Theorizing Gender

We are about halfway through the semester. Let's talk about where we are, and how we've gotten there. What have we been learning, and, more importantly, why have we been learning it?

In reading structuralist theory, we've started to ask questions about the way words make meaning, about the structure of language itself, about the relationships between signifier and signified, and about the idea of negative value and difference. In poststructuralist theory, such as deconstruction, we've been asking questions about binary oppositions, and how such binary oppositions structure the way we perceive, think about, and act in our world. In psychoanalytic theories, we've been asking questions about the idea of a "self," about how identity is formed, and about the relationship between consciousness and unconscious, between notions of "self" and "other." In doing so, we've had to throw out (or at least put away) some of our most cherished ideas from the humanist tradition, and we've had to grapple with the fundamental premises of poststructuralist thought. These ideas include:

1) that "identity" or selfhood is not something natural, essential, or innate, but rather is something that is constructed.

2) that "selfhood" is constructed from and within language; that selfhood is an illusion produced by language; that language is an impersonal structure which "subjects" inhabit; that language speaks "us."

3) that determinate meaning in language is a product of, and the illusion of, a structure which is stabilized by a center, which limits play and which subjects all language users to its rules.

4) that "truth" is not stable or eternal but provisional, and socially constructed.

We might use the following model to illustrate how these ideas can change how we think about literary studies in particular:

Under the humanist model, an AUTHOR, or original creative self, could write a TEXT, which was a place where language worked to create layers of meaning, which a READER, or interpreting self, could consume, usually internalizing some part of the author's meaning as "truth."

Under the poststructuralist model, LANGUAGE as structure produces two things: SUBJECTS (who write, speak, and use signs, but as the vehicle through which language works, rather than as original creative beings) and TEXTS (which are combinations of signs or signifiers which also serve as vehicles through which language works). SUBJECTS inhabit a wide variety of positions within the structure of language, two of which are AUTHOR and READER--no different from any other subject position made possible by the structure of language (i.e. Lacan's Symbolic Order). Similarly, TEXTS as microcosms of language also produce SUBJECT POSITIONS, that is, positions within which readers place themselves as they read a text; such positions govern a subject's range of interpretation, just as the structure of language itself governs a subject's possible speech. So just as language as a whole creates its speakers, or subjects, so too do texts create their own readers, or subject positions. And, as we'll see when we get to Foucault, texts create their authors as well. But we'll get to that later.

In looking at feminist theories, we're going to add yet another element to these ideas about language, selfhood, and meaning: the element of GENDER. The poststructuralist feminist theories we're reading examine how gender identity is also socially constructed, rather than natural, innate, or essential; they also see gender as the product of, or an illusion created by, the same structures of language that create ideas of selfhood and meaning. And the specific feminist theories we're reading examine how WRITING is a gendered product of those structures of language.

In order to understand poststructuralist feminist theories' contributions to the ideas we've been building so far this semester, we need to start by talking about the word "feminism." What is it? We listed a variety of associations on the board, most of which had to do with popular cultural representations of feminism, some of which were positive and some of which were negative. Let me give you a more academic, and perhaps more neutral or non-political, approach.

Start with the idea that gender is a cultural universal: all societies mark gender distinctions in some way, though of course all societies make those markings differently. So feminist thought asks whether gender is biological or cultural--is it innate and "natural" or is it socially constructed? Is anatomy destiny, as Freud asserted, so that genetics, biology, morphology, physiology, and brain chemistry determine social roles for men and women, so that what is biologically male is by definition masculine, and what is biologically female is by definition feminine? Is gender then essential, eternal, natural, god-given, unchangeable, and true? OR (and most feminist thought favors this answer) is gender socially constructed, therefore variable, mutable, not necessarily correlated with anatomical or genetic determinants?

It's worth noting, in passing, that scientific studies about gender in relation to genetics and chemistry and body structure tend to say gender is both: it's enormously mutable, but there does seem to be something that might be essential (as evidenced in some recent studies of sex ambiguity or transsexuals).

Poststructuralist cultural theorists of gender, on the other hand, say that gender is a set of SIGNIFIERS attached to sexually dimorphic bodies, and that these signifiers work to divide social practices and relations into the binary oppositions of male/female and masculine/feminine. You might think here about high heels as a signifier: generally wearing high heels signifies that there's a vagina and breasts attached to the feet that wear them, as they are a signifier of femaleness/femininity. But anyone can wear high heels-- and risk being seen as feminine because of it. You might also think about recent studies concerning the variety of genetic sex markers: genetics and physiology allow for about 8 different "sexes," including what we would call hermaphrodites, or people with ambiguous sex organs, but cultural pressure and Western medicine almost always treat gender anomalies by "assigning" male or female gender identity to the person, and surgically and hormonally treating that person so that they (more or less) conform to our binary gender system.

So, from the poststructuralist viewpoint,

1) "gender" is a relationship established between signifiers, things that signal gender, and signifieds, taken to be the physical sex of the person. Like all signifier-signified connections, this relationship is ARBITRARY.

2) "gender" operates within Western constructs of binary opposites, so that gender signifiers always point to either a male or a female body, and to masculine or feminine traits.

3) Since "gender" is constructed through arbitrary signifiers, the connection between signifier and signified can be weakened, changed, or broken; since the signifiers of gender help maintain the system of binary oppositions that shape Western thought, by dividing the world into "male" and "female," "masculine" and "feminine," gender can be deconstructed, and the elements that constitute stable notions of gender can be put into play.

Feminist theories look at how gender is constructed, how gender and gender roles are signified. You can find studies of such gender construction in virtually every discipline in the university, including the hard sciences: it's certainly a prominent feature in the social sciences and humanities. Academic disciplines have embraced feminist theories, in part as pure knowledge, for the same reason we embrace any kind of theory in academe--because the theory explains something we want or need to know. But feminist theory, like most poststructuralist theories, always has a political dimension as well. That political dimension consists, at the very least, of an awareness of the power imbalances enforced and upheld by the inequalities in the binary oppositions which structure how we think about our world and how we act in it. Even more than just an "awareness" of these imbalances and inequalites, feminist theories provide an analysis of how these inequalities evolved, how they operate, and-- perhaps most importantly but also most disturbingly--how they might/could/should be changed in order to create a different, more equitable, arrangement of social power and privilege. And this last element--the element of social change, of political advocacy--is generally what makes people uncomfortable with the idea of feminism.

My own political note here: look at how the rhetoric of Western U.S. feminism is being used in the current portrayals of our "war" against terrorism and the bombing of Afghanistan. The Taliban are evil in part because of how they "enslave" women, and Western efforts to defeat the Taliban are phrased in terms of "liberating" the Afghani/Muslim women who are "imprisoned" within their overtly and strictly patriarchal culture.

But back to the academic discussion. Feminist literary theorists in particular examine how gender coding and gender inequity are produced, distributed, perpetuated--AND questioned, challenged, and rewritten--in literary texts.

We'll be looking at two strands of feminist (literary) theory: an Anglo-American pragmatic strand, and a poststructuralist strand. The first is represented by Sandra Gilbert's article; the second by the so-called "French feminists" Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray.

The Anglo-American tradition emerges from the "women's liberation" movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and is parallel to and related to other "liberatory" movements of that era, including socialism, civil rights, anti-racism activism, and gay rights. Sandra Gilbert's essay on "Literary Paternity" is our example of this tradition. It's best labeled as "pre-poststructuralist"--it's not engaging the ideas about subjects constructed in language which characterize poststructuralist thought, but rather Gilbert uses humanist ideas about an essential gendered self linked to a deterministic physiology. She is following Freud, rather than Lacan, and represents a particularly American pragmatic stance, in that she's interested in the origin and history of gender practices and inequalities in order to understand how best to challenge and change them.

It's hard, 20 years after the original publication of Gilbert's essay, to find many academic literary feminist theorists who still adhere to the kind of pragmatic humanist ideas which form the basis for Gilbert's reasoning. Most feminist (literary) theorists now utilize some versions of the poststructuralist perspectives. In Alice Jardine's essay "Gynesis," first published in 1982, the year after Gilbert's essay, you can see the effort to explain some of these new poststructuralist ideas to an audience which is used to thinking of feminism and gender in humanist terms. Jardine is thus our bridge between Gilbert's approach and that of the poststructuralist European feminists, represented in our course by Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who examine gender as a signifying system, as a set of subject positions within the structure of the Symbolic Order, and who use freely the ideas of Lacan, Derrida, and Saussure (et al.) to think about how gender might be organized "other"wise. That's what we'll head into next week.

All materials on this website are written by, and remain the property of, Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado at Boulder. You are welcome to quote from this lecture, or to link it to your own site, with proper citation and attribution: http://www.Colorado.EDU/English/engl2010mk/feminism.firstlecture.htm