Gender Studies

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

Gender Studies

Second-wave feminist criticism precipitated close examination of the category of gender. Gender studies is wider in scope than feminism, as it also includes gay and lesbian criticism, as well as queer theory.

The major concerns of gender studies are:

1. To examine the political histories of oppression suffered by groups that fall outside the heteronormative* paradigm

2. To examine the social construction and representation of gender roles, in which literature plays an important part.

Much of the critical impetus of gender studies derived from real social struggles. The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, for example, were a key moment in the history of the gay liberation movement.


The biological distinction between the “male” and “female” sex cannot be neatly mapped onto the gender categories of “masculine” (= male) and “feminine” (= female) because the behavioural traits associated with these categories do not exist as a binary opposition.

We might instead think of a spectrum of masculine-identified and feminine-identified behaviours distributed unevenly between men and women. The process of such identification is socially and historically determined. At the biological level, too, the binary logic is destabilized by transsexuality.


Gender isn’t as straightforward as mainstream culture tends to portray it; there’s a grey area of gender identification. This is what we mean when we talk about gender being “non-binary”.

The theorization of gender created a difficulty for feminism because if gender is understood to be an unstable and constructed category then who can be said to constitute the subject of feminism?

Critical insights about gender, which emerged within feminist theory, took on a distinct and separate character (gender studies) as lesbian critics began to challenge the alleged “heteronormative essentialism” of some feminist thinkers. This saw the emergence of a radical strand of feminism: lesbian separatism, which asserted complete female independence and a refusal of masculinist exploitation.

Sexuality, and the politics of sexuality, opened up a field of interpretative possibilities partly distinct from, although still related to, feminism.


Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement or our individual identities and desires without them.