Wednesday, November 16, 2011

crash course in literary theory

And if that title didn't turn you off, I'm not sure what would.  I'll try to make this interesting-- it's going somewhere in a future post.  I'm going to start off with feminism at length, and then use that as a way to briefly discuss some of the other theories.

So when last we discussed feminism, which was last January, I believe (aside:  I just went and looked and the post I was thinking about was November 2010.  My, how the time it does fly.)....  whoa.  Anyway.  Last time, I was talking about the difference between the "constructivist" way of looking at gender vs. the "essentialist," which is at the heart of gender theory.  A constructivist believes that there is nothing inherently feminine or masculine, the idea of gender is "constructed" by our culture.  The character traits we associate with being male or female are all just types of behavior that our culture has come to associate with that gender.  There is nothing "essential" about gender, nothing built-in to every female that is feminine, or into every male that is masculine.  An essentialist believes the opposite-- that there are ways of being that are "essentially" or (worse) "naturally" male or female.

In an academic environment, there is only one way to be:  constructivist.  In fact, in one of my theory books, the guy says that he always thinks that people who are essentialist don't really know what they are saying, because they couldn't possibly be essentialist if they understood what it means.  Which immediately gets my back up-- who is he to define what somebody else believes?  He's only defining what he thinks an essentialist believes.  You don't get to define what your opponents believe.

He goes on to say that the essentialist point of view means that there is only one healthy, normal way of being male or female.  Of course there are very few people that would agree with that statement, even among the most ultra-conservative.  My own view was that there are poles of masculinity and femininity and that each of us fits somewhere on the continuum between the two; we each have our own unique combination of masculine and feminine traits.  I felt pretty strongly about this, because I also believe strongly that our patriarchal culture neglects the feminine side of things in favor of the masculine.  When feminists say that gender is constructed and that no one is inherently male or female, it seems to me that it's generally because they want those more powerful, more highly paid masculine attributes.  So that feminists of that type become the ultimate betrayers of their own sisters.

but you see what I've done there:  I've separated masculine and feminine qualities from the biological state of being male or female.  It doesn't matter what your biological combination of Xs and Ys is, you can have any mix of masculine and feminine traits.  sigh.  In defending essentialism, I've become a constructivist.  So I finally had to give in.  They're right.  I hate it that they're right, because "they" are often smug and strident and anti-"feminine."  But on that particular issue, they're right.  The intelligent hermaphroditic sea-horses of Alpha Centauri IV do not have the same conception of gender as we do.  (get it?  "conception" and sea-horses?  it was a totally brilliant pun.  really it was.)  There is no inherent female-ness in the characteristics we think of as feminine.

My Modern Poetry professor tossed me a bone, though, after I explained my dilemma to him.  He told me about "strategic essentialism," which is an idea of Gayatri Spivak's.  There are times, apparently, when it is strategic to be essentialist.  I haven't had time to read it yet, but I'm intrigued.  I hope she means exactly what I've said above-- in defense of the feminine side of things, it is sometimes necessary to take an essentialist stance.

I'm barely started.  If this bores you, tune out for the next several days.  just sayin'.

1 comment:

  1. Boring? Not a chance, way deeper than I'm sometimes comfortable going? Absolutely. But hey, that won't make me go away either. ;)