Research Paper: Gender When Unraveling

Pages: 11 (3378 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Women's Issues - Sexuality  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] However, it is also a freedom that derives from their lesser social standing and degree of power. Halberstam outlines how femininity and masculinity as social constructs are unparallel and uneven in how they can be negotiated.

Tomboyism appears to be quite common for girls and does not generally give rise to parental fears & #8230; because comparable cross-identification behaviors in boys do often give rise to hysterical reactions, we tend to believe that female gender deviance is more tolerated than male gender deviance. (p. 618)

An interlocking theoretical approach helps us be aware of and inclined to analyze how complicated and inter-connected social constructions are. Femininity and masculinity are constantly balanced against each other in terms of the social power that the different sexes hold, the sexual orientation (which is also not a binary opposition but rather a spectrum) of individuals in question, race, etc.

Difference and Power: Difference is Not Power

A logical consequence of the idea that important social concepts are defined and understood in oppositional terms is the idea that (as briefly noted above) that such definitions tend to be one-sided at least in terms of power. If A is defined as being different from B, then A is also defined as being better than or less than B. The above reductionist syllogism, of course, does not have to obtain. There are a number of other possible ways to construct the relationships between the above "A" and "B" in purely logical terms. But in actual practice, the ways in which gender is constructed in our society ensures that the different pairings are not construed equally: Femininity (and femaleness, not the same thing) and masculinity (and maleness) along with homosexuality and heterosexuality are thus seen within society as a way of validating one over the other, with straight men at the top of a social hierarchy that is constantly reconfirmed by various aspects of social relationships.

One of the most important aspects of the above dynamic (in which gender is constructed not in parallel but in hierarchical terms) is that men (because of their greater social power and thus their greater power to define social concepts such as gender itself) have the power to define themselves as -- often without any irony -- as disempowered. We can see this in a number of different arenas, from the truly ironic in which white Protestant men construct themselves as victims of a Protestant-dominated society that somehow persecutes Christians.

Less ironically, one sees much more legitimate claims to men's being persecuted because of individuals' construction of their own masculinity, when the subjects constructing that masculinity are gay. Indeed, such a construction lay at the heart of the early gay liberation movement (which is to say, the first serious coordinated attempt for gay men to take control of the social construction of their own internalized sense of masculinity and maleness) was fundamentally important.

Connell & Messerschmidt (2005) write that early gay activists were able to create "sophisticated analyses" of both "the oppression by men and the oppression of men." This lead to the concept of "a hierarchy of masculinities" that was based on the experience of disapproval (amounting at times to hate and violence) of straight men to gay men (p. 576). That gay men should define their gender in opposition to other social constructions of gender is not surprising. What has made the particular social (and psychological) strategy that many gay men have taken so threatening to so many straight men is that these gay men have defined their sense of gendered self not vis-a-vis women (either gay or straight) but in opposition to men.

Gay men not only demanded that their definitions of masculinity be given legitimacy, but they also (if only incidentally much of the time) demanded of other members of society (as well as of themselves) that gender not be constructed in binary terms. Both of these demands were radical. For socially constructed roles that are defined in multilateral ways (or in "multivocal" ways to invoke the language of postmodern criticism) require the kind of interlocking perspective that is being argued for in this paper.

Binary oppositions are more easily extracted from society as a whole to be analyzed. Once one acknowledges that all social constructions, all social truths, and all social roles, are multivalent, one is also acknowledging that both sociological methods and theories must be complex and embedded in the whole. The fight by gay men to be able to have control of the definition of their own masculinity requires a theoretical approach that explicitly acknowledges that social actors (which is to say all of us) are actively engaged in the process of determining who they are. This is true not only for those at the top of social hierarchies but also those in the middle, and even the bottom.

It is also true that when one of two assumed-to-be-binary terms is reconstructed as being far from homogeneous, it may be done so through the process of insisting that the other of the two terms/concepts is in fact simple, even to the point of homogeneity. Nayak & Kehily (2006) outline this process:

Because masculinity is .structured through contradiction' it is always unachievable, inevitably ungraspable, ever incomplete. The repetition of homophobic sequences suggest the impossibility of acquiring a unified self. The continual rehearsal of these performances are indicative of the psychic rhythms of a dislocated masculinity constituted through a 'lack'. The artificiality of gender is then given momentary meaning through socially recognisable sequences -- the 'stylized repetition of acts' & #8230; That certain young men feel 'compelled to replicate a hyper-masculine stylized performance ensures that homophobic practices are rife. By focusing on the interconnections between masculinities and homophobias our work problematises oppressive heterosexualities which are styled as against "others" and gays. Although other repetitive routes for gender construction are available, the attraction of homophobia, and its connections with traducing femininity, continue to make it a particular style of manufacturing of a particular white, working class masculinity in English schools. (p. 556)

Their naming of such social construction of heterosexuality as a series of homophobic performances as a traducing of femininity is both trenchant and accurate. For when men fight among themselves to create hierarchies of masculinity, it may well be it is women who are the losers.

Power, Difference, and Normalcy

This creation of a hierarchy of masculinity, in which some forms of masculinity are "better" than others (which is to say that they are more widely accepted and accrue more social power) is intimately linked to the idea of normalcy. Concepts of masculinity that are not at the top of the social hierarchy are defined not simply as being different, or even lesser in terms of power accorded to them, but also as deviant and abnormal (Gill, 1989, p. 14). Connell & Messerschmidt (2005) note that for gay men, this social construction of abnormality on their part ranges from the name-calling and bullying suffered by school boys perceived by their peers to be insufficiently masculine to the criminalization of homosexual conduct (p. 579).

One of the most important and oft-repeated tropes in social constructions of normalcy are claims made to what is "natural" and therefore "normal" set in opposition to what is "unnatural" and therefore abnormal (Easthope, 1990, p. 19). In this regard, it is important to note how often the term "abnormal" is applied to gay men and lesbians and to homosexual acts. This has persisted to the current day, of course, despite a growing body of evidence that points to the fact that sexual orientation is a biological fact rather than a "lifestyle choice." If sexual orientation is either genetic or biological (current research suggests that sexual orientation may be affected by intrauterine conditions rather than genetics), then it is by definition natural.

Nayak & Kehily (2006) argue that performance of hegemonic masculinity in regards to social actor claims to heterosexuality speaks to the ways in which social identity must be continually reenacted. This too serves as a reminder that social identities such as gender must be seen and understood in highly embedded and interconnected terms. They discuss "the performativity of 'playing it straight'.

Our research indicates that homophobic repetitions are an act of self production, an exhibition of the 'natural' that is ultimately flawed. For many of the young men who engage in these oppressive actions, heterosexual masculinities are consolidated through display. The performance provides a fantasy of masculinity which can only be sustained through repetition, yet always resonates the echo of uncertainty. We felt the young men in our research were engaged in an endless struggle with the self, a struggle which affects the lives of young women, subordinate masculinities, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those unsure of their sexual identities. The constant need to perform also suggests the hollowness of the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Gender When Unraveling.  (2010, December 6).  Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/gender-unraveling/2230043

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"Gender When Unraveling."  Essaytown.com.  December 6, 2010.  Accessed April 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/gender-unraveling/2230043.