Gender Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Gender Theory

Rosanne Kennedy

Gender became a significant critical concept in the wake of developments in feminist theory in the early 1980s. In common usage, gender refers to socially constructed differences between men and women, while sex refers to biological differences. Feminist theorists have challenged this normative sex/gender distinction, arguing that sex, as well as gender, is culturally constructed. Informed by and contributing to developments in feminist theory, feminist literary critics have explored how gendered differences, meanings, and identities are produced in the novel and related discourses, and how subjects are positioned by those discourses. Although feminist critics initially used the concept of gender to refer exclusively to women, by the late 1980s “gender” was expanded to encompass masculinities and gay and lesbian identities, and sexuality became an increasingly important concept. Today gender, sex, and sexuality are contested concepts in and between the fields of feminist theory, QUEER theory, and masculinity studies.

Etymologically, there is a close relationship between gender and genre, both terms of classification that derive from the medieval French gendre. The novel, a capacious and elastic GENRE, has been a vital representational form for articulating, naturalizing, and challenging understandings of gender and gender relations. RHETORICs of gender, as well as gendered rhetorics of sentimentality, nation, and public and private spheres, have all been present in the novel since its earliest emergence (Johnson, Moglen). It was only with the development of gender as an analytic frame, however, that the cultural and ideological work of gender, and the ways in which the novel naturalized or disrupted gender norms, could be analyzed (see IDEOLOGY). A gender analysis has provided critics with a framework for exploring the work of the novel in producing relations between men and women, public and private spheres, and reason and emotion as gendered relationships of power (Poovey, Armstrong). It has initiated new understandings of older genres such as the bildungsroman and of modernist transformations of the novel (Ardis, Pykett; see MODERNISM). It has generated new accounts of the rise of the novel and of the position of male and female writers in relation to the commercial world of publishing (Johnson, Moglen, Perry). It has enabled critics to generate fresh insights into the social and political contexts in which novels were and are produced and consumed, and has contributed to new perceptions of the novel in cultural history. Critics have explored the ways in which gender coordinates with other categories such as race, sexuality, class, nation, and empire, as a means of exploring the role of the novel in articulating, for instance, colonial relations as fundamentally gendered (Henderson, McClintock). Rather than focus exclusively on novels, critics increasingly situate the novel as a significant representational form within broader field of cultural representations. The literature on gender and the novel is extensive; here it is only possible to delineate some of the main currents in the British and American tradition.

The Long 1980s: From Sexual Difference to Gender Trouble

Building on and departing from the pioneering work of “seventies feminism” (Davidson), feminist theorists of the 1980s transformed the theory of gender. In the 1970s feminist critics worked within the prevailing conceptual framework that concentrated on patriarchy and women's oppression. Guided by the concepts of women and female experience, they recovered women's neglected novels and explored how women writers expressed their condition as “the second sex” under patriarchy. By the early 1980s, the concept of sexual difference was being debated on both sides of the Atlantic but had different meanings in different cultural traditions. American feminists tended to take sexual difference—the difference of woman from man—for granted and treated it as interchangeable with gender. French feminists, coming from a Lacanian PSYCHOANALYTIC tradition, regarded sexual difference as produced by entry into the symbolic realm of language. French feminists explored the meanings of woman in the writings of male philosophers and psychoanalysts and developed the concept of écriture féminine—a feminine writing that could, paradoxically, be expressed by male as well as female authors. By the mid-1980s, many critics challenged the assumption of sexual difference as given, arguing that gender must be understood as socially constructed. British feminists, informed by Marxist as well as psychoanalytic approaches, argued that “the social construction of gender takes place through the workings of ideology” (A. Jones, 1985, Making a Difference, 2). Thus, feminist critics were urged to analyze the text as “a signifying process which inscribes ideology” (25) rather than assume that literature transparently reflects a pre-given, objective reality.

While French, British, and American feminists developed apparently irreconcilable understandings of sexual difference, they typically approached the topic in isolation from race, class, or sexuality. In the early 1980s, black feminists and women of color compellingly argued that “women” usually meant “white middle-class women” (Hull, Bell-Scott and Smith; Henderson). In pioneering works such as All the Women are White, All the Men are Black, But Some of Us are Brave, black feminists argued that gender could not be studied in isolation from race, class, and sexuality. They urged an exploration of “the experience of supposedly ’ordinary’ Black women,” who were usually absent from both (white) women's and black (men's) histories, as crucial for developing an analytical framework that integrated gender, race and other markers of differences (Hull, Bell-Scott and Smith, xxi). Revising Teresa de Lauretis's account of gendered subjectivities (1987, Technologies of Gender), Mae Henderson proposed “a model that is intended not only to address ’a subject engendered in the experiencing of race,’ but also ... a subject ’racialized’ in the experiencing of gender” (19). Feminists of color—Black, Chicana, Latina, and Asian American—recommended that white feminists pay attention to the differences and specificities of race, including whiteness itself. Developments in the 1990s demonstrated that, critiques of the category of woman as exclusionary have proven to be more enduring for theorizations of gender and (hetero)sexuality than the theoretical debates about difference that commanded so much attention in the 1980s.

The long 1980s came to an end with the publication of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990). She argued that the category of woman, and the assumption of a fundamental male/female difference, reproduced heterosexuality as normative. Drawing on Michel Foucault's poststructuralist analysis of sexuality, she maintained that sex as well as gender should be understood as discursively constructed (7, see STRUCTURALISM). Discourses that articulate the desire for maternity as a “natural instinct,” for instance, signify reproduction as a defining feature of what it means to be “a woman.” She advocated that feminists “trouble gender” by performing it in ways that did not articulate neatly with the appropriate sex, thereby disrupting the effect of a natural relationship between sex and gender. Butler's analysis of the “performativity of gender,” together with developments in queer theory by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others, opened the way for studies of female masculinity, male feminism, cross dressing, and transgendering in the novel.

1980s and 1990s: Gender, Race, and Class in the Novel

In line with developments in feminist theory in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist literary critics became more explicit about the theoretical basis of their practice. They abandoned the view of the novel as a representation of reality and instead explored the novel as a discourse that produced differences of gender, sexuality, race, and class. In her study of ideologies of gender in nineteenth-century discourse, Mary Poovey argued that sexual difference was articulated in the novel as the primary difference that structured social life and through which differences of class, race, and nationality were articulated. She questioned the future of “sexual difference” as a foundational category within feminism, noting that “it reproduces the problems it claims to subvert” (201). By the 1990s, critics regularly brought race, class, and gender together to develop nuanced analytic frameworks for studying the cultural work of novels. In her study of the fictions of British imperialism, Ann McClintock proposed that race, gender, and class be understood as “articulated categories” which “come into existence in and through relation to each other” (4—5).

While gender was initially conflated with the categories of “woman” and “femininity,” leaving “man” and “masculinity” as the unmarked norms, by the late 1980s, critics began to turn their attention to masculinity and to the relations of masculinity and femininity with heterosexuality and homosexuality. Separating masculinity from totalizing assumptions about male power and patriarchy enabled masculinities to come into view as they were constructed through cultural representations, including the novel. Male feminist and queer critics analyzed constructions of heterosexual, homosexual, and queer masculinities in relation to categories such as femininity, ethnicity, and national identity (Sedgwick, Boone and Caddon, Eng). During the same period, the impact of cultural studies on literary studies was becoming increasingly visible. Feminist critics who had begun their careers writing about women's literature were increasingly exploring gender across a range of cultural forms including, but not limited to, the novel. In her study of black masculinities, Hazel Carby observes that “[i]deologies of masculinity always exist in a dialectical relation to other ideologies” such as race and nation. She considers “the cultural and political complexity of particular inscriptions, performances, and enactments of black masculinity on a variety of stages” (Carby, 2). David Eng draws on psychoanalysis and critical theories of race to explore representations and ideologies of Asian American masculinities in fictional and cultural texts.

Gender and Genre: From the Eighteenth Century to Modernism

Some of the most significant studies of gender and the novel argue that the novel, a representational form which at times wielded considerable cultural authority, played a key role in developing gendered subjectivities in given historical periods. Nancy Armstrong, in her Foucauldian analysis of nineteenth-century domestic fiction, contends that novels for, by, and about women produced gendered subjectivities and spheres of power that helped to cement the identity and cultural authority of the British middle class. A gendered analysis has also been particularly productive for reconsidering the novel in the eighteenth century, a period during which gender roles and identities, politics, and the form of the novel were all in flux. Helene Moglen links the emergence of the novel as a genre with the need to manage the emergent sex/gender system, which she views as the novel's core concern. Focusing on novelistic form, she contends that the two dominant strands—the fantastic and the realistic—coexisted within “a single, evolving form” as the “means by which the novel, from the eighteenth century on, sought to manage the strains and contradictions that the sex-gender system imposed on individual subjectivities” (1, see ROMANCE, REALISM). In her study of women writers of the 1790s, Claudia Johnson argues that the period was characterized by a “crisis of gender.” Sentimentality invaded both political and domestic domains and was closely linked with practices of gender. When traits that had been marked as feminine were recoded as masculine, femininity became unstable, and gender itself was open to question (Johnson). Ruth Perry, in an interdisciplinary analysis of kinship in the eighteenth-century novel, argues that the novel helped individuals manage and respond to changing family roles and responsibilities. She explores the effects “the great disinheritance” of the daughter had on sibling relations and on father/daughter relations.

The modernist novel, a site for experimenting with the form and representation of gender, has provided a particularly fertile ground for exploring relations between gender and genre (see MODERNIS). The period 1880—1930 was one of enormous social and political transformation and of significant innovation in the arts and literature. The “New Woman,” associated with the suffragette movement, was a prominent figure at the turn of the twentieth century. Ann Ardis argues that New Women novelists self-consciously sought to break with the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel and experimented with NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, plot, character, and language (see LINGUISTICS). Yet, their novels have been forgotten; thus, the modernist novel emerges as if it had no female forebears. Feminist critics used a gender analysis to challenge the exclusion of women writers from understandings of modernism. They revitalized the study of Virginia Woolf and other female modernists, exploring women's self-conscious experiments with gender and novelistic form (see FORMALISM). Indeed, many of the key features of the modernist novel—experiments with form, attempts to register interiority and subjectivity, the break with the rationalist linearity of the realist novel—have been considered “feminine” (Pykett, see PSYCHOLOGICAL).

The New Millennium and Beyond

By the new millennium critical energy had shifted from gender to sexuality, from literature to cultural studies, and from nationalist to transnational approaches—but all of these new fields incorporated their predecessors. Many feminists who wrote pioneering studies of women writers in the 1980s broadened their conceptual frames to include a range of sexualities, national sites, and transnational connections. The “cultural turn” is evident in the changing focus of two influential modernist anthologies. The first anthology, The Gender of Modernism (B. K. Scott and M. L. Broe, eds. 1990), challenges the widespread conception of modernism as a masculine aesthetic by making visible the work of women modernists. The later anthology, Gender in Modernism (B. K. Scott, ed., 2007), explores gender as it intersects with a range of discourses, sites, and practices in modernity. The latter work, informed not only by gender but by cultural studies, new historicism, and approaches concerned with race, class and (post)colonialism, situates modernist works in a field of “new geographies” and “complex intersections.”

The concept of gender has, in the past thirty years, seeded powerful new readings of the cultural work of the novel and challenged conceptions of literary movements and periodizations. Gender is now firmly established as a powerful and compelling analytic tool in novel studies. As a result, feminist critics are increasingly willing to acknowledge the limits as well as possibilities of gender analysis. Cathy Davidson, for example, reflects on why she did not use gender as a key organizing category in her study of the early American novel: “the more I read novels, newspapers, tracts, and private sources ... the less I was convinced that gender was the defining category of identity in the new Republic or, indeed, that any one category of identity trumped all the others” (29). In her transnational study of the figure of the Indian in British and American literature and culture, Kate Flint (2009, Transatlantic Indian, 1776—1930) uses gender as one frame among others in analyzing a complex field of discourse. Regardless of whether critics combine gender with other analytic categories as they have in the past thirty years, or even take a break from gender as new approaches are developed, the legacy of gender analysis will cast a long shadow in the field.

SEE ALSO: National Literature.


1. Ardis, A. (1990), New Women, New Novels.

2. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

3. Boone, J.A. and M. Cadden, eds. (1990), Engendering Men.

4. Butler, J. (1990), Gender Trouble.

5. Carby, H. (1998), Race Men.

6. Davidson, C. (2004), Revolution and the Word, 2nd ed.

7. Eng, D. (2001), Racial Castration.

8. Henderson, M. (1989), “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Women Writers' Literary Tradition,” in Changing Our Own Words, ed. C. Wall.

9. Hull, G., P. Bell-Scott, and B. Smith (1982), All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.

10. Johnson, C.L. (1995), Equivocal Beings.

11. McClintock, A. (1995), Imperial Leather.

12. Moglen, H. (2001), Trauma of Gender.

13. Perry, R. (2004), Novel Relations.

14. Poovey, M. (1988), Uneven Developments.

15. Pykett, L. (1995), Engendering Fictions.

16. Sedgwick, E.K. (1985), Between Men.