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The treatment of gender and sexuality in Literary Theory

Updated on May 16, 2012
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A look at 'A Small Boy and Others' and 'Female Masculinity'


Gender studies explore the general significance of gender and sexuality to structures of literary and cultural representations. The values and constitutions of gender and sexuality are not constant however, but change from time, society and place. Gender roles differ depending on society and culture because the society in which people live plays an enormous role in defining the expected patterns of behaviour expected to follow from a person’s sex. Gender studies question gender roles and identity in literature and society itself. Gender roles are the roles that society assigns to men and women based on their sex and especially influence the relationships between men and women. Gender identity is when an individual self-identifies with a gender category.

The challenges of gender and sexual identity have been increasingly theorized in literature as it plays an important part in constructing gender roles. Culture and literature has formed strict requirements for how women should look, act and behave and has also set certain standards that men must live up to. Michael Moon analyses the ‘uncanny’ nature of supposed perverse desires in ‘a small boy and others’ (Blackwell, 2004). Here he draws heavily on psychoanalysis and constructionist theories of gender. He seems particularly interested in the performance and mimetic aspects of perverse acts. Judith Halberstam explores masculinity embodied by women in ‘Female Masculinity’ (Blackwell, 2004). She writes that most studies of masculinity talk almost exclusively about the white, middle class male, as if they have exclusive entitlement to ‘masculinity’. Judith butler argues that feminists have made a mistake by claiming that ‘women’ are a unit with similar characteristics and interests (Routledge Press, 1990). Butler believes that this approach has reinforced a binary view of gender regulations in which people are separated into two clear cut groups, men and women.

Michael Moon explores the exasperation of supposedly normal heterosexual identity. He considers some of the ways in which sexuality is not so much orientated by the perceived gender, age or social class but is ‘disorientated’ by mimesis. This disorientation helps to explain why people have strong reactions to male-male sadomasochism. Moon explains that these reactions are grounded in ‘uncanny’ recognition of male-male sadomasochism’s links to the acts between men of receiving or giving psychological or physical pain in many institutionalized settings. These ‘uncanny’ acts flourish in many institutional settings, the acts of inflicting or receiving pain with the added sexual elements are not considered shocking in settings such as the military and prisons. He talks of the explicitly sexualized images of male-male sadomasochistic practises being termed as ‘perverse’ while non-explicitly sexualized male bonding activities of a sports team for example is being explained as a social rite of passage.

He argues that gender or sexual desire is imitation and not a completely original behaviour by individuals. Before our personal desires are actually made, they are made by the desires of others that influence our own. He talks about David Lynch’s ‘Blue velvet’ (1986) and how it rotates between a conventional, Oedipal plot and a perverse, circular one. The young boy, Jeffrey, must navigate his way through what is represented as being a precarious path between the older, sexually perverse and the younger, sexually ‘normal’. Jeffrey is being subjugated by frank and his circle of distortions while being introduced to it. This seems shocking and disturbing to most, with the mimed qualities of the initiation into these ‘perverse circles’. Lynch goes out of his way to emphasize the performance, making things almost appear un-real, which is the opposite of what one would find in realist writings or pornography, where it is made to be as realistic as possible. Moon claims that Jeffrey imitates his father’s desire. Jeffrey doesn’t become attracted to his mother or ‘desire’ her because that’s his sexual preference, but instead, he is emulating his father’s desire. He suggests that if one mimics another’s desire then one cannot truly know whether they are ‘at home’ or comfortable with it or not. Before our own desires are made, they are made by other people’s desires, which influence our own yet if one’s desire is not one’s own, then it is impossible to know if one is really comfortable with what they’re doing.

Judith Halberstam examines whether masculinity is a cultural, social expression of maleness. She proposes that masculinity should and cannot be reduced to the male body and its properties. She points out that as a society we have a hard time defining masculinity yet we have no trouble recognising it. She considers James Bond in which male masculinity often only appears as the ‘shadow’ of a more dominant and convincing substitute masculinity. He puts on a performance of the action adventure hero with the usual supply of gadgets while his boss, ‘M’, is the one who is convincingly masculine. James Bond is a notorious misogynist and sexist and ‘M’ constantly scolds him on these acts thus exposing the façade of Bonds masculine performance. ‘M’ convinces us that sexism and misogyny are not necessarily part of masculinity.

Halberstam also discusses ‘Tomboyism’, an extended childhood phase of female masculinity. She talks of this period as being quite common in girls and that it doesn’t cause much concern in parents, yet the ‘cross-identification’ behaviours in young boys does indeed increase parental anxieties. She explains that female gender nonconformity is much more tolerated. Halberstam states that female masculinity gives us a glimpse of how masculinity is constructed. The word alone conjures up notions of power and privilege. She asserts that female masculinity is far from being an imitation of maleness however.

Judith Butler cultivates ideas of the relationship between performance and gender identity. In her eyes, gender is entirely imitative. Freud argued that lesbians strive to imitate a masculine ideal believing it’s a desire by these women to be men. Yet if this were completely true, then what is to be said of feminine lesbians. Do these women strive to be male and imitate masculine ideals or are they simply just attracted to women?

Judith Butler begins her analysis of gender and identity by challenging the reader’s notions about the distinction between sex and gender stating that sex is biological and gender is socially constructed. According to Butler, gender is not tied to the material body, but is a complete social construction, one that is open to change, “Because there is neither as ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis” (Routledge, 1990).

Butler presents the notion of gender as a performance and questions the misconception created of heterosexual integrity, that one who is born a certain sex must form a certain gender identity, generally sexual attraction to that of the opposite sex. She questions these gendered behaviours as natural illustrating that one’s learned performance of gendered behaviour is an act imposed on us by socially accepted heterosexuality. She wonders to what extend our gender is determined for us and argues that we cannot assume a stable partiality in what goes about in performing various gender roles, rather it is the very act of the gender performance that constitutes our identity. Many feminists have defended the idea of a concrete feminine identity because they believe this is crucial for the advancement of the interests of women. However, Butler argues that it is a mistake to emphasize that all women, as a group, share the same characteristics. This approach reinforces gender regulations that say people should be separated into two gender categories: men and women. This leaves individuals in deviant categories of gender in a sort of limbo.

A gender identity is the way in which an individual self-identifies with a gender category as being either a man or a woman, or in some cases being neither, which is separate from biological sex. Gender and sexuality are social constructions that are fluid and elusive. It is an issue that has been theorized by many who question the fixed categories of sexual identity and the concepts generated by what is considered socially normal or conventional sexual ideology. Society has a massive effect on gender identities suggesting that the only categories of gender are male or female but an individuals’ identity should not be determined by their sex. Female masculinity gives us a glimpse of how masculinity is constructed as masculinity in our society represents power and dominance. Female masculinity portrays a more convincing masculinity, as James Bond has proven, since it doesn’t require the misogynistic and chauvinist traits of male-masculinity. In Moon’s opinion, sexuality and gender are imitative and therefore not part of one’s own identity. If one mimics another’s gender then one would not know truly what one’s comfortable or ‘at home’ with. In all, gender and sexuality are complex and dense issues that have been theorized in many ways including that of Feminine masculinity, gender and sexual identity, the construction of gender, whether socially/culturally constructed or mimicked and gender roles.

Bibliography

Bennett, Andrew & Royle, Nicholas. ‘An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory’, Third edition, Britain, Bennet and Royle, 2004

Butler, Judith. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: an essay in Phenomenology and feminist theory’, John Hopkins University Press, 1990

Butler, Judith. ‘Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity’, New York, Routledge Press, 1990

Halberstam, Judith. ‘The queer art of failure’, Duke University Press, 2011-11-29

Rivkin, Julie & Ryan, Michael. ‘Literary theory, An anthology’, second edition, Blackwell, 1998

Ryan, Michael. ‘Literary theory: A Practical Introduction’, second edition, Blackwell, 2007

Sadowski, Piotr. ‘Gender and literature: A systems study’, University press of America, 2001

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    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 4 years ago from new jersey

      Very well written! Just curious, was this adapted from a college or graduate school essay? Really brought me back to my days at Rutgers University!

    • belleart profile image
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      belleart 4 years ago from Ireland

      it is from a college essay. I did a semester on gender studies in Literary theory. :)

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 4 years ago from new jersey

      Really well done! I think you did an excellent job of defining some complex ideas. You are a very good writer and I hope you pursue a career as such.

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