophy – which is

associated with anti-clericalism and often a critical

attitude to social convention. But as a poor

bourgeois girl, the only way out of penury is either

to marry or to study. Lacking the personal inclination,

or social attributes, that might have made

possible an advantageous marriage, the option for

de Beauvoir was to study and to learn to provide

for herself. The expectations of gender had to be

surrendered to those of class.

The autobiography of the author of The Second

Sex – a woman always claimed as the greatest

feminist writer of the twentieth century – provides

an outstanding example of the way in which

gender identity can be both subverted and

changed, while also being maintained. The “bonds

of femininity” were, for de Beauvoir, always bonds

which could be broken, and much of her fiction is

concerned with the stories of women who cannot

break those bonds or re-interpret femininity in

other ways. At the same time, the case of de Beauvoir

provides for us an example of the impact of

social conditioning on a particular individual: the

hurdles faced by de Beauvoir in her educational

career were not fantasies of her own making, but

real difficulties in the social world. Thus, the evident

strength of social mores can be seen in the

cases of de Beauvoir and of other women of her

generation. We know, from this individual case

and from all information about more general situations,

that all societies organize social life on the

basis of sex differences, and that constructed ideas

of gender play a considerable part in the maintenance

of these differences. It is now well known

that, in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth

and twentieth centuries, many people, including

medical specialists, took the view that women

should not be over-taxed by intellectual work,

lest this damage their reproductive systems. This

notion, hardly relevant to the majority of the

female population who were engaged in arduous

manual work, was just one of the many nineteenth-

century views of femininity, albeit one

which attracted both derision and support.

Since the late twentieth century, we have come

to regard with some suspicion ideas about differences

between male and female which support

theories about distinctions between the male

and female brain. In Biological Politics and Sexual

Divisions, Janet Sayers (1982) has outlined much

of the literature on the physiological differences

between the sexes, particularly in terms of the

differences, if any, in the brains of women and

men. But the point of this literature, as Sayers

argues, is not only the actual conclusions about

differences in the brain, but the social structures

which are built on them. From the eighteenth

century onwards, a consensus developed about

the existence of differences in physical strength

between women and men; at the time, these differences

had a relevance to the labor market and

underpinned the sexual exclusivity of certain occupations.

The changes in the European labor

market of the late twentieth century have largely

marginalized the potential impact of differences

in physical strength, but what has become more

important has been identified as the persistence

of gender differences which persistently advantage

men and disadvantage women.

It is at this point that academic debates about

gender encounter the reality of the social world.

Since the 1970s, and the impact of second-wave

feminism on academic debates, the question of

the construction of gender has become central to

gender gender


both the academy and the wider social world.

Following the tradition (albeit a tradition with its

own internal differences and contradictions)

which included Freud and de Beauvoir, a consensus

emerged in which it was generally agreed that

gender was socially constructed out of biological

sex differences. The emphasis (as suggested above)

was initially on the social construction of femininity,

but by the 1980s authors such as Victor Seidler

and Jeffrey Weeks had demonstrated that, just as

femininity was socially constructed, so the same

was true of masculinity. In short, our social/sexual

selves were as unstable as Freud had assumed and

what could be demonstrated – and was demonstrated,

for example by Ken Plummer in work on

homosexuality – was the strength of social norms

to create individual sexual persona. This academic

work became part of more general social concerns

about gender stereotyping.

Thus by the end of the 1980s there was, throughout

the West, a general consensus that recognized

the way in which all societies made, of sexual

difference, differences of gender. Anthropologists

demonstrated that qualities associated with men

in some societies (for example competence in the

economic market) were of little value in others,

and that the meaning of masculinity and femininity

in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was

as variable as it been in previous centuries. The

view of “natural” attributes of male and female

had little credence in academic circles. It was at

this point that a book by Judith Butler, Gender

Trouble (1990), was published, which pushed the

debate on gender even further towards the conclusion

that all gender attributes are constructed

and, as Butler describes it, “performed.” For

Butler, gender is the defining division of the social

world and debates on this issue with Nancy Fraser

have involved numerous participants. But Butler’s

central case - since developed in Bodies that Matter

(1993), Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative

(1997), The Psychic Life of Power (1997), and Antigone’s

Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (2000) – has

become a central part of the analysis of gender.

For Butler, gender is a strategy, a “corporeal

style” which individuals pursue, because if they

do not they are punished by society. For example,

one of the reasons Joan of Arc was condemned was

that she wore men’s clothes. This is an extreme

example, but in other cases social sanctions are

still present and societies overwhelmingly police

the correct “performance” of gender. But, so far,

this idea of people being coerced into behaving in

ways that are deemed to be appropriate for a

member of their physical sex is not in itself

innovative or radically different from anything

that has been said before. What makes Butler’s

argument different is the suggestion, in Gender

Trouble, that people are not copying an original

or correct model of gender behavior since no

such original exists.

It is in this way that Butler’s work differs from

that of Harold Garfinkel, who, in the study of the

young person named Agnes, had demonstrated

that individuals could very convincingly do gender

and thus make others believe in whichever

gender was chosen. In her argument, Butler has

recognized the existence of individuals such as

Agnes in the history of gender (and indeed the

history of – literally – the wardrobe of gender).

But she has also insisted that each generation, in

putting together a gender identity, is not using

the original but only the various forms in which

gender had so far been performed. One of the

strengths of Butler’s argument is her recognition

of the way in which dress (for both sexes) has

always had a rich vein of both parody and subversion.

Equally, one of the problems with Butler’s

argument is the question of what becomes chosen

as the norm at any place or time: there might well

be a huge amount of choice in modes of dress, but

there are always limits to social toleration and a

point at which the welcome for the new turns to

the condemnation of the bizarre.

Butler’s work has been influential across a

number of disciplines, in both the social sciences

and the humanities, since what she offers is a way

of seeing gender as always and inevitably radically

unstable. She does not regard cross-dressing or

drag as necessarily radical or subversive, for the

very good reason that both these forms simply

invoke and confirm gender stereotypes. Thus her

work is less a celebration of popular forms of

subverting fixed gender identities (these, in her

view, merely re-inforce existing expectations of

gender) but rather a method of studying the ways

in which, in social life, literature, and the visual

arts, gender is constantly being re-made. But the

social world, which prefers the order of fixed

gender identities, works against subversions of

gender, because it is fixed distinctions of gender

which, to Butler, maintain the social world. It is

here that her work has led her to conflict with

those critics (for example Martha Nussbaum and

Nancy Fraser) who have argued that the social

world of late capitalism can function perfectly

well, whatever the politics of gender. The idea

of a world without gender, Butler argues, would

be a world in which there would be no expectation

of “feminine” qualities of care or masculine

gender gender


attributes of “strength” but only the recognition

of human qualities. Those industries related to the

various forms of the manipulation of the body

(fashion, health and beauty, and cosmetic surgery)

and indeed the expected tensions of much popular

entertainment (how the couple of either

homosexual or heterosexual desire is going to be

formed) would collapse, Butler suggests, if we did

not have fixed gender identities to maintain.

For many sociologists, Butler’s work, while recognized

as important, is regarded as somewhat

removed from social reality, in which sexual difference

still plays a crucial role in the determination

of social identity. Beverley Skeggs, in

Formations of Class and Gender (1997), and Linda

McDowell, in Gender Identity and Place (1999), have

argued that both femininity and masculinity are

not just attributes of a particular sex, they are also

constructed in different contexts of class. Skeggs

has shown how, for working-class women, maintaining

that sense of femininity which prioritizes

the care of others (both personally and professionally)

is an essential part of what they see as their

best hope of an advantageous marriage; McDowell

has suggested that, for middle-class men, the demonstration

of the supposedly female qualities of

“caring” and co-operation with others is a highly

positive attribute, whereas supposedly “masculine”

characteristics in women do not receive the

same approval. What both authors are able to

show is that constructions of gender differ from

social class to social class, but a model of behavior

which accords with traditional expectations of

femininity is of positive social value for middleclass

men, but of negative social value for

working-class women.

These possible differences in the social value of

different gender identities open up a further question

about the relationship of gender to the social

world. Many writers have seen the Enlightenment,

and modernity itself, as an inherently “masculine”

project. Although there is considerable evidence

to suggest that the question of gender was important

to writers in the Enlightenment, and that the

writers were both male and female, what has

emerged as the dominant view of the Enlightenment

is that of a way of looking at the world

which values reason above feeling, the rational

over instinct. That binary division (the association

of women with nature and men with culture) has

long been assumed to be at the heart of the Enlightenment.

But if we can observe the increasing

social value of the attributes of the feminine, we

also have to remember that this greater social

value is only gained by men rather than women.

Thus, although the postmodern might include the

blurring of gender boundaries (and the concomitant

furious resistance in some quarters to these

newly apparent forms of sexuality and gender

identity), what does not appear to be taking place

is any realignment in the hierarchies either of

class or of gender identity that is related to biological

difference. Hence some men can, to their

advantage, do femininity, but women cannot do


For many writers on gender, however, shifts in

the social construction of gender identity, apparent

and important though they may be, break

down when confronted by actual biological differences

between the sexes and the impact that these

differences have on individual lives. For biological

determinists, there are (as there always have been

in different ways) differences between women and

men which are fixed and both transhistorical and

transcultural. At the same time Freudian psychoanalysts

would resist any attempt to eliminate

biological sexual differences from either the study

or the understanding of the human. Empirical

sociological investigation has also demonstrated

that, although men, particularly middle-class

men, may be willing to do femininity in certain

aspects of employment, their willingness – in

common with that of working-class men – to

take over female responsibilities in the household

or in caring work is still extremely limited. In

these circumstances, the gender politics of everyday

life demonstrate a resistance to the re-thinking

of gender which is very marked, as do various

forms of social reaction to behavior in women

(for example what is seen as the excessive drinking

of alcohol) which is more generally associated

with men. Arlie Russell Hochschild is among those

sociologists who have investigated the present

ordering of gender relations in the private space

of the home and found that traditional patterns of

gender persist.

This continuing inequality in gender relations

(and the theories such as that of Anthony Giddens

in The Transformation of Intimacy (1992) which

argue that gender relations in the private sphere

are shifting to a more egalitarian model) is explained

by L. McNay, Gender and Agency (2000),

following Pierre Bourdieu, in terms of a challenge

to the cognitive, reflexive, and deliberate refashioning

of gender identity which Giddens assumes.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is used to explain

the indeterminacy of gender and embodiment.

Social ideas and expectations about gender are

enacted at a pre-reflexive level: what is being suggested

here is that individuals have certain deeply

gender gender


held, often unconscious, investments in conventional

patterns of masculinity and femininity, and

these patterns are not easily over-turned, either by

objective decisions or by social situations in which

the rejection of these norms might appear to be

the socially meaningful and rewarding choice.

Thus, while gender identity is not an immutable

or essential pattern of behavior, McNay suggests

that there are many pre-reflexive aspects of masculine

and feminine behavior which call into

question the idea of reflexive identity.

Crucial to all these theories about gender, and

the ways in which we acquire our gender identity,

is our understanding of language. All language is

saturated with meaning: the very terms man or

woman carry all kinds of embedded knowledge

that we seldom voice but nevertheless use in our

social existence. It is for this reason that the use of

language, particularly language about gender, has

become such an important issue in both the academy

and practical politics. In the mid-1960s, the

term people was quite widely used to refer only to

men; today the term is used to make explicit the

absence of bias towards male or female in particular

situations. Traditional terms such as husband

or wife have been replaced by the term partner, a

term which ironically carries with it associations

of the formal relations of the marketplace. But in

contexts other than the everyday world, language

is also crucial for theories of gender, because it is

through language that we achieve the means to

express our understanding of the symbolic meaning

of our bodies. The writer who has contributed

most influentially to this debate is the French

psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his E´crits (1966

[trans. 1977]), who has argued that a child has to

recognize sexual difference before becoming a

speaking subject; it is only through recognizing

both absence and presence of the phallus that a

child can make the necessary progress towards

both language and an understanding of the symbolic

world. Feminist writers (most particularly

the French writer Luce Irigaray) have challenged

this idea by arguing that what children primarily

experience is the “discursive” sexuality of their

mothers. For Irigaray it is not male sexuality which

constitutes the primary means of entry into language

but that of the female. With Irigaray’s thesis

in “When our Lips Speak Together” (1980, Signs)

comes the view that femininity resides in female

biology: it is a view which has been accused of

biological essentialism and it is, of course, very

different from the ideas of Butler.

Whatever the different views of various writers

about the relationship between language and the

formation of gender identity, all writers agree on

the centrality of the body to theories about

gender. Here the spectrum of writers ranges

from those who see the body, and its physical

characteristics, as definitive in the making of individual

identity, to those who would question the

idea that the body has a sex at all. This very radical

view might seem to challenge all taken-forgranted

assumptions about the social world, but

the idea is supported by evidence from diverse

communities which suggests that our western

ideas about gender, and gender difference, are

not necessarily as straightforward as we might

like to suppose. Thus anthropologists (for example

Henrietta Moore) have pointed out that male and

female are not necessarily the fixed and certain

categories that we might suppose but differ

between societies and cultures. If the physical definition

of the body can be questioned, then it is

inevitable that gender identity then becomes a

matter of uncertainty and negotiation. This thesis

alters our relationship to the body: it is no longer

the fixed starting point but actually the unknown,

fluid starting point of attempts to define gender.

Seen in the light of this, it is possible to surmise

that gender identity is as rigid as it sometimes is

because what Freud recognized as the “polymorphous

perversity” of the psyche is as true of the body

as it is of the mind. In his work on the history of the

body, Bryan S. Turner in The Body and Society (1984)

has emphasized the importance of working with

an understanding of the “lived body,” an approach

which opens up the possibility of seeing the body

itself as a production of the social world rather

than as a fixed constituent of it.

All theories of gender work with the paradox

that they begin with the recognition of the impact

of gender difference in the social world and then

attempt to show that this difference, having been

produced, can also be dissolved. The politics of

gender have come to be recognized as central to

the organization of social life, not because these

politics have been articulated for the first time in

the latter part of the twentieth century but because

gender, and gender identity, has always

played a crucial role in the history of the social

world. The Bible begins with the drama of the

recognition of sexual difference (implicitly suggesting

that the concept of sexual difference was

created through knowledge rather than corporeal

reality) and Homeric epic is organized around the

mistaking of the identity of the mother. Both

these examples might serve to remind us that

the question of gender, and gender identity, is as

old as civilization itself. MARY EVANS

gender gender


gender studies

This area of interdisciplinary research is concerned

with understanding the biological differentiation

of male and female, the gender roles

that express that differentiation in society and

culture, the development and expression of different

types of human sexuality, the political representation

of gender in feminism, and the modern

expression of sexuality such as lesbian, gay, bisexual,

and transsexual identities. Women’s studies

and gender studies are interdisciplinary fields of

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