I appreciated how in your last letter you nuanced the different patterns through which cultures control women. In this letter, I’d like to continue discussing the normative restrictions that come frominternalized belief patterns specifically. And while we often discuss these kinds of limitations on women as being dictated by religious dogma, I want to focus on the kinds of gender limitations that are preached not in churches but via the pulpits of pop culture.
It struck me when reading your last letter that secular culture has a gender fundamentalism as ingrained as the religious kind. The rules about masculinity and femininity that have too often been assumed within American history (or that are currently being dictated from popular movies and books!) seem to me as damaging as any dogma coming from churches.
The Root Problems of Gender Stereotypes
This semester, in part because I have been studying writers like Judith Butler, Catharine MacKinnon, and Sharon Marcus, I have been examining the different ways in which culture articulates these controlling scripts about gender, which most of us end up internalizing and unconsciously performing. From the moment we are born “boy” or “girl,” receive our pink or blue balloons and start watching Disney, we are imbibing cultural assumptions, learning the gender script. (And, of course, not all babies are born clearly as a boy or a girl—there is rising awareness concerning understanding and supporting intersex children.Elizabeth Reis and Anna Fausto-Sterling are among the leading researchers.)
The problem is not only that these gender roles are limiting to a person’s full expression of who they authentically are, but the internalized stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are also at their root founded upon a historic, constructed hierarchy between men and women. Furthermore, the gender stereotypes in American culture have always been deeply entwined with systems of racism, classism, and heterosexism.
One Example: The “Ideals” of Victorian Womanhood
For instance, in mid 19th century America, the constricting “ideal” of Victorian, “pure,” white, upper-class womanhood was built upon not being the woman who was “othered”—the lower class working woman, or the African American woman whose body had historically been represented as all-sexual by the power lusts of white slave-owners. If “ideal” white women’s bodies had to be asexual to have value in the marriage market, African American female slaves were oppressed in a far more atrocious way—their bodies were the outlets for the sexual violence of their master.
The “purity” of the white, upper-class woman was measured by the extent to which she did not resemble other women in society — women who had been violently placed in chattel slavery, or who might have had to endure sexual violence or harrassment to keep their jobs, or who otherwise did not have the social status necessary to secure middle-class Victorian morality. While all women under white-male-patriarchy were in varying ways stripped of agency over their own bodies and sexuality, gendered oppression looked very different depending on social locations of race and class.
Thus, what were “normative restrictions” for some women—like the upper class, white women who internalized beliefs and values that assigned their femininity to chastity and domesticity —translated into far more physical or violent restrictions for other women within the intersecting oppressions of gender, sexuality, race, and class.
Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, has been a key text for me this semester as I struggle to understand how gender systems and their normative restrictions are always tied into racial and classist oppression. I recommend Playing in the Dark: it’s beautifully written and accessible, and while it is predominately literary criticism, it’s packed with implications for feminist theory.
What Twilight Has to Teach: Today’s Normative Gender Restrictions and the Marriage of Sex and Violence
As we talk about normative gender restrictions, I think it’s important to highlight one extremely popular script currently in vogue, particularly for teenagers: the bestselling Twilight books and movies. The second book in the series, New Moon, just came out this fall as a movie. The gender stereotypes in these stories are as damaging as any of the religious beliefs around gender we have so often analyzed on our blog. Here, I will restrict my comments to the original book in the series, Twilight, which is the only one I have read, but reading summaries of the others in the series has assured me the problematic gender scripts only get worse.
The drama of this original, bestseller revolves around the awkward Bella and the “god-like” Edward falling tragically in love. She is the new girl in town who wins the attention of the aloof, mysterious sex symbol. He is a 108-year-old vampire in teenage form who is disturbingly volatile and controlling, but only because he “loves her” and is trying to “protect” her. Our vampire-hero is so intensely moody—the reader late finds out— because he is edgy from fighting his vintage patriarchal battle: Bella’s so darn attractive to him, that he is in immediate danger of losing all control, dominating her, and leaving her dead. And so we read on—never quite sure if Bella will end up being a bloody mess should the teenagers decide to consummate their relationship. The intimacy in this book is like heroin—thrilling, dangerous, and flirting with death—and the drama of it makes Twilight a page-turner.
I am horrified, to say the least, by the 498-pages of dysfunction that passes as romantic entertainment in Twilight. Just when did “sadomasochistic teenage erotica” (as my colleague Kj Swanson terms it over at her brilliant blog) become so overwhelmingly popular? Twilight is unabashed in its reflection of some of the worst elements of our culture’s patriarchal dysfunctions: domestic violence patterns, eroticized violence deemed “romance,” and harmful power differentials between men and women that are either not noticed or are mindlessly condoned. In fact, the power differentials in this book are the very foundation of its plot. Bella is constantly being saved and infantilized by Edward; his moods continually switch from angry to intimate like a typical perpetrator; and the reader awaits whether the sexual tension between the characters will lead to Edward enacting violence toward Bella. It is her sexual attractiveness that arouses his desire to suck her blood and kill her. Because of how attractive she is to him, she is forbidden to initiate any physical relationship. It all must be led by him, and she must risk her life during any moment of intimacy.
And this is what teenagers (and many adults) are imbibing?
What is at Stake?
I am discussing these books and movies within the context of analysizing normative restrictions, because widespread cultural stories as Twilight perpetuate internalized notions of love and gender that are oppressive in so many insidious ways.
What is most frightening to me about the current cultural-historical gender moment in America is that violence and sex—whether in pornography, TV shows, or Twilight—are so enmeshed. The normative restrictions—that women are passive sexual objects for male lust and domination—are getting internalized within the very arousal patterns of young girls and boys. Both learn to be aroused by scripts of female vulnerability, physical danger, and sexual passivity, as well as masculine control, heroics, and domination. Such scripts are the most violent ways patriarchy gets into our very beings and bodies, because they produce not only gender, but desire itself within a culture.
Our capacity as a culture to not see the harm of a book like Twilight is linked to our capacity to dissociate from the harm in our culture that Twilight reflects—namely, the disturbing prevalence of male sexual violence against women, which is rooted in cultural messages about male, sexualized dominance and female passivity. I wish more Christians were speaking out. But, I have to tell you that at one pointChristianity Today actually published an article praising Twilight! Yikes.
It is really time for Christian leaders and writers to stop being complicit in the harm of gender stereotypes, but actually start to expose them for the violence they perpetuate. Gender equality and mutual respect is so much more sexy —not to mention so much more Christlike!— than these patriarchal narratives about love, gender, and sexuality.