Lecture # 3: Cultural Construction of Females & Males
The Fabulous Story of Baby “X” --
One of the first defining aspects of our identities is our sex: Is it a boy or a girl? And with
this defining moment the Sex/gender system begins to manifest itself on our bodies,
minds, psychology, etc. and with it comes the social investment in the assumed binary
relationship between boys/girls; ladies/gentlemen; man/woman; males/females.
This relationship is premised on absolute difference. At the same time, this assumed
absolute difference, disciplines not only our behaviour, but also how others behave
toward us and our place in the social world.
Physical sex, gender identity, and gender roles should in any given person align to either
all-male or all-female norms, and in this system heterosexuality is considered to be the
only ‘normal’ sexual orientation. We live in a “heteronormative” world.
Sex Gender Sexual Orientation
Male anatomy Masculine Affective & erotic desires
Female anatomy Feminine Affective & erotic desires
Heteronormativity is the reinforcement of certain viewpoints by many social institutions
and social policies. These viewpoints include the idea that human beings fall into two
distinct and complementary categories: male and female, that sexual and marital relations
are normal only when between people of different sexes, and that each sex has certain
‘natural’ roles in life. Thus physical sex, gender identity, and gender roles should in any
given person align to either all-male or all-female norms, and heterosexuality is
considered to be the only normal sexual orientation. The norms this term describes or
criticizes might be overt, covert, or implied. Those who identify and criticize
heteronormativity say that it distorts discourse by stigmatizing deviant concepts of both
sexuality and gender and makes certain types of self-expression more difficult.
Already set up from birth we continue to shore up those identities from birth on.
it is imagined that there is a “natural” [a term we must always be wary of]
correspondence between sex and gender, wherein sex is a given biological fact and
gender is the corresponding cultural manifestation of our biological sex.
Sex = biology [either male/female]
Gender = culture [either masculine or feminine]
Because it is cultural we can understand that gender is socially constructed
1 But we have a more difficult time understanding that Sex may also be socially
Why might there have been more studies on boys’ group interaction than on girls group
When studies are done of children’s group formation and interaction, the focus is usually
on the differences between boys and girls.
the stress is on differences rather than similarities
a focus on differences helps to produce and to highlight differences
doing so renders less visible: the variations in each group; the similarities between
boys and girls, and other ‘locations’ that contribute to particular behaviours such
as cultural background; class location; racialization; ability; religious beliefs and
the interpretation of differences can also feed into stereotypical assumptions.
When there are stereotypical assumptions, we remember what fits our
assumptions, and render what does not fit our assumptions as “exceptions”
who interprets these differences?
When gender is the only category considered for study [which removes gender from
its social context], it implicitly tells us that this category is more important than any
other aspect of the individual’s social location.
Barrie Thorne is suggesting that instead of this focus on sex differences, she prefers a
focus on social relationships and that gender should be conceptualized as a system of
relationships through which gender gets produced rather than on gender as an
unchangeable natural given. And that along with observations we need [as
researchers] to constantly analyze our observations and problematize our findings in
relation to our assumptions.
Even when we look at the research that Thorne cites, we notice that sex segregation is
not a ‘natural’ given, but often a practice that is due to deliberate activity. Educators
often invoke gender as a marker of difference. When educators do so, boundaries
between the sexes are heightened, and crossing those boundaries becomes more risky.
Children also explicitly invoke gender and this often produces the disciplining of
Less negative stigmatization for girls who cross the boundaries [“tom boys”]
Than for boys who cross the boundaries [“sissies”]
Participant observation/grounded theory study of gender arrangements in
elementary school. Thorne criticizes the “two worlds” model for studying gender
segregation, which assumes boys and girls are different. She conceptualizes gender as a
2 system of relationships and asks “In a given situation, how is gender made more or less
salient or infused with particular meanings?” In other words,
sex segregation is not a given, but a phenomenon in need of explanation.
Sex segregation is done by both teachers and students. However, boys and
girls do things together as well as apart.
Four types of cross-sex interaction:
1. Borderwork: cross-sex interaction that affirm gender boundaries
Examples include contests, chasing, rituals of pollution and invasions.
Borderwork illustrates that worlds of boys and girls are not equal.
Boys control more space than girls and invade girls’ space more [why might that be?
How does this sense of space privilege endure?].
Girls are more likely to be defined as polluted.
Inferior status of boys in male hierarchies, these boys get referred to as ‘girls’/not the
same for girls who are at the bottom of female hierarchy.
2. Interactions infused with heterosexual meaning
Children’s interactions are sometimes given heterosexual meaning,
particularly as a form of teasing. Girls’ culture includes more romantic
themes than boys. By the fifth grade, some children began to affirm
heterosexual courtship rituals. Starting with adolescence, heterosexual
dating provides the dominant set of meanings.
3. Traveling across boundaries to the world of the other sex
Mostly done by “tomboys”; boys are more stigmatized for crossing
4. Relaxed cross-sex interactions
These often take place when adults are responsible for forming the
groups or when children are away from school in their neighborhoods.
Cross sex interactions works well when the focus is on the task rather than the
Often the interactions are more relaxed when markers other than gender are invoked for
Cross interactions are more evident when there is less public scrutiny.
3 Lecture # 4: Femininity
Today we look at some theoretical ideas about the feminine and femininity.
I will first discuss, Freud’s article.
Sigmund Freud, who many consider the “father” of psychoanalysis, has greatly
influenced our culture and his ideas have shaped how we understand ourselves. His ideas
were highly controversial in his time – many Victorian sensibilities were deeply shocked
and denounced Freud’s ideas [difficult knowledge], particularly in the area of sexuality.
Let’s look at some of the ideas that people found challenging.
How does Freud imagine gendered subjects?
1. The unconscious splits the subject into consciousness/and/ unconscious
motives and desires.
1. What is the unconscious?
[How is that a challenge to previous historical ideas?]
A human being is split between
A. a knowing self
B. unconscious self – we have little access to the unconscious
Slips of the tongue; the unconscious speaks in our dreams.
We speak the past through free association to try to access what has been
In order for infants to become adult human beings they need to give up certain desires
and begin to be socialized into the larger social world.
We struggle with what we are asked to give up. We begin to actively repress our desires
and they go into the unconscious. This is the seat where are our repressed desires are
Ego: our conscious rational selves.
Id: the unconscious where our desires are lodged. [The irrational driven by desire and
Super ego: our internal critic
The ego is formed through people the child loves. (We need to love and not just imitate)
The ego interprets what it incorporates.
4 2. Sexual stages:
a) Oedipus conflict
b) castration anxiety
c) penis envy
For Freud, the development of the self is tied to sexuality.
Infants are sexual from the day they are born (sensuousness)
All infants are polymorphously perverse. They can experience pleasure from
stimulation on all parts of the body.
Oral phase: the child gets pleasure from sucking (breast offers pleasure and
Anal Phase: the child takes pleasure in letting go and holding on
Phallic Phase: sexuality begins to be organized around the genitals.
Every phase is a struggle, and in each phase the child is socially induced to give up
pleasure (which gets repressed and is lodged in the unconscious)
There is no smooth transition between phases.
a) Oedipus Conflict: occurs between the ages of 3 and 5
The child needs to separate from the caregiver (first love) in order to take on future
b) castration anxiety
How an infant becomes a boy:
The boy sees that he has a penis and the mother does not
(Recognizes sexual difference).
Sees women as castrated and gives up the fantasy of the mother, and must begin
identifying with the father.
Through the repression of the love for the mother, and by internalizing the father’s
authority, this is how the infant becomes a boy.
Psychical processes: gender identity is a traumatic struggle. This desire reappears
every so often: masculinity and femininity are always under threat.
c) penis envy
5 How an infant becomes a girl: neither the girl nor the mother has a penis; the girl is
angry at the mother for this and identifies with the father. She must transform the
wish for the penis with a wish for a baby.
Infants has to give up love and turn away from the mother
The boy does this through anxiety (castration anxiety)
The girl does this through envy (penis envy)
Either the wish is not resolved – she becomes neurotic
Masculinity complex – lesbianism
Normal femininity – a man of her own and eventually a baby
Children are initially bisexual; they feel love for and identification with both parents
Gender is not a natural acquisition but a long process of struggle, loss, and constant
Freud was very controversial in his time, one of the few theorists who talked about
female desire and has argued that both women and men have sexual instincts.
The libido – the motive force of sexual life is not gendered
Libido is just one category and includes the motive force in both male and female
Masculinity and femininity are not as clear and as stable as we think, their processes
are both psychical and social.
How do we read Freud? By that I mean, how do we interpret what he says:
[many theorists have interpreted Freud’s ideas in different ways] here is one of them:
Freud’s use of literary references as metaphors.
The work of theorist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has helped in rethinking Freud
Lacan suggests that Freud’s work can be read as descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Jacques Lacan: people enter the social world through Language and language
represents the hegemony of the patriarchical order
Penis envy may instead equal envy of the promise of patriarchal power and privilege
in a male dominated society.
Freud: Anatomy is Destiny
Is Freud’s statement descriptive or prescriptive or both?
6 In these many ideas what is considered? What is thought as central? What is rendered
invisible? Is what is rendered invisible really invisible?
“Woman is not a universal category”
how do other subject locations weave through the experiences of masculinity and
femininity? Ethnicity? Class? Racialization? Ability? Age? Geography? Etc.?
The story of Barbie and her “Other” sisters as meaningful to the non-universality of the
Difference is sameness in different colors and costumes.[clothes don’t only make the
woman but also mark racial and cultural difference]
White Barbie comes in an array of outfits, non white Barbies come in costumes that
perform difference and also shape how we come to see and understand difference, often
as performance of what is not really us and that which does not have many options.
Difference reduced to skin color and costume
[black Jamaican Barbie dressed as peasant or maid]
white Barbie can be anything, can wear everything.
How does doing so entrench ideas about race and makes these other dolls always a
relational category to the white doll and not vice versa?
Difference as a value rather than difference as a relationship
[the story of the doll]
often kids want the “real” Barbie, the one who has so many more possibilities.
“Shani” = marvelous in Swahili – wow – how many black children in north America
These dolls also work to reinforce stereotypes.
Black Barbie and her buttocks – reminiscent of Sarah Baartmann.
How girl and women body size and meaning ascribed to the body its size, shape etc., also
culturally specific and often inflected with issues of class, ability, racialization etc.
“Ugly Betty” –
diets are for those who can afford them
class mobility often marked through body size, etc.
How does the film The Body Beautiful intervene in the normative ideas about desire,
racialization, ability, gender and age?
7 Lecture # 5: The Construction of Masculinities
“There is nothing objective about objectivity”
the importance of taking history into consideration
Gendering as a complex process that starts even before we are born
We often look more at difference between boys and girls rather than similarities
between boys and girls and similarities between girls and similarities between boys
more than differences between girls and differences between boys.
Freud – Bisexuality
Today the focus is on Masculinity
Here it is important to note that masculinity and being male are different things.
While male may be the biological designation
Normatively “Masculine” is the gender assignation that must accompany the one who is
males acquire masculinity through Gender Work,
as females acquire femininity through Gender work
How does masculinity affect individual men,
men in relation to other men,
men in relation to women
and men in relation to the larger society.
First let us begin by discussing Male/Masculinity and its relationship to power
men’s experience of male power is a contradictory experience
because the kind of power that masculinity hinges on is tainted. This means that
hegemonic masculinity is a promise given to boys that is difficult to attain and comes at
the heavy price of suppression, alienation and distance.
Make no mistake about it, being born male gives boys and men a great deal of privilege
in the world compared to girls and women, but while all boys are made this promise of
power, it very much depends where these boys and men are located, whether or not they
get to exercise the power and privileges promised to them. Men enjoy social power and
8 privilege by virtue of being men. But the contradiction is that by virtue of being men they
also experience pain, isolation and alienation not just from women but especially from
This contradictory experience of power is really the experience of dominant masculinity
Age, biology, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, location, ethnicity.
Weave through the experience of masculinity and shape how much power these men get
to wield in the social world
Is biological sex a fact, what does this fact tell us? Possibilities and potentialities are
suppressed, repressed and channeled in the process of becoming men and women in a
particular time in a particular society.
Gender is a central organizing category (but that may be more true for those for those
whose culture is hegemonic), for others it is a central organizing category but mediated
by so many other factors.
Gender describes and prescribes the actual social relations between males and females
and the internalization of these power relations
So that men’s contradictory experience of power and privilege is at the level of gender
No man can feel that he possibly measures up to the dominant ideal of masculinity, yet
these dominant ideals maintain their power throughout our lives
Patriarchy: the rule of the Father
So that patriarchy defines not only men’s power over women but it is also a way to
establish hierarchies or power relations between different groups of men and also
between different ways of performing masculinity
Power and Masculinity
Power is the common feature of the dominant form of masculinity, and manhood is
equated with having some sort of power.
If you are pussy whipped for example (a notion I find particularly offensive) because it
uses the denigration of women to denigrate men) then you are not a ‘real’ man.
We could think of power as
Power: the potential for using or developing our capacities
Power: the capacity to impose control on others and on our unruly emotions; controlling
material resources around us, etc.
To have power is to be able to take advantage of the differences between people
In other words power over others, resources, nature etc.
9 “Power over” is our dominant understanding of power
Societies generally have real domination of men over women and the valuation of males
So this social organization comes to be internalized to contradictory effects. Whether
individual men exercise this power or not, they all profit from this general social relation
of men’s power over women.
Normative manhood is produced through patriarchal family relations,
These relations do not function on their own but are the fabric of a generally patriarchally
organized society. The internalization of gender relations is the building block of our
personalities. In its totality this is the gender work of society
Gender work is a complex process and this gender work is a complex and difficult
process for each of us.
Gender work, meaning becoming masculine and feminine is a life long, fluid, changing
process which is never wholly successful and/or done once and for all.
It does not take long for boys and girls to realize who has power in society
And what their stake is in that power.
But this power comes at a price
To become masculine in the way that hegemonic masculinities are conceived is to
suppress a range of affects: feelings, emotions, needs and possibilities
Men must perform masculinity and stay in control of that performance
Boys and men experience a range of feelings that are inconsistent with hegemonic
masculinities. These feelings produce fear,
and fear of not living up to masculinity are experienced as homophobia, violence, and the
need to further shore up that masculinity
Power reaps benefits but also power is an expression of our fears
Men’s power is a paradox,
Suppression leads to more emotional dependency on women for example
Sometimes “she” becomes the only one who really knows us, the only one we open up to.
What we suppress gains strange hold on us
As Carl Jung tells us, “What we don’t bring to consciousness comes back to us as fate.”
These can be directed outwardly to the world
Or inwardly against ourselves
This is why adolescence is so difficult
Pain and power shape men’s sense of manhood
Alienation keeps men distant from women and other men
10 Distance between men accentuated in heterosexual cultures
Adolescent boys lack the intimacy, trust and connection of adolescent girls
The construction of Masculinity and the triad of men’s violence
a) Men’s violence against women,
b) men’s violence against other men
c) and men’s violence against themselves
These reinforce one another
How does society deal with violence
Violence has long been institutionalized as an acceptable means of solving problems
The individual reproduction of male domination
In male dominated societies men have privileges that women do not have
What are some of the privileges men have?
What are the Preconditions for the individual acquisition of gender:
1. malleability of human desire: we do what feels good
2. long period of human childhood results in powerful attachments to parental
figures – prolonged powerlessness
Masculinity is boys’ response to the experience of powerlessness as a boy
Family reproduces the hierarchical gender system of society as a whole
The boy is left with the promise that as he grows his powerlessness will be replaced as he
becomes a man and receives the power of the father/ or the power promised to ‘manhood’
The reinforcement of masculinity happens at adolescents and is distributed differently
along racial and class lines.
Masculinity is fragile
Masculinity requires a great deal of suppression
A great deal of doubt about masculine credentials
Men’s violence against women
Violence is an expression of the fragility of masculinity
The family a place to feel powerful
Violence against other men
11 Violence of men against men is an expression of relations of power
And the fear of losing that power
Where heterosexuality requires the suppression of homosexuality as a result it negates a
whole range of relations and possibilities
Our attraction to men signals our attraction to ourselves
Obsessive denial to attraction to other men
Which reinforces violence toward women a denial of their feminineness.
Michael Kimmel suggests that Masculinity is an historical and geographical
phenomenon and it is not static, it changes and shifts across time and space. Moreover
Kimmel Suggests that masculinity as we now know it is shaped through a variety of
1. Masculinities as power relations
2. Masculinity as a flight from the feminine
3. Masculinity as a Homosocial act
4. Masculinity as Homophobia
He also argues that in the construction of dominant masculinity we see the seeds of
sexism, homophobia and racism.
And that t