7.1 Gender Identities
And Representations


The starting point for our look at gender identities is Riviere’s concept of ‘masquerade’ and we will then move on to look at in some detail an interactionist approach (Garfinkel), which is in keeping with other, significant parts of this study. Both of these in their own way prefigure some of the postmodern/deconstructionist views on gender, sexuality and the body which will be discussed in due course. The discussion will also include some of the relevant social and economic aspects of gender.

The psychoanalyst Riviere (1929) speaks of ‘womanliness as a masquerade’, and bases this notion on a case study of a female patient, an intellectual, who in 1920s London excelled in the public performances her job as a ‘propagandist’ entailed. The high level of competence she displayed in the public realm (a masculine domain much more then than now) caused her anxiety which she sought to alleviate by seeking reassurance from ‘father figures’ (p.304) with whom she ‘flirted and coquetted’ (p.305). The strain caused by this incongruity of attitude (competition/approval) caused sufficient difficulties for her to seek psychoanalytical help. Looking at the gender strategies involved in these practices, Riviere concludes:

Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it… The reader may ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade’. My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing.
(p.306)

Such a view leads a present-day commentator to declare: ‘Riviere pioneered the idea that gender is constructed according to social codes, where the subject becomes gendered by a process of mimesis’ (Phoca 1999:60).

A related study, also pioneering in being one of the first detailed treatments in social theory of the sexed body, is that by Garfinkel (1967). He discusses an intensive series of interviews he had in the late 1950s with Agnes, an intersexed person (but see below). Agnes was at that time in her late teens and had fully-developed female breasts, no uterus, ovaries or facial hair; she had a penis, testes, and a male chromatin pattern. She was raised as a boy but had always felt herself to be a girl. She fully accepted society’s strict male/female dichotomy and, in Garfinkel’s words, behaved as ‘120% the woman’.

Just as we have seen how Garfinkel used breaching experiments to ‘foreground the background’ of everyday life (Section 6.1), he also saw how Agnes’ behaviour performed a similar function; in deliberately acting ‘like a woman’ and avoiding acting ‘like a man’ Agnes highlighted the way in which such ‘normal’ behaviours are socially managed accomplishments. For Garfinkel, the normally-sexed environment (he is talking of 1950s/60s USA, but this still holds good as a present-day description of developed western society) is rigorously dichotomised into male and female. ‘The dichotomy provides for persons who are “naturally”, “originally”, “in the first place”, “in the beginning”, “all along”, and “forever” one or the other’ (p.116). This is no small matter because of ‘the omnirelevance of sexual statuses to affairs of daily life as an invariant but unnoticed background in the textures of relevances that comprise the changing actual scenes of everyday life’ (p.118). Someone like Agnes, whose body and practices transgress this divide ‘permits an appreciation of these background relevances that are easily overlooked or difficult to grasp because of their routinised character and because they are so embedded in a background of relevances that are simply “there” and taken for granted’ (p.118). Such relevances are the socialised behaviours performed by people depending on their possession of a penis or vagina. However, this does not mean that Garfinkel’s is an essentialist view, as at this point he distinguishes between biological genitals and what he calls ‘cultural genitals’ (p.123). Biologically, Agnes had a penis but by her own accounts (perhaps exaggerated for effect, according to Garfinkel) it had never been erect, was an object of no curiosity for her, had not entered into games with other children, was never a source of pleasurable feelings, was, in fact, an accidental appendage used solely for urination (p.129). However, because she saw herself as a female (who happened to have a penis) she knew that to fit culturally, she needed a vagina and insisted on ‘the possession of either a vagina that nature made or a vagina that should have been there all along, i.e. the legitimate possession. The legitimately possessed vagina is the object of interest. It is the vagina the person is entitled to. Although “nature” is a preferred and bona fide source of entitlement, surgeons are as well’ (p.127, original emphasis). Agnes had an operation to remove the penis and scrotum and a vagina and labia were created. In this view and in these acts we see, then, how such basic biological features are shaped and informed by cultural considerations also.

Thereafter she had the task of achieving a female identity in the social world and this she did by becoming, in Garfinkel’s words, a “secret apprentice” (p.146). From her boyfriend’s mother (who did not know her biography) she learned certain skills – cooking, dressmaking, shopping, home management (recall this was the 1950s); from her female roommates, who also were unaware of her history, she learned how to talk about parties, men, and dating; and from her boyfriend (who did know Agnes’ situation) she learned from his criticisms of other women that she should be passive, obedient, and accommodating (pp.146-7). What was significant about all of this was that these gender practices were all self-conscious acts with others in concrete social situations. This was gender management done under the gaze of and in interaction with normal male and female others (who assumed she knew such behaviours in the first place) and was done without being able to indicate that she was learning such acts in the process of performing them (p.147). Such performances led Garfinkel to see her as a ‘practical methodologist’, ‘the doer of the accountable person’. His summary is worth quoting at length:

Agnes’ methodological practices are our sources of authenticity for the finding, and recommended study policy, that normally sexed persons are cultural events in societies whose character as visible orders of practical activities consist of members’ recognition and production practices. We learned from Agnes, who treated sexed persons as cultural events that members make happen, that members’ practices alone produce the observable-tellable normal sexuality of persons, and do so only, entirely, exclusively in actual singular, particular occasions through actual witnessed displays of common talk and conduct.

(p.181, emphasis added)

Though extremely insightful, Garfinkel’s study is now found wanting in at least two respects. Firstly, he never uses the term ‘gender’ in his discussion but instead the term ‘sexuality’, and the reader is at times unsure if he is discussing ‘sex’ as in male/female, or ‘gender’ as in masculine/feminine behaviour which is assigned a social meaning in relation to a person’s attributed sex, or hetero/homo-sexual behaviour. Such distinctions are important and at that time Garfinkel evidently lacked the tools to make them. The second point concerns power. Garfinkel does not raise any questions about the nature of the social relations between men and women, so that (to give just one example from many) when Agnes learns to be passive with her boyfriend, this is not problematised in any way. That is, he does not question the basis of such displays of power asymmetry. As Brittan points out, ‘Garfinkel’s incorrigible propositions about reality and gender do not in themselves tell us why gender inequality and patriarchy exist’ (1989:43). Both of these matters will be addresses in what follows.

But before moving on to West and Zimerman’s further elaboration of Garfinkel’s ideas, it should be pointed out that it was necessary for Garfinkel to add an appendix to his study. This was because five years after the operation Agnes returned to see the doctor with whom Garfinkel collaborated, Robert Stoller, about a routine matter. In the course of an informal talk with Stoller she casually revealed that ‘she had never had a biological defect that feminised her but that she had been taking estrogens since age twelve’ (Stoller in Garfinkel p.287). As a twelve-year-old boy who wanted to be a girl, Agnes had, most improbably, stolen the oestrogen from her mother who was taking it after having a hysterectomy. Thereafter Agnes filled in the prescription herself and paid for the drugs with money stolen from her mother. She knew that it was a ‘female substance’ but did not know what effects it would have. She took the dose her mother had been taking and continued this throughout adolescence and thus she was able to prevent the onset of all male secondary sexual characteristics and develop female secondary sexual characteristics instead. She had then been able to keep this secret from everyone even during the stringent vetting process she underwent in the process of changing sexes, which included tissue tests and searches for drugs. Garfinkel notes that her unlikely disclosure does not alter the fact that his study shows (and, indeed, it is added here, may even underline the fact) that ‘the recognisedly rational accountability of practical actions is a member’s practical accomplishment’ (p.288).

West and Zimmerman (1987) elaborate and expand on Garfinkel's work. Their vocabulary is more precise and they use three distinct concepts: sex, sex category, and gender. Sex is ‘a determination made through the application of socially agreed upon biological criteria for classifying persons as females or males’ (p.127). (Note the use of ‘socially’ rather than ‘scientifically’, a point which will recur.) Sex category means that ‘categorisation is established and maintained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the other category’ (p.127). Gender is ‘the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative concepts of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims to membership in a sex category’ (p.127). Thus, Agnes, born with a penis and testes, was sexed as a male, claimed herself to be in the sex category of a female, and in her social acts constituted her gender. Clearly, then, for West and Zimmerman, as for Garfinkel, gender is not tied to the body in some straightforward sociobiological manner, but, as the title of their work makes plain – ‘Doing Gender’ – also involves something we perform socially. ‘Rather than as a property of individuals, we conceive of gender as an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society’ (p.126).

These gender divisions are, indeed, fundamental to society and find expression in the basic characteristics which are attributed to females and males. Time and again in the literature a set of familiar traits are related. Even a casual recording of such from the reading done for this section gives us:

Females

Males

girls learn the value of managing themselves as ornamental objects

boys affect the world through physical strength
(West and Zimmerman 1987:141)

warmth, expressiveness, nurturance
sentimental, submissive

competency, instrumentality, activity
adventurous, forceful
(Basow 1992:4)

women assumed to be expressive, nurturing, emotional

men assumed to be rational, practical, aggressive
(Beynon 2002:56)

 

boys are taught to favour masculinities that are dominant and hegemonic
(Clatterbaugh 1997:4)




While this establishes clear gender differences and a world in which, put bluntly, men dominate women, our actual experience of the world is more complex than this. It is more complex in that these dichotomies are frequently transgressed (the case of Agnes being an extreme example) and also in that gender is not the only feature of our social identities. The contestation of gender identities has been carried out mainly by women, and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s has since developed along many divergent paths – liberal, socialist, separatist, radical, lesbian, deconstructionist and so on. But this has happened at the same time as many other extra-parliamentary struggles have vied for a more central place. Thus, for Spelman, a major sticking point in gender struggles has been that too often ‘the focus on women “as women” has addressed only one group of women – namely, white middle-class women of western industrialised countries’ (1988:3). And Basow reminds us: ‘each of us is situated in sociological space at the intersection of numerous categories – for example, gender, race or ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and able-bodiedness’ (1992:4). Even when for our theoretical purposes we put such issues a little to one side so that the focus is a sharper one, that of gender, the struggles in this area also provide a complexity of ideas and identities. Kemp and Squires see this positively as ‘feminism’s political commitment to diversity – its validation of a multiplicity of approaches, positions, and strategies’ (1997:3). This could hardly be otherwise because if gender is a social construction then it surely cannot have a stable and fixed form. Riley, discussing the category of ‘women’ in history, is clear on this point:

‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on; ‘women’ is both synchronically and diachronically erratic as a collectivity, while for the individual, ‘being a woman’ is also inconstant, and can’t provide an ontological foundation.
(1988:1-2)

These changing grounds of ‘women’ in conjunction with the other factors of identity mentioned above ensure that social identities are extremely complex, and Fraser points out that as people act in a multiplicity of social contexts the various elements of social identities move in and out of focus.

Thus, one is not always a woman in the same degree; in some contexts one’s womanhood figures centrally in the set of descriptions under which one acts; in others it is peripheral or latent. Finally it is not the case that people’s social identities are constructed once and for all and definitively fixed. Rather, they alter over time, shifting with shifts in agents’ practices and affiliations
(1997:380)

A corresponding picture of diversity emerges concerning males’ contestation of dominant gender identities. Brittan insists that ‘we cannot talk of masculinity, only masculinities’ (1989:1). A more detailed view comes from Clatterbaugh, who articulates eight major perspectives on masculinity: the conservative, profeminist, men’s rights, mythopoetic, socialist, gay, African American, and evangelical (1997:2). This not only shows the breadth of masculine identities but also indicates that many of these are in fact or potentially at odds with one another – conservative/socialist, profeminist/men’s rights, gay/heterosexual, African American/white. This need not, however, be the case and different elements can be used inclusively. Nixon, commenting on contemporary work on masculinity, believes that the best examples come from ‘the articulation or interweaving of particular attributes of masculinity with other social variables’ (1997:297). In this regard Johnson comments that in such anti-essentialist approaches to masculinity ‘theorists emphasise the nature of masculinity as socially constructed, highly contextualised, hence fluid and variable’ (1997:19). She also notes, drawing on Gill (1993), that a political corollary of this is that because men cannot be simply grouped into one homogeneous bloc, this does not weaken the power they have over women and, further, actually makes it more difficult for women to focus their critiques of them (p.21).

Butler, drawing inspiration from, among other sources, Riviere’s concept of ‘masquerade’, is highly critical of the binary gender system altogether and seeks to undermine it, claiming that it ‘implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it’ (1990:6). If gender is theorised as separate from sex then it becomes ‘a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one’ (p.6). Further ideas of Butler, and criticisms of them, will occur again below in a discussion of representations. Suffice it to say here that, though there is a certain leeway in people’s choices of gender identity, this in itself cannot overcome the severe constraints of the dominant cultural gender dichotomisation and its consequences.

This sharp dichotomisation of society into male and female which we have been discussing is tightly bound up with reproduction and sexuality. So strong is this tie that Rich (1980) speaks of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. Butler (1990) agrees, adding that prevailing sexuality assumes ‘a model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine expresses male, feminine expresses female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality’ (p.151, note 6). Indeed, if we look back at our starting point of intersexuality, Hird & Germon would add it is the same compulsion that contributes to the imposition of binary gender divisions on a body that is naturally intersexed.

The medical obsession with constructing pseudo-male and female bodies from intersexed bodies is driven by a heterosexual imperative. If we are to understand that gender serves as a regulatory mechanism of heterosexuality, then by extension it is clear that heterosexuality is itself a regulatory mechanism: of reproduction.
(2001:172-3).

Sexuality, like gender, is also subject to arguments of whether it is biologically or socially determined, but for Weeks this is not the issue, the pertinent question for him being ‘what are the meanings this particular culture gives to homosexuality however it may be caused, and what are the effects of those meanings on the ways the individuals organise their sexual lives’ (1995:34). Nor is sexual identity always transparent. Weeks points out that there are people who politically identify as gay and are active in the gay community but do not practice homosexual activity. Similarly, there are those who are homosexually active who do not identify as gay (1991:79). As we have observed above, other social factors are also involved in the construction of identities and Weeks observes, for example, that some black homosexuals make the choice to identify themselves politically as black rather than gay (1991:79). Further, Harding notes that ‘sexuality is at the centre of gender, race, and class politics in local and global campaigns against forced sterilisation of poor and black women, pornography, paedophile rings and sex tourism’ (1998:1). Weeks concludes that forging a sexual identity involves ‘a perpetual invention and re-invention, but on grounds fought over by many histories’ (1995:40).

The ideologies at work in these gendering and sexualisation processes are subtle and not immediately apparent. Garfinkel, talking of Agnes, pointed out that her ‘anguish and triumphs resided in the observability, which was particular to her and uncommunicable, of the steps whereby the society hides from its members its activities of organisation and thus leads them to see its features as determinate and independent objects’ (1967:182). Duerst-Lahti and Kelly would agree, noting that ‘ideologies operate such that their underlying assumptions may not be clear to their users, and the invisibility of assumptions increases their potency’ (1995a:21-2). Hawkesworth warns that this naturalisation of gender identities can lead to even those that would contest such configurations implicitly accepting a base/superstructure role for sex/gender so that there is a subtle shift from accounts of ‘“how” gender operates under specific historical conditions to a universal claim about “why” gender performs a particular social function. In this shift, gender is transformed from an analytic category into a causal force. The heuristic tool is displaced as gender is accorded ontological status’ (p.680). Thus, Kessler and McKenna point out that some scientists construct dimorphism where for them there is continuity: ‘Biological, psychological, and social differences do not lead to our seeing two genders. Our seeing two genders leads to the “discovery” of biological, psychological, and social differences’ (1978:163). Further, Kessler (1990) forcefully asserts that when physicians determine and assign gender to intersexed infants they take into account not simply biological factors but also ‘such cultural factors as the “correct” length of penis and capacity of the vagina’ (p.3). As Lorber succinctly puts it in the title of her essay on such matters: ‘Believing is Seeing’ (1993).

A significant way this has been challenged is by the taking of a ‘discursive turn’ in which, as Squires (1999:64) states, the body is not conceived as a neutral anatomical fact separate from a mind that is socially conditioned, but to note, like Foucault (1979), that the biological and the social are themselves bound together. As Connell makes explicit, ‘the body is never outside history, and history never free of bodily presence and effects on the body’ (1987:87). The male body, he says, does not simply confer masculinity but receives it (p.83) so that:

The social definition of men as holders of power is translated into not only mental body-images and fantasies, but into muscle tensions, posture, the feel, and texture of the body. This is one of the main ways in which the power of men becomes ‘naturalised’ i.e. seen as part of the order of nature.
(p.85)

Even those that would insist on a distinct and independent anatomy cannot avoid the fact that the discourse of anatomy is produced in a particular culture. ‘Another culture might take the clan totem as the essence or truth of particular bodies. The human body is always a signified body and as such cannot be understood as a “neutral object” upon which science may construct “true discourses”’ (Gatens 1992:131-2). To take just one example of this ‘non-scientific’ outlook we can look at the Zuni culture of the South Western USA.

Williams notes that many cultures around the world have had beliefs about gender markedly different from the Western Judaeo-Christian view. In various Native American Indian tribes (not all) an alternative to the male/female category has been what anthropologists call the berdache, that is, a category of people (some biologically male, some biologically female), who mix together the dress and behaviours of men and women and are seen as not being either. (Williams himself uses the term to refer to biological males only, preferring the term amazon for biological females.) The word itself originated from the Persian bardaj, and via Arabic spread to Italian as bardasso, to Spanish as bardaxa or bardaje, and by the sixteenth century to French as bardache (Williams 1992:9). It was used in French to refer to the passive male homosexual partner and it was applied to the Native American social phenomenon by early French explorers of the New World who lacked any precise cultural term for such practices. By the late nineteenth century the word appeared in anthropological reports as berdache. Williams does not give any native term for such people, presumably because there are as many such terms as there are native languages.

Among the Zuni (a tribe already encountered above in 3.1 when discussing clowns), the berdache is a morphological male who dresses and behaves outside the usual binary categories. (See Illustrations 4 and 5.) The Zuni berdaches act both as mediator between men and women and also between the physical and spiritual worlds (Williams 1992:1-3). Thus, an important element of the Zuni creation myth involves a battle between the agricultural Zuni and the enemy hunter spirits. A Zuni spirit is captured by the enemy and is transformed, and in this new state mediates between and merges the farmers and hunters. In the four-yearly re-enactment of this myth it is the berdache who performs the role of the mediating spirit. The moral of this, says Williams, is that the berdache was created for a special purpose and that this led to an improvement in society. ‘The continued re-enactment of this story provides a justification for the Zuni berdache in each generation’ (p.18).

While this can be seen as a possibly liberating alternative to the restrictions of fixed genders that predominate in most cultures, there are those who are wary of such situations. Mathieu (1996) for example, does not see that such third genders are liberating to women. She observes that in those societies which have berdaches ‘the technical skills of the male-to-woman are often judged superior to those of ordinary women, while those of the female-to-man are rarely judged superior to those of ordinary men’ (p.66). Such evaluations, she adds, ‘do not subvert, and may even strengthen the social effectiveness of bi-categorisation’ which itself ‘generally functions to the detriment of the social sex “woman”’ (p.67).

We can add here another point on reproduction. As Zuni berdaches are sexually active with men, at least some of the social space they inhabit is created by their position outside of reproductive arrangements. McKenna and Kessler see gender as heavily bound up with the reproductive function and state that this need not be the case (they are talking about a developed modern society): ‘there could be ten genders, with only two of them serving the reproductive function (a small part of the time). To imagine such an arrangement is not difficult [we have just noted above how some cultures have actually practised a form of this for many centuries]; to have it become more than theoretical is extremely hard’ (1997:688). Extremely hard because, as we have earlier seen, the actual society in which we live is clearly divided into male and female with concomitant roles and expectations. And it is to this area that we now return as the next part of the discussion will look at the division of (paid) labour with particular reference, for our purposes, to politics and governance.

 

We-wha, Zuni berdache

Illus.4. We-wha, Zuni berdache, ca. 1885 (Williams 1992).

A group of Zuni

Illus. 5. A group of Zuni, females on the left, males on the right and the berdache We-wha in the middle, signifying the position of the berdache between women and men. (Williams 1992)

Bradley observes that ‘in virtually every society of which we have knowledge men and women normally perform different types of work’ (1989:1). Kelly and Duerst-Lahti, mindful of the commonsense view of the world, remind us that when one thinks of a soldier, surgeon, or physicist, typically a male image arises, and when one thinks of a homemaker, a nurse, or an elementary schoolteacher, then a female comes to mind. ‘These roles have gendered dimensions that are usually part of the individual who performs these role identities. Even entire industries have come to be gendered’ (1995:56). So much so that Kelly (1991) talks of the ‘gendered economy’. To give just one example from many: McElhinny (1998) studied the nature of police work in the American city of Pittsburgh. She noted how such work has been traditionally seen as men’s work and ‘despite increasing numbers of women, is still so viewed by many citizens and by police officers, even by female police officers who consider themselves and other females very good at their work’ (p.310).

However, this does not mean that labour is to be seen as stable and predictable, as it is another area that is subject to historical change. The changes in the restructuring of capitalism and the equal opportunities legislation brought about by struggles around gender (Beynon 2002:87) have meant that more women have taken up paid work in recent decades, especially in developed countries. At the same time men’s traditional labour roles have also changed so that, for example, the ‘numbers [of men] working in manufacturing fell while numbers working within finance, estate agency, and business services rose’ (Hearn in Squires 1999:75), all of this leading some to talk of the ‘feminisation of the labour force’. While this clearly has to some extent affected traditional roles of males as breadwinner and females as homemaker, male dominance is still maintained in earnings. Thus if we consider a gender breakdown of low-paying jobs (in countries where there is equal pay legislation) we find the following: in the USA 33% of working women hold such jobs compared to 20% of working men; in the UK the ratio is 31%: 13%; in Japan 37%: 6%; in France 25%: 8%. The inequality is even greater in the developing world (AFL-CIO 2002). If we consider female earnings as a percentage of male earnings on a global scale we find it ranges from 92% in Vietnam to as low as 42% in Bangladesh (AFL-CIO 2002). Nowhere do women earn more than men for the same work. Corresponding figures in the US for women working full time all year (up to 1995) show they earn about 75% of their male counterparts (Jacobs 1995:9-16). This male dominance, which we can call ‘masculinism’, is ‘reproduced and reaffirmed in the household, in the economy, and in the polity’ (Brittan 1989:6). As it is this last which is directly relevant to the final analysis, it is to this we now turn.

For Brown, politics (in the sense of party politics and governance) has an explicit masculine identity: ‘It has been more exclusively limited to men than any other realm of endeavour [see Table 6] and has been more intensely, self-consciously masculine than most other social practices’ (in Duerst-Lahti and Kelly 1995a:24). Gatens forcefully asserts that given that the public sphere has been an almost exclusively male domain ‘it has developed in a manner which assumes that its occupants have a male body. Specifically, it is a sphere that does not concern itself with reproduction but with production’ (1992:124). As for the traits needed to be a public figure of authority, Jones notes that in the standard analysis of authority in modern Western discourse such a figure must be official (have a public professional role), knowledgeable (meet certain epistemic criteria for issuing orders), decisive (have a singular will and dispassionate judgement), and compelling (constructs political obedience through institutionalised hierarchy). A significant consequence of this is ‘the separation of “women-qua-women” from the process of authorising’ (1993:103-5). (We will have occasion to return to these points in the final section.) At the same time, given this hierarchy and the pluralities of masculinities discussed above, some men will dominate other men, so that ‘there is a strong set of similarities among the powerful men who sit on boardrooms, in legislatures, and other responsible positions (See Illustration 6). And there are strong similarities among men who are excluded from positions of power and prestige’ (Clatterbaugh 1997:4).

Such facts of political life are often used to present women as apolitical, but part of the problem here is the notion of politics itself. As traditional politics is primarily defined and practised by men, many women are alienated from such activities (Wilkinson and Diplock in Squires 1999:197). But if we consider the feminist watchword ‘the personal is political’, then we see in this statement ‘the claim that women are political, where the political is held to include all power-structured relations from the interpersonal to the international. If we adopt this broader notion of the political, it becomes evident that women have long been key political actors’ (Squires p.197).

Rank

Country

Lower or single House

Upper House or Senate

Elections

Seats

Women

%W

Elections

Seats

Women

%W

1

Sweden

09 1998

349

149

42.7

...

...

...

...

2

Denmark

11 2001

179

68

38.0

...

...

...

...

3

Finland

03 1999

200

73

36.5

...

...

...

...

4

Norway

09 2001

165

60

36.4

...

...

...

...

5

Iceland

05 1999

63

22

34.9

...

...

...

...

6

Netherlands

05 2002

150

51

34.0

05 1999

75

20

26.7

7

Germany

09 1998

666

211

31.7

N.A

69

17

24.6

8

Costa Rica

02 2002

57

18

31.6

...

...

...

...

9

Argentina

10 2001

257

79

30.7

10 2001

72

24

33.3

10

Mozambique

12 1999

250

75

30.0

...

...

...

...

119

Niger

11 1999

83

1

1.2

...

...

...

...

120

Yemen

04 1997

299

2

0.7

...

...

...

...

121

Morocco

11 1997

325

2

0.6

9 2001

270

1

0.4

122

Djibouti

12 1997

65

0

0.0

9 2001

270

1

0.4

"

Kuwait

07 1999

65

0

0.0

...

...

...

...

"

Micronesia (Fed. States of)

03 1999

65

0

0.0

...

...

...

...

"

Nauru

04 2000

18

0

0.0

...

...

...

...

"

Palau

11 2000

16

0

0.0

11 2000

9

0

0.0

"

Solomon islands

12 2001

50

0

0.0

...

...

...

...

"

United Arab Emirates

12 1997

40

0

0

...

...

...

...


Table 6. Women’s Representation In Parliament. The 10 highest and lowest ranking in the world (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2002).

 

Illus. 6. The most powerful people in the world., all male. G8 leaders, Canada 2002 (G8 2002).

Illus. 6. The most powerful people in the world., all male. G8 leaders, Canada 2002 (G8 2002).

However, it is inside the masculinist institutions where political decisions are made and it is to these that more women aspire. But once inside there are still problems to encounter. For example, in state legislature committees in the USA, women are disproportionately assigned to lower status committees (Kathlene 1995:168). Further, because socialisation shapes the interests of men and women differently, ‘women choose lower status social policy committees such as education, health and welfare and are largely absent on business-related and big budget committees’ (p.168). Even attempts to create a balance through positive discrimination and quotas meet with obstacles. Yoder reviewed many studies of tokenism among race, class, and education groups, and found that women suffered in their new positions through pressure to perform above average, social isolation, and role encapsulation (a particular woman was seen to represent all women). She also refers to the ‘intrusiveness effect’ whereby the dominant group ‘can effectively restructure the workplace to reduce the competitive threat posed by the growing minority’ (1991:188). Nor do increasing numbers ensure that male institutions will become less masculinist and more feminised or women-friendly. ‘On the contrary, individual women in senior bureaucratic positions may perforce have to learn to act like men in order to function effectively at these levels’ (Savage and Witz 1992:43). This can place women in an ambivalent position. Jones remarks that because leadership is encoded for masculinity ‘a women ruler appears to be an oxymoron’. So much so that she is placed in a double bind: ‘call attention to the feminine and risk losing authority, or adapt masculine norms and risk social disapprobation’ (1993:103). In fact there is more than one way to regard such behaviour. For those who see the world as rigidly dichotomised, a woman in a traditional male role can be judged as performing a ‘sex-role crossover’ (Duerst-Lahti and Kelly 1995b:6). These authors themselves would call it a transgendered act, that is, one that is no longer considered to be appropriate only for women or only for men. Even so, this does not make such acts somehow gender-neutral, as ‘(e)valuations of these acts are not synonymous’ (p.6). That is, such actors will still be seen as acting ‘like a man’ or acting ‘like a woman’.

Of course to know if someone is acting ‘like a man/woman’ we need the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in our heads. These categories are formed both through direct experience of the world and, increasingly, through mediated experience of the world. In McQuail’s view the mass media ‘constitute a primary source of definitions and images of social reality and the most ubiquitous expression of shared identity’ (2000:4), and this ‘provides a benchmark of what is normal, empirically and evaluatively’ (McQuail 1994:1). This does not mean that ‘the media’ should be seen as one homogeneous bloc. Briggs and Cobley remind us that ‘media’ is plural and they consist of ‘a diverse collection of industries and practices, each with their own methods of communication, specific business interests, constraints, and audiences’ (2002:1). Audience diversity is a point that has been stressed throughout this study and we saw, for example, in Section 5 how humour gives rise to multiple interpretations, and this is necessarily the case with media representations also. In this regard, Pickering reminds us that ‘what is taken as normal or legitimate in such texts and images is never absolute, never fixed for all time. And always the site of conflicting ways of knowing it’ ((2001:xiv).

The sharpest contestations concerning identities have been around media representations of such groups as women, ethnic minorities, homosexuality, the disabled, ‘where questions of under-representation, over-representation, and misrepresentation are necessarily high on the critical agenda’ (Pickering p. xiii). Such groups’ previous exclusion or marginalisation in the mass media led to their near invisibility, but their struggles have led to an increasing visibility as more people have spoken for themselves rather than being spoken of by others. Thus, to take the issue of homosexuality on television as just one example, all the major soap operas have had gay story lines at one time or another, there are comedies with gay leads (‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ and ‘Rhona’ in the UK, ‘Will And Grace’ in the US) at least one highly successful drama series (‘Queer As Folk’), and one of the most successful chat show hosts is the openly gay Graham Norton. However, Harding (1998:40-2) cautions that while, for example, ‘lesbian chic’ is now not uncommon in the mass media, one function of this may simply be to titillate jaded heterosexual palates. The latest example of this is BBC’s tale of Victorian lesbianism ‘Tipping The Velvet’ (the title itself being a term for cunnilingus), trailers for which stated that this was ‘What the butler wished he’d seen’, and also about which the mass circulation tabloid newspaper The Sun (traditionally conservative and more about which below) ran a large feature exclaiming: ‘Four Days To Go To The Most Explicit Lesbian TV Drama Ever’ (Iozzi and Nathan 2002).

While there are clearly still problems with representations there are also problems with contestations of representations. First, let us consider representations of women in the media. There are complaints that such representations are often not realistic, for example, showing women as sex objects at the service of men. A notorious example of this in the UK, and one that is relevant to the final analysis, is what has become known as the ‘Page Three Girl’. Started by The Sun newspaper in the 1970s and copied by other tabloids, this is a daily photograph on one of the inside pages of a naked or semi-naked female ‘glamour model’ accompanied by a punning sexually-loaded caption. As it has no relevance whatsoever to any news item it is thus a prime example of how this newspaper – the largest-selling in the country – represents women.

At the same time there are complaints that media representations are too realistic, for example, too often showing women in domestic or mothering roles (Barker 1989:207, Pickering 2001:15). As Macdonald puts it, ‘Realism, especially for non-dominant groups, may amount to no more than a depressing reproduction of how things currently are’ (1995:3). Nor is it helpful to try and merely reverse the situation, for, as Margolis points out, ‘The problem with simply replacing negative images with positive images is getting agreement on the nature of the positive images without imposing a particular set of values as dominant’ (1998:214-5). And this observation leads us neatly onto another problem, which is the nature of representation itself.

Many of the criticisms concerning the lack of visibility of marginalized groups or their misrepresentations have implicit within them the notion that somewhere there is actually an essential identity of, for example, ‘woman’, which just needs to be accurately represented. However, as was pointed out earlier in this section, there is no such essential identity waiting to be simply reflected in the media. Identities are created in embodied social interactions, and representations of them, rather than being simply reflections, are themselves also acts which help constitute identities. (Hall1997:5-6). The various media cannot simply re-present reality. To accept this we would need to believe ‘“reality” is directly knowable and accessible, unfiltered by our own perceptions and beliefs, and capable of being presented through the media in virtually unadulterated form’ (Macdonald 1995:3). However, as Bonner and Goodman make clear, representation necessarily involves some kind of modulation and interpretation: ‘Not even photographs are reflections – they are two-dimensional representations which we learn to read and interpret in many different ways’ (1992:2). In such views of representation, cultural identities can be seen as ‘a “production” which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation’ (Hall 1990:222). (These are points which have not been lost on propagandists throughout history.)

If it is indeed the case that identities and representations are so fluid and malleable, this means that they are never stable and are subject to change. In this light we will continue the discussion by looking at two areas which are useful for our purposes: stereotypes, and pornography.

Earlier in this study we discussed the notions of ‘scripts’ (5.1) and ‘background knowledge’ (6.1), that is, cognitive categories that help us make sense of the world. Without such mental devices we would need to reconstruct most of our world anew on a daily basis in the way that Garfinkel’s students had to flesh out everyday simple activities at great length. However, it is not difficult to see how in the daily grind of existence some of these cognitive shortcuts can fossilise into unthinking stereotypes, a topic first broached in the discussion of humour competence in 5.1. Thus commentators see it as crucial to distinguish between categories, which are an indispensable part of mental life, and stereotypes, which can be vehicles of entrapment.

It was the political writer and journalist Walter Lippman who, in 1921, first used the term ‘stereotype’ with its present reference, saying stereotypes are ‘an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted’ (1922:95). The psychologist Allport, when discussing the nature of prejudice, insists on making an important distinction concerning strereotypes.

A stereotype is not identical with a category… If I say ‘All lawyers are crooked’ I am expressing a stereotyped generalisation about a category. The stereotype is not itself the core of the concept. It operates, however, in such a way as to prevent differentiated thinking about the concept.
(1954:191)

For Medhurst the process of stereotyping involves selection of a particular attribute of a group, its magnification above all others, and its reduction to a kind of cultural shorthand that represents that group (2002:315). Stereotypes may not only be untrue for a particular group, they may not even be true for any specific member of the group (Basow 1992:3). Yet their creation and use persist. Lippmann says that ‘in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them’ (1922:30), and Allport asserts that we use them in order to justify our behaviour towards the categories with which they are associated (1954:191). Pickering puts it more explicitly, saying stereotypes serve structures of power. ‘The comfort of inflexibility which stereotypes provide reinforces the conviction that existing relations of power are necessary and fixed’ (2001:3). This does not mean, however, that stereotypes themselves are fixed, nor that they are simple. Let us look at one example to show this.

Perkins (1979) considers the stereotype of ‘the dumb blonde’. She notes that should someone ‘correctly’ refer to another as a dumb blonde this implies much more than hair colour and intelligence. It also refers to the female sex, the corresponding social status, the relationship with men, the lack of a rational capacity, and, we can add here, ethnicity, as most blondes, natural or dyed, are Caucasian. Thus, as this apparently simple reference entails a knowledge of a complex social structure, it is misleading to see such a stereotype as simple rather than complex. For Perkins, such stereotypes are simple and complex (p.76). She goes on to say that stereotypes, being ideological concepts subject to change, are not always rigid. This can be demonstrated here by extending the stereotype of ‘the dumb blonde’ with some present-day elaborations. Reviewing media use of the word ‘blonde’, Watson, who herself has blonde hair, comments on how its range has grown. ‘Having blonde hair now say so much about a person – a woman – that you can chuck it in a headline and it will happily substitute for “slut” or “educationally subnormal” or “gold digger” or “bit on the side”, depending on the context’ (2002). She then provides six basic categories into which ‘blondes’ now fit. There is the Hard Blonde, ‘superfit’ and ‘flashy’, of which Madonna is an example. The Modern Sloane is a high society upper class woman, for example, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Closet Mouse is ‘a sucker for uniform dress’, neat, pretty, who helped popularise the pashmina amongst the middle class. Then there is the Successful Blonde, the middle-aged professional who is now financially comfortable, such as Rosemary Conley, the creator of diet and exercise programmes for women. The Trophy Blonde has different rankings ranging from the extremely rich Ivana Trump, through famous model Elle McPherson, to the ‘working class princess’ Britney Spears. Finally there is the woman with three shades of highlight who is ‘as ubiquitous as denim’, who makes up the Common Blonde (2002). Some might feel this is a little too subjective, speculative or superficial. This may be the case but the example does underline the point that stereotypes are pliant and renewable and such qualities greatly aid their persistence. Nor should we forget that Watson’s representation of these women in a mass medium also serves to create and strengthen such stereotypes, which, of course, may be contested from other sources.

But if this one example says something about the complexity of representations and identities, it also says something about there instability. Both Weeks and Butler find identities troubling. Weeks, for example, finds sexual identities problematic because they assume fixity (the rigidity of sexual dichotomies was discussed above) but in the reality of people’s actual sexual practices they confirm diversity (1995:37). Butler comments that she will appear under the sign of lesbian on political occasions but as, for her, sexual categories can be the instruments of regulatory regimes, she ‘would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies’ (1991:14). Fuss also adds that the borders between sexual identities are ‘notoriously unstable’ and liable to transgressions (1991:3). Given this state of affairs, Weeks talks of the ‘necessary fictions’ (1991:viii) of sexual identities, that is, how such identities are not simply given but are constructed through choices made in specific social and historical conditions of uncertainty. Similarly, Jackson and Scott talk of ‘composing the body’ by playing on the double meaning of the verb to compose. ‘We compose narratives of self and hence compose ourselves. To be composed is to be in control and bodily composure suggests control of a potentially unruly body’ (2001:22).

But a practical note of caution comes from a number of sources. Kotthoff and Wodak (1997) are critical of some of these postmodern theories, particularly deconstructionist theories, for what they see as their voluntarism and lack of a broader social contextualisation. In their view such approaches to gender ‘occasionally exploit gender-framed presentation forms, but leave the prevailing power order largely untouched. This order is located in the institutions of socialisation such as family and school, in religion, politics, media, and the labour market’ (p.xi). Jones (1993) refuses to give up the sign ‘women’ as an important subject of feminist theory (p.ix) and criticises the play with diverse identities: ‘To insist on plural subject positions within the global political economic setting of increasingly monopolised wealth, power, and violence seems ironic and politically dangerous’ (p.14). And Squires observes that ‘[t]hese diversity theorists have a challenging task in negotiating the connection between their abstract theoretical insights and their practical political proposals’ (1999:225).

The talk of the composing of sexual and bodily representations brings us to another relevant aspect of the final analysis, the question of pornography. In the 1970/80s there seemed to be an unequivocal view about what it is that constitutes pornography but this, like much theorising about sexuality and gender, has seen a number of changes. Dworkin took an etymological view, taking as her starting point the meaning of the Greek roots porne, the lowest class of prostitutes, and graphos, writing, etching, or drawing (1981:200):

Contemporary pornography strictly and literally conforms to the word’s root meaning: the graphic depiction of vile whores, or, in our language, sluts, cows (as in: sexual cattle, sexual chattel), cunts. The word has not changed its meaning and the genre is not misnamed.
(p.200)

(We have seen throughout this study, however, the problems of the decontextualised meanings of words.)

Dworkin was instrumental in helping with the passing of anti-pornography legislation in the USA but came under criticism for her alliance on this matter with conservative forces who also were anti-abortion and extremely critical of homosexuality. In the UK the Labour MPs Clare Short and Dawn Primarolo also attempted to get anti-pornography legislation through parliament and found themselves criticised in the same way Dworkin was in America (Segal 1992:11). Also of note was that they included in their anti-pornography drive an attempt to have ‘Page Three Girls’ banned from newspapers, seeing them as much the sexual objectification of women as explicit pornography, only, worse, they appeared in a ‘family newspaper’ (McNair 1996).

Since the earlier feminist theorising on pornography there has been a much wider and more contested spectrum of views expressed on the matter as people have considered sexual representations in broader social contexts. Segal points out, for example, that ‘the higher levels of overall economic, political and other indices of gender equality in Sweden and Denmark compared to the USA [are] coupled with far more liberal attitudes to pornography’ (1992:7-8). (To take just the point of the political representation of women: Sweden and Denmark are first and second in the world rankings given above in Table 6; the US and the UK are fifty-ninth and forty-seventh respectively.) Loach notes further that women are also users of pornography: ‘30% of consumers in Australia are women, a third in Copenhagen, 40% in the States’ (1992:269). We can add that women also produce sexually explicit material (which some might call pornography), usually for consumption by women, for example, the photographs of Della Grace, and the output of the Black Lace publishing house. And, of course, pornography has become a source of humour for comedians. Jenny Éclair, who introduces herself as ‘the rotting, rotting old whore’, talks about watching pornographic videos and invites the audience’s collusion: ‘You know the kind, where the boy gets the girl – in the eye’ (1998).

Part of the problem here is, once again, context and audience. Thus, it is possible, in Gilbert’s view, to see Dworkin’s novel Mercy, with its graphic depictions of ‘the sexually explicit subordination of women’ as itself as pornographic as de Sade’s Justine. She says it could be so in the same way that ‘a Robert Mapplethorpe penis, while seen as “art” on a gallery wall, would, if encountered in a Soho bookshop by someone to whom his name meant nothing, be seen straight away as pornography’ (1992:219). Such context-sensitive considerations lead some to attempt to create a distinction between ‘pornography’ and ‘erotica’. To give just one example: Goodman says that erotica entails equal power, consent, active subjects, a more democratic gaze, whereas pornography involves unequal power, where a male maker objectifies the body of someone else (usually female) (1992a:274-5) However, others believe attempts to make such a distinction mask wider concerns, such as, for example, class, calling erotica simply ‘the pornography of the elite’ (Angela Carter in Gamble (ed.) 1999:297).

What is not contested is a development which McNair calls ‘the pornographication of the mainstream’ (1996, chapter 8). As support he cites such examples as ‘Last Tango In Paris’ in popular cinema (many others could be added), the marriage of postmodern artist Jeff Koons to the pornography actress La Cicciolina and subsequent representations of their sexual activities in his work, the sado-masochistic chic of advertising, and, in pop music, the woman referred to above as a ‘Hard Blonde’, Madonna, whose use of pornographic representations in videos, dress, and the book ‘Sex’ has been well-documented (Schwichtenberg (ed.) 1993, among others). In fact, we have already had occasion to mention pornography and the mainstream in discussion of ‘Page Three Girls’, and it is worth pausing to make further connections between pornography and newspapers. The main distribution of a great deal of soft-core pornography in the UK has been for many years not through back street sex shops but high street and corner shop newsagents. Hence the attempt referred to above by Short and Primarolo to have that connection severed. A further connection is that at least two national newspapers – the low circulation The Daily Sport/The Sunday Sport, and the long-established Daily Express/Sunday Express – are owned by men, David Sullivan and Richard Desmond respectively, whose fortunes were made through pornography. The relevant aspects of these issues will be taken up once again in the final analysis.

7. Some Gender Aspects>

7.1 Gender Identities and Representations

7.2 Gender and Language>

7.3 Gender and Humour>

Contents>