Free in Theory: Teaching Gender in Historical Perspective

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Gina Zupsich, French

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010

Most of the students in my R1B class titled “Sex, Gender and Social Fantasy” found gender theory daunting, confusing, and irrelevant in today’s world. While they were intrigued by gender-bending literary characters, they were puzzled that gender identity should be considered a struggle. It seemed that their confusion was due to the limitations of their particular cultural standpoint. For my students, gender was, and had always been, a personal choice. The queer literature we were studying was fantasy indeed to students in a post-feminist world on an LGTBQ-friendly campus. The gender trouble that concerned Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir was a relic of a bygone time when men and women were not free, so why were we still discussing it in the twenty-first century? If we were to understand the radical messages of our texts, I realized that I would have to put these theories into historical perspective and in living color.

I found two music videos in which the female performers alternate between a performance of feminine and masculine personas, Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U” and Ciara’s “Like a Boy.” I had my students reread a two-page excerpt of Butler’s Gender Trouble, then watch the videos. They recorded what they noticed were feminine and masculine aspects of these performances to share with the class. We began our discussion by reading aloud key phrases from Gender Trouble such as “gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time … through a stylized repetition of acts, a sedimentation of gender norms produces the peculiar phenomenon of a natural sex or a real woman or any number of prevalent and compelling social fictions.” We paraphrased theoretical jargon into plain English: “Gender is an unstable identity constructed and reconstructed in history to appear natural.”

Insisting that they include every last detail of gender coding, I had students share what they had identified as masculine and feminine in pairs. While they talked, I wrote the words “masculine” and “feminine” on the board. I then asked students to write down gestures, clothing, and sounds somewhere on the chart. They began with obvious polar opposites: masculine hat and sneakers, pelvic thrusts, baggy pants versus short skirts, coquettish looks in the camera, and so on until we arrived a nice gender binary. Some of the clothes and gestures alluded to other performers like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Fred Astaire. We watched both videos two more times. I asked students next to pay close attention to the context of these masculine and feminine performances, noting anything that might make them seem suspicious or unconvincing.

Gradually, they noticed that Ciara in male gangster drag still wore heavy make-up, and she made tough faces but immediately gyrated her hips in a seductive, feminine manner. She appeared most macho when she was surrounded by other women in drag, whereas the video concluded with her sheepishly kissing her boyfriend, who seemed relieved that she had been only acting like a boy but was actually still a “real” woman. Students noticed that although Beyoncé sang about her power to raise her man’s status, she writhed around on the ground as a sparkling, beautiful object like the precious gems and jewelry surrounding her. They pointed out that she appears as subject in the drivers seat of a Bentley for a split second, appearing mainly in the inside the trunk, clearly objectified as precious cargo or chattel. Beyoncé’s impersonation of her husband, the music mogul Jay-Z, provoked laughter when he appeared in place of the fake Jay-Z with the camera’s sleight of hand. “Why was it funny?” I asked. Because, one student said, it emphasized Beyoncé’s masculine power as a joke, not a threat to her man’s power. Another student added that Jay-Z takes over her song, asserting that he is the one who will be upgrading Beyoncé and not the other way around.

In the lively discussion that followed, our careful examination revealed a lot more ambiguity about femininity and masculinity despite the polarized performances in each video. Students came to agreement that the women’s domination, their power over men, was the fantasy and that conventional feminine behavior was the reality these videos ultimately constructed. These videos gave students a more tangible and accessible example of the stylized repetition of gender that is sustained over time in history. My class realized that images in the media, such as literature, film and music, lead us to believe that gender is binary and natural. This contemporary, visual activity showed students how, even today, we are pressured to conform to historically determined, heteronormative masculine and feminine roles.