Themes in Literature

Literary Gender

Gender of Literature

In common usage, the word gender most typically refers to the perceived and natural differences between men and women. In literary studies, the term more specifically refers to how individuals define themselves and how they are evaluated by others on the basis of gender. Gender is often associated with feminism (women’s activism against gendered oppression), feminists (those who study and advocate women’s equality), and Women’s Studies (interdisciplinary academic programs dedicated to the study of gender and women’s gendered oppression) because one must understand how gender functions before one can examine the oppression or lack thereof that gendered behavior entails. The study of gender is then also the study of power relationships—of how one’s gender, typically the male gender, gives one a power advantage over the other gender. Thus, founders of Women’s Studies and feminist theory such as the French psychoanalytic feminist theorists Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray have helped to formulate our current understandings of gender. At the most basic level, the theories of these early psychoanalytic feminists assume that human behavior is learned and not innate.

In other words, men are not necessarily more naturally aggressive. Instead, a critic applying gender theory would argue that if the majority of the men in a particular group are aggressive, this aggression is learned as part of their “gender identity” as a man. “Gender roles,” in turn, are the codes of behavior that a society expects for one gender or another. These codes are learned in childhood. According to this theory, children see adults model gender-appropriate behavior, and then their desire to be a member of that society impels them to accept the modeled behavior as the best and most appropriate for themselves and others. Adopting and practicing a “gender role” is therefore what helps an individual to construct a “gender identity” of who they are. The American philosopher Judith Butler builds on the work of these French theorists by arguing that gender is performative. Butler’s premise is that since gender entails a role, and roles are the culmination of actions, gender must also be a culmination of actions. In making this claim, Butler extends the idea that there is nothing intrinsic to gender identity by showing that an individual can vary his or her performance of gender from moment to moment. In other words, every action, every choice, be it the clothes we choose or the way in which we speak to authority figures, is an act of choosing to perform a gender.

Gender of LiteratureOne of her most controversial theories is that individuals only perceive themselves as having constant gender identities, when in reality every action and every choice they make is one that either confirms or violates the gender roles of a particular group. Because gender is basic to human behavior, the study of gender can be applied to any (or virtually any) social context or literary work. Thus, the focus on gender as a role has recently expanded to the social and cultural forces that shape men’s gendered behavior. Therefore, one could carry out a gender study on the masculinity of men in power, exploring how they enjoy and benefit from their performance of masculine-coded behavior. More typically, however, theorists look at male gendered behavior among oppressed groups, the ill-effects of the performance of masculinity among dominant groups, or how the male performance of gender roles has the potential to harm both men and women. Three examples of literary works—Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog (2002), David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1998), and William Shakespeare’s Othello—as well as selected criticism on these works provide examples of scholarly gender study. In Topdog/Underdog and M. Butterfly, the authors consciously incorporate a study of gender into their creative processes. Topdog/Underdog is a play that works to explain the ill-effects of contemporary lower-class African-American male gendered roles. Because the play’s two male characters, the brothers Booth and Lincoln, are poor and largely uneducated, they face restrictions in the performance of their masculinity that wealthier, and especially wealthy Caucasian, men do not. All the men in the larger American culture depicted in the play may display their masculinity through acts of sexual virility and by dominance over men lower in status themselves.

Only middle- and upper-status men can demonstrate their masculinity by flaunting their high work incomes. Because the brothers are poor and extremely low-status, they are restricted to sexual prowess and the domination of one another as the means of defining their masculinity. The ill-effects of the encompassing cultural system are shown when their mutual attempts at domination culminate in Booth shooting Lincoln to death. M. Butterfly also looks at the expression of masculinity within oppressed groups and, as in the case of Topdog/Underdog, explores the issues of gender in combination with those of race. Here the comparison is between a sexist and racist male French diplomat, René Gallimard, and a transsexual (a person of one gender who adopts the clothing and often the mannerisms of the opposite sex gender but retains their original sexual organs) Chinese male spy, Song Lilling. The two have an enduring love affair, during which time Lilling steals various diplomatic secrets and completely conceals his male sexual organs from his French lover, despite many occasions of sexual activity. The cause of Gallimard’s misreading of Lilling’s sex is shown to be the result of Lilling’s perfect performance of what Gallimard believes to be Asian femininity.

For example, Lilling apologizes for her breastless chest and begs Gallimard to love her anyway. Gallimard is so attracted to this performance of self-denigration and subordination that he fails to explore the likely physical causes for Lilling’s lack of breasts. Similarly, Lilling claims to be so shy and ashamed of her body that she will not allow Gallimard to touch her genitals or to see her/him naked. Again, Gallimard is so attracted to what he perceives as the feminine performances of shame that he does not explore other likely explanations for Lilling’s behavior. The plot’s obvious twist is that the transsexual Lilling uses the performance of subordination and femininity to gain power over a heterosexual man who enjoys performing masculine dominance. Thus, while Lilling’s behavior is not traditionally masculine, and thus would be disempowering for many men, for the character of Lilling, such performances of gender are nonetheless his means of expressing power and dominance over another man, and thus they express his masculinity. In “Men and Women in Othello,” from her book Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare’s Plays, Carol Thomas Neely looks at the gendered behavior of the men in Othello and compares it to the women’s gendered behavior.

Gender Roles in Literature

Neely evaluates a 16th-century play in terms of seeming universal gender roles and finds the men of the play to be too concerned with male honor, their ability to dominate other men, and their control of women’s sexuality. For example, Othello believes Iago’s lies about his wife Desdemona’s chastity because Othello is too preoccupied with what other men think of him. This need to protect his honor leads him to first murder his wife and then to commit suicide. Similarly, the play’s women are too trusting of the men and refuse to see their faults clearly. For example, Neely implies that if either Desdemona or Emilia had been able to be honest with themselves about the limitations of their husbands, Othello and Iago respectively, before Othello murdered Desdemona, the play’s tragic ending would have been averted. Despite their shared interest in gender roles and issues of race and ethnicity, a key difference between Topdog/Underdog and M. Butterfly and Shakespeare’s Othello is that in the two former plays, the authors and today’s readers are responding to the same contemporary cultural issues and influences that help to shape gender.

In the case of Othello, the distance in time between author and reader means that the modern reader will almost certainly not share the same assumptions regarding gender roles and gendered behavior as the author. Critics such as Ania Loomba, following the historicist theories of Stephan Greenblatt (a school of thought often referred to as New Historicism, which holds the premise that literary study has to be based on the historical beliefs of the author’s time period), has argued that the critic always needs to keep in mind the attitudes toward gender and race in the author’s time. Indeed, the historicist argument has so resonated within the academic community that today it is the dominant factor in studying gender. Future study is likely to continue these trends, balancing the need to assess what are common gender roles over time and geographic space and what roles are more specific to one time and one place.

See also Achebe, Chinua: Anthills of the Savannah; Alvarez, Julia: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; Aristophanes: Lysistrata; Atwood, Margaret: Handmaid’s Tale, The; Surfacing; Austen, Jane: Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility; Behn, Aphra: Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave; Brontë, Charlotte: Jane Eyre; Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights; Cao Xueqin: Dream of the Red Chamber; Chaucer, Geoffrey: Canterbury Tales, The; Cisneros, Sandra: Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories; Dos Passos, John: U.S.A. trilogy; Douglass, Frederick: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; DuBois, W. E. B.: Souls of Black Folk, The; Euripides: Medea; Forster, E. M.: Passage to India, A; Gaskell, Elizabeth: North and South; Gilman, Charlotte Perkins: Yellow Wallpaper, The; Glaspell, Susan: Trifles; Harte, Bret: “Luck of Roaring Camp, The”; Hemingway, Ernest: Sun Also Rises, The; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Ibsen, Henrik: Hedda Gabler; Irving, John: World According to Garp, The; Irving, Washington: Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, The; Jacobs, Harriet: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself; Kingsolver, Barbara: Bean Trees, The; Kingston, Maxine Hong: Woman Warrior, The; Lawrence, D. H.: Rainbow, The; Women in Love; Lessing, Doris: Golden Notebook, The; Malamud, Bernard: Natural, The; McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove; Morrison, Toni: Sula; Naylor, Gloria: Women of Brewster Place; O’Brien, Tim: Things They Carried, The; Pope, Alexander: Rape of the Lock, The; Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea; Rowlandson, Mary: Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson; Shakespeare, William: Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew, The; Shaw, George Bernard: Pygmalion; Stoker, Bram: Dracula; Tan, Amy: Joy Luck Club, The; Woolf, Virginia: Mrs Dalloway; To the Lighthouse.

8 thoughts on “Literary Gender

  1. RT 80: RT 80: Stephen Mitchell reintroduces the literature’s first hero, Gilgamesh. A must read book. 5/5 #ماذا_تقرأ …

  2. The anti prop 6 bigots were handing out literature at early voting today.. no one was representing the pro side… Depressing..

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