This is the final installment of the three-part series on my various research fields. The previous part on sports is available here, and the first part, on nature, here. Now, gender is a very contested concept, and one that people are likely to have their own opinions on; opinions that may differ drastically from those that academic gender scholars have. First of all, gender is not the same as one’s sex, i.e. where ‘sex’ refers explicitly to one’s biological sex, ‘gender’ is a bit more complicated concept that, simplified, usually entails one’s socialization into a given gender and the kind of societal expectations that go along with belonging to that particular gender. That said, even biological sex isn’t as clearcut as many people would like to think as, contrary to popular beliefs, not all people are born into either male or female bodies. The sex/gender dichotomy was most famously expressed by French philosopher and author of The Second Sex, Simone be Beauvoir, who said that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
Simone de Beauvoir. Credit: manchesterhistorian.com
Now that we have some basic concepts covered, let’s proceed with a “quick and dirty” look on history and then continue to some modern-day questions in gender studies. Gender studies traces its roots to the second half of the 20th century, when, after the successes of the suffragettes, women’s movements became more prominent and researchers in the academia woke up to the fact that looking at a variety of topics from a gendered viewpoint would open up new interpretations of society and its cultural practices. Feminist activism was an integral part of early women’s studies and gender studies was hugely influential in opening eyes to the systematic, statist and cultural oppressions of women.
It was probably inevitable that when researchers saw the kind of work that the inclusion of women-specific viewpoints allowed, a corresponding men’s studies (often called masculinities studies) field was also born. A leading theorist within studying masculinities was Connell (originally known as Bob, then later as R.W. and after her sex change, as Raewyn) whose concept of hegemonic masculinity (1987) became the most influential theory in the field.
Connell’s model of hegemonic masculinity. Credit: wikipedia.org.
By looking at the model, pictured above, for even 20 seconds, one should get a very clear idea of it. The model is very appealing because of its explanatory power that seems to put all the pieces in society to their place, based on the idea of hegemonic masculinity over and over reproducing itself. Now, this model that was originally introduced in the 80s has since received much criticism, too, and Connell has responded to this criticism by updating it. The main criticism has been that the model is too simplistic and overly deterministic, i.e. it would seem to preclude human agency almost totally. Much of this criticism is valid, but this single theory has nevertheless achieved the kind of status within gender studies, and masculinities studies especially, that one always needs to take a stand on it, one way or another, if one works in the field.
A similarly powerful theory, especially in women’s studies but also in queer studies, is Judith Butler’s idea of gender being a performance, i.e. “the ‘unity’ of gender is the effect of a regulatory practice that seeks to render gender identity uniform through a compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler 1999, 42), which means that gender is essentially “the repeated stylization of the body” (Butler 1999, 43). As all influential theories, Butler’s theory has naturally been both praised and attacked and Bourdieu, for example, opposed the view that gender was primarily a performative act (Bourdieu 2001).
The above couple of theories are obviously only the tip of the gender studies iceberg but again, in the interests of keeping these posts easily digestible, let’s finish with some quick illustrations, or questions rather, of how gender might be visually represented in contemporary media.
Below is an artistic woodcut work of a male ice climber. What is he actually doing in the picture? What kind of masculinity is he performing?
Chained. Credit: Randy Rackliff. His woodcut art is for sale at coldcoldworldpacks.com
Below is an advertisement shot of a female rock climber/boulderer. What is she actually doing in the picture? What kind of femininity is she performing?
Athlete/model Sierra Blair-Coyle. Credit: supertopo.com
Below is a pair of summit shots, the first of two male mountaineers, the second of a female mountaineer. These are followed by a pair of rock climbing shots, the first of a male rock climber and the second of a female rock climber. What are the similarities in the pictures? What are the differences?
Credit: explorersweb.com and lyofood.com
Credit: bigupproductions.com and gripped.com
Now, to answer these rather simplistic questions thoroughly would require a lengthy paper but let’s instead finish with some assertive and intentionally provocative declarations (my blog my rules) that, if anyone’s interest rises, could be further argued later:
1) In the woodcut a grim, heroic male is struggling vertically upwards towards his destiny (a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do), 2) in the advertisement bikini shot an attractive female climber is advancing horizontally in a non-threatening environment, 3) in the first pairing of summit shots only the male mountaineers perform traditional masculine gender, the female mountaineer is neither masculine nor hyperfeminine as the female climber in the bikini shot, and 4) in only the first of the rock climbing pictures is the climber performing an activity that not only is conceived of as masculine but looks hypermasculine doing it; the female rock climber trying hard in a dangerous situation and physically struggling is precluded from looking hyperfeminine and even if she were dressed as light as the male climber would still not conform to traditional notions of femininity.
Now, these particular shots were selected with these specific characteristics in mind and don’t therefore represent a scientifically valid sample. However, to me it is interesting not only that these chosen pictures seem to reinforce classical gender dichotomies but also, crucially: Why do I personally so readily recognize them and chose to present them here? Does that mean that I myself, no matter how subconsciously, subscribe to them? Or, do they genuinely follow traditional Western gender dichotomies that always equate masculinity with action, heroism, and muscle?
Featured image (not visible in mobile theme) credit: wikipedia.org
Bourdieu, Pierre (2001). Masculine Domination (Translated by Richard Nice). Stanford:University Press.
Butler, Judith (1999). Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.New York and London: Routledge.
Connell, R.W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.