Reading Response: The Social Construction of Gender

While the reading in Literature for Today’s Young Adults this week focused on realistic fiction, I want to focus my attention on the Critical Encounters chapter about “The Social Construction of Gender.” Overall, this chapter gave a refreshing take on how to present feminist/gender theory to the classroom. Appleman creates a variety of activities to teach students, male and female, how to look at texts and their world through a feminist lens. Probably the most unique activity put forth in the chapter is Appleman’s exercise investigating how gender role constructions affect male characters in a text.

I believe this kind of activity is crucial to open the minds of young men and women to see the point of feminist discourse. It make it painfully apparent that the dominant patriarchal worldview has disempowered everyone regardless of sex or gender identification. By acknolwedging and exploring the many ways that men are affected by the gender constructions of our society, we show that feminism does not just advocate for women’s rights. We show students, who may be afraid to advocate for feminism based on mistaken notions that feminists are man-haters, that men have a stake in this too.

Iggy has the right idea.

However, there was something that nagged me throughout the chapter. Early on, Appleman announces that she will be using feminist and gender theory interchangeably. While she concedes that “theoretical purists may rightfully object to the renaming,” she also asserts that this renaming is to ensure that “feminist theory is not limited to only women writers or women’s experiences” (67). Now renamed, “Gender theory,” she continues, “provides us with a way of recognizing and naming other visions while promoting our own ways of seeing” (68). As a woman who was raised by a strong single mother who was a staunch advocate of feminist causes to protect both women and men, this insistence on renaming was like a slap in the face. While I see that the name may be less imposing to students, I also think the point of feminism is not just to advocate women’s views, but to show how the patriarchy as a whole is a power system that corrupts and oppresses everyone. Also, by avoiding calling it feminism, we inadvertently delegitimize the feminine stake in the issue, which I feel undermines the point of the theory/worldview in favor of a still-more male-centric view.

For a male perspective on this issue, I invite you to watch this awesome TedTalk: 

I want to hear what you think: do you think we should call this lens “feminist,” “gender,” or use both terms interchangeably in teaching the concept to students?

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7 thoughts on “Reading Response: The Social Construction of Gender

  1. Chelsea, I am glad you picked up on the naming issue discussed in this chapter. I definitely feel as though I understand the same notion of “feminism” that you describe: namely, that feminism as a political/social/economic/ideological movement seeks to protect both men and women. However, Appleman seems to be working with a more traditional denotation of feminism, which focuses only on the experiences and writings associated with females/femininity/women (67). Thus, it seems that Appleman specifically believes that widening the frame may make the theory more accessible to all students.
    I think that the question of whether to use the “feminist” label or the “gender theory” label is really asking whether they are separate theories. Is feminism a specific lens within gender theory? Is gender theory an extension of traditional feminism? Does modern feminism mean the same thing as gender theory? These questions seem up for debate.
    Personally, I think that using the terms gender theory and feminist theory interchangeably (at least at first) could be an effective way of breaking down some of the negative stereotypes surrounding feminism. There has been such a vocal backlash against all things “feminist,” that I think a lot of students come to the classroom with a strong bias against the terminology, if not the ideology. In order to deconstruct the misunderstandings surrounding feminist theory, I think approaching the subject through a gender theory lens might make students less reticent or defensive.

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    1. Thanks for bringing up the idea that feminist and gender theories may or may not be separate theories. It hadn’t occured to me before. I think working through these definitional overlaps gets at the heart of the issue. I also agree that there are merits to teaching students gender theory–which as you point out, can be synonymous with, connected to, or separate from feminist theory depending on how you think of it. This might be a good way to at least get the conversation going, but I worry that it might be dangerous to continue to allow students to have such a negative impression of feminism. Obviously it is their opinion, but I think we might do our students a disservice if we allow them to ignore the scholarship’s insistence on feminism being more than just about women’s issues.

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  2. Chelsea, I am all about girl power. I also understand why, if given the choice, you would chose to keep the name rather than changing it to ‘gender theory.’ Initially, I was torn on this issue. I thought that renaming ‘feminist theory’ to ‘gender theory’ would make the purpose of the lenses clearer, but it only distorts the underlying issue further. The surface issue is a societal misconception of the definition of feminism. If the true definition of feminism were replaced with the current belief that feminists are all bra-burning man-haters then, the rest of the world would likely agree with us.
    However, this also raises the question: do trans individuals or people who choose not to identify with either gender get a lens of their own or, fit under the umbrella term of ‘gender theory’? And, if they do fit under this new umbrella term, is it a sign that their issues are not as valid as individuals that strictly identify as male or female?

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    1. It’s my understanding from other classes on literary theory that trans and other non-heterosexual views are usually classified under the term of queer theory. This is not just my terminology, but there is a whole school of thought behind this term. We even have entire classes devoted to it at UMD! You do raise a good point though, since trans individuals especially have a point of view that is at the intersection of gender identification and sexuality, more so than many other groups. It also starts getting complicated when you bring in the pansexual/trigender/polygender/asexual/etc. view to things, since these groups also tend to have unique perspectives on gender and sexuality.

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  3. I understand the importance of making feminist theory accessible to all students, including the traditionally reluctant male students. However, I think renaming the theory as “gender theory” discredits the feminist lens by undermining the unique experiences and interpretations brought to the page by both the writer and the reader. Additionally, by calling it “gender theory,” students will likely feel less accountable for adapting to different mindsets — a flexibility that is invaluable in both in an ambiguous text and in an ambiguous word. That being said, I do think that incorporating gender theory into the classroom as a broad umbrella term is useful to propel class discussions and critical thinking skills. This term will invite students to consider a variety of lenses, including the traditional feminist lens, with new additions like LGBTQ lenses. While the “traditional” lens tends to be from thew viewpoint as a straight while male, readers are rarely asked to interpret a text from the suppressed male’s experiences. Societal norms dictate not only how women should act, but also how men are supposed to interact on a daily basis; however, feminist theory traditionally expounds only upon ways in which women are or can be rejecting their prescribed societal roles. From personal experience, I never had a English/Literature class in high school that discussed the suppression of men. “Traditional” literary theory evokes sentiments of men-hating women, even if this is not the goal. By incorporating other lenses and theories under a broad umbrella category discussed in class, this might mitigate some of the male students’ hesitation.

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    1. Your focus on the male stake in learning gender and feminist theory is really perceptive. I very much agree with you that in teaching literature, and especially in teaching feminist or gender theories, one must also look at the suppression of and constraints imposed on males (or anyone who is not a heterosexual cis-gender female) by society. If more teachers talked about this aspect of gender, I think more students would be less anxious about it, which is something you express quite well.

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  4. Great conversation here. What sticks out to me is that many words (all words?) carry with them certain connotations and baggage. “Feminism” is certainly one of them, but others do too: “transgender,” “patriarchy,” “masculinity.” Even the word “theory” makes lots of people twitch! So I think maybe a more useful question than “Should we avoid the word ‘feminism’ in the classroom” would be “How do we get students to move beyond kneejerk connotations of ANY word”? Some teachers avoid the loaded word altogether (i.e., replacing “theory” with “lens”). Is that a good idea? What’s another way to do it?

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