Gender criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Gender criticism

Gender criticism: A type of literary criticism that focuses on — and critiques — gender as it is commonly conceived, seeking to expose its insufficiency as a categorizing device. Gender critics draw a distinction between gender, the identities and characteristics commonly associated with men, women, masculinity, and femininity, and sex, the biological designation of male or female. They typically reject the essentialist view that gender is natural or innate and instead take the constructionist position that gender is a social artifact, a learned behavior, a product of language and culture. Teresa de Lauretis, for instance, argued in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (1987) that gender is “the product of various social technologies, such as cinema,” not “a property of bodies or something originally existent in human beings.”

Some gender critics have extended the term gender to reference sexuality as well, questioning the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality and arguing that these terms are social constructs, too. These critics, including queer theorists, view sexuality not as a fixed set of binary oppositions limited to hetero- and homosexuality but as a continuum encompassing behaviors and responses ranging from bestiality to bondage. Other gender critics, especially many gay and lesbian critics, take an essentialist position, arguing that sexuality is innate rather than culturally produced.

As an approach to literary criticism, gender criticism arose out of feminist criticism, with gender critics both drawing on feminist theory and practice and attacking feminist concepts and claims. Notably, although feminist criticism preceded gender criticism by a decade, many commentators have argued that feminist criticism should be classified as a form of gender criticism insofar as it focuses on the feminine — and even though many gender theorists identify with the feminist perspective. Others maintain that gender criticism has overshadowed the feminist approach. For instance, in an essay entitled “Feminist and Gender Studies” (1992), Naomi Schor estimated that gender studies began to prevail over feminist criticism around 1985, the same year that Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire by the American critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was published. In Between Men, which substantially influenced gender criticism generally, and gay and lesbian criticism more specifically, Sedgwick adapted feminist theory to analyze relationships between men, between male characters in literary works, and between gender and sexuality — a subject she took up again in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), where she argued that “the question of gender and the question of sexuality, inextricable from one another though they are … are nonetheless not the same question.”

Unlike feminist critics, who have tended to focus on women and women’s issues, gender critics have focused as much on men as women. They have analyzed masculinity as a complex construct that produces and reproduces a host of behaviors and goals such as performance and conquest, many of them destructive and most of them harmful to women. For example, in an article entitled “Anti-Porn: Soft Issue, Hard World” (1983), B. Ruby Rich challenged the “legions of feminist men” who deplore the effects of pornography on women to find out “why men like porn (not, piously, why this or that exceptional man does not).” In an essay entitled “Testing the Razor” (1989), Stephen H. Clark analyzed T. S. Eliot’s address in The Waste Land (1920) to a specifically masculine audience — “’You! hypocrite lecteur! — mon semblable, — mon frère!’” — by concluding that many of Eliot’s poems articulate a masculine “psychology of sexual fear and desired retaliation.” Other analyses of masculinity have examined boyhood, the fear men have that artistry is unmasculine, and the representation in literature and film of subtly erotic male disciple-patron relationships.

Gender critics have reacted most strongly, however, against essentialist strains of feminist criticism that ground “female difference” in the female body, i.e., “nature.” In the 1970s, French feminist critics argued that the female body gives rise to a special feminine language, writing (écriture féminine), and style, and French-influenced North American feminist critics, such as Toril Moi and Nancy K. Miller, subsequently posited an essential relationship between sex and text. Miller, for instance, suggested in Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (1988) that no man could write the “female anger, desire, and selfhood” that Emily Brontë inscribed in her poetry and in Wuthering Heights (1847). Such critics equated gender with sex, gender difference with sexual difference, and thus viewed gender differences as natural.

As constructionists, gender critics attribute differences between men and women in language, writing, and style to cultural influences, not sexual difference. For instance, Peggy Kamuf, one of the first critics to attack the notion of feminine writing, posited a relationship only between gender and text, not sex and text, and therefore focused less on whether an author was a woman than on whether the author was “Writing Like a Woman” (1980), as the name of one of her essays suggests. If gender differences are social constructs, men can read and write like women, women like men.

Many gender theorists have found especially disturbing the inclination of some fabliaux, lais, French feminists to equate the female body with the maternal body, an association they worry may play into the hands of fundamentalists seeking to reestablish patriarchal family values. For instance, in The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Nancy Chodorow examined what we call “mothering” — not just the ability to give birth and nurse but to nurture more generally — and challenged the assumption that it is in women’s nature or biological destiny to “mother” in the broader sense. Instead of linking mothering with sex, Chodorow argued that the separation of home and workplace engendered by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution made mothering appear to be a woman’s job in modern Western society.

Some extreme constructionists (also called postfeminists) have further complicated the sex-gender debate by arguing that even nature is in some sense a cultural construct. For instance, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), gender theorist Judith Butler argued that sexual difference, like gender, is culturally produced rather than natural, with notions about sex created as a byproduct of the cultural construction of gender. As a result, no one can really know how the body functions apart from the culture in which it lives. Or, as Schor explained in “Feminist and Gender Studies”: “there is nothing outside or before culture, no nature that is not already enculturated.”

As provocative as such claims about nature have been, it is sexuality that has played the biggest role in distinguishing gender criticism from feminist criticism and raising its profile in literary studies. Drawing on French theorist Michel Foucault’s critique of the homosexual / heterosexual dichotomy, many gender critics have focused on sexuality as the topic that most confounds traditional notions of gender. In Histoire de la sexualité (The History of Sexuality) (1976), Foucault distinguished sexuality from sex, calling sexuality a “technology of sex.” He also suggested that the Western concept of homosexuality — and heterosexuality, as its binary opposite — is a relatively recent invention. Prior to the nineteenth century, people spoke of “acts of sodomy” and of people who committed them as “sodomites,” but the sodomite was a “temporary aberration,” not the “species” he became in the nineteenth century.

Gender critics, particularly queer theorists, who follow Foucault’s lead have argued that the homosexual / heterosexual distinction is as much a cultural construct as the masculine / feminine dichotomy. Indeed, these critics have used the very variety of sexual identifications, behaviors, and responses to expose the inadequacy of gender as a category. With bisexuality and bondage, swinging and sadomasochism, transsexualism and transvestism, it is “an astonishing simplification,” as Sedgwick noted in “Gender Criticism” (1992), that “if I ask you what your sexual orientation or sexual preference is, you will understand me to be asking precisely one thing: whether you are homosexual or heterosexual.” The range of sexualities notwithstanding, however, other gender critics have argued that sexuality is inherent or innate. For instance, many gay and lesbian critics have celebrated homosexual difference, much as many feminist critics have celebrated female difference. Moreover, like essentialist feminists, they have argued that gay and lesbian ways of reading exist and have reinterpreted works by authors such as Henry James, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison.

With the growing interest in sexuality in literary studies, gay and lesbian criticism and queer theory have become increasingly prominent approaches, and their relationship to gender criticism has been the subject of some debate. Gay and lesbian criticism, whether constructionist or essentialist, has focused on textual representations of and readings responsive to homo- and heterosexuality; queer theory, an outgrowth of gay and lesbian criticism, has taken a strongly constructionist, more theoretical, and less text-oriented approach to both literature and culture, viewing sexual identities as flexible, not fixed. In both cases, though, the approaches have focused on sexuality as the issue that “troubles” gender as a category, making them classifiable as gender criticism, though not all gay and lesbian critics and queer theorists would so categorize their work.

The critique of gender as a category of analysis continues to evolve and expand. Joan Riviere’s essay “Womanliness as Masquerade” (1929), in which Riviere argued that all femininity involves masquerade, has sparked an interest in performance theory in both the feminist and gender approaches. In Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992), Marjorie Garber, a cultural critic, analyzed the constructed nature of gender by focusing on people who have apparently achieved gender identity through transvestism, transsexualism, and sexual role-playing or reversal — themes that surface in or even pervade cultural productions ranging from the works of Shakespeare, Elvis Presley, and Liberace to folk tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood”; movies such as La cage aux folles (1978), The Birdcage (1996), and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001); and television shows such as Transparent (2014— ).

Moreover, gender critics have established the significance of gender, however defined, not only in poems and novels but also in areas such as advertising, television, and everyday life. For instance, Sedgwick’s book Tendencies (1993) begins with commentary on subjects as diverse — and connected — as the suicide rate among gay teenagers, American Christmas traditions, AIDS, queer reading, and contemporary journalism. Other gender critics have focused on film, arguing that it plays a primary role in gender construction. Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Tootsie (1982), Billy Elliot (2000), and Million Dollar Baby (2004) are among the many movies that reflect, perpetuate, and/or challenge stereotypical gender roles and characteristics.