A-Z Challenge: G – Gender Studies

Elena Zolotariov
IES PhD Candidate

So Far, So Good

Taking part in the A-Z Blogging Challenge has been such good fun; not only because we get to share with you what is close to home for us, but because we have been given the opportunity to read your stories and thoughts. Today we are writing about a subject that we dearly care about and that is gender studies. Needless to say, we look forward to your thoughts!

Gender Studies? Who, or what is Gender Studies?

I first encountered gender studies at university, aged 17. I don’t know what age is ideal in starting to discuss matters of identity, but certainly I feel like 17 years-old is pretty old. At school, I was taught to read Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey,  Euripedes’ Helen, and Sophocles’ Antigone, but I never truly remember discussing the women in the plays, other than pinpointing Penelope’s loyalty to Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey. In Helen, a play so wholly concerned with, you guessed it, Helen of Troy, one thing that we almost entirely avoided discussing was how Helen’s experience was very much filtered through gender. We named the many different ways that the chorus and Helen lamented, the structure of the play, endless analysis of the importance of the setting, and were even asked the question: “the Chorus in Helen consists of Greek imprisoned women, who were abducted by barbarians. What purpose do the female nature, the Greek origins and the situation of the Chorus serve in the development of action?” Even though this question touches on questions of gender (female), nationality (Greek), and situation (in this case captured women), it is reduced to the practical question of “how does their presence aid the action of the play?”

In short, we had a vocabulary to describe in a very technical way the aesthetics of tragedy and close read the structure of sections like the stasima (stationary songs in Greek tragedy), pinpoint the tragic, comic, and romantic elements of the play, but we didn’t have a vocabulary to evaluate, examine, investigate Helen’s experience. In a very straightforward way, this is an example of how the education system can be short-sighted and narrow. Being introduced to Gender Studies at university-level was then eye-opening; not only because it eventually aided my analysis of literary texts and enhanced my appreciation of them, but because it also gave me a vocabulary to better understand my own experiences in a highly gendered world.

Developing a Vocabulary to Discuss Gender

A Companion to Gender Studies starts very aptly with a question that many parents ask upon the birth of their child: “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” Philomena Essed, David Theo Goldberg, and Audrey Koboyashi analyse the effects of that phenomenon. “Posed at the first moment of life,” they write, “this question embeds, expresses, and enforces the common normative disposition towards ‘the path of life.’ It signals a discursive order in the name and terms of which gender establishes itself at the moment of birth and continues to exert itself, definitive of nearly every human experience. Life is gendered. Gender at birth is at once the rebirth, the generation, of gender.” 

 

Gender Studies, then, endeavours to examine the cultural aspects of life in its gendered forms. Discursive labels (such as gender, class, race) saturates the experience of one’s life whether it is on a day to day basis in work, family, play or on a civic level. The labels always being in interaction create all sorts of interesting outcomes. Representing this variety is essential as it highlights the ways those labels can be both advantageous as well as disadvantageous. In the process of examining particularly the interactions of gender, one is given the possibility to challenge dominant cultures and ways of thinking. As the authors of A Companion to Gender Studies point out society is “structured as gendered negotiation of identity, interests, place, and power between what are broadly and traditionally designated as women and men.” 


Gender studies encompasses women’s studies (focusing on feminism, gender, and politics), men’s studies (which investigates the multiform ways that men experience manhood and masculinity and the use of patriarchy), and queer studies (exploring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender dysphoria, asexual, queer, questioning, intersex people and cultures). Those topics often intersect and interact with each other: for instance in a special issue of Hypatia (Summer, 2009) the editors brought trans studies and feminism in dialogue. They wrote, “This means we have staked a political claim at the outset….It recognizes the existence of the oppression of trans people. And it sees that there are grounds for nontrans and trans feminist solidarity.”

Thinking Beyond Gender

Some recent theorists have even advocated to move away from the methodological framework that the field of Gender Studies has offered so far  as gender itself has been replaced by other ways of thinking about feminism and sexuality. In Beyond Gender: An Advanced Introduction to Futures of Feminist and Sexuality Studies (2018), Greta Olson and Mirjan Horn-Schott write: “the heyday of gender — as the basis of critical attention to how individuals are constructed ideologically to be women and men and as a research paradigm and central category of analysis — has passed, even if discourse about gender remains uniquitously present.” The editors offer a different perspective, emphasizing the need “to think through the theoretical and political consequences of the diversification of gender-related disciplines and struggles.” They add that “ ‘Feminism’ can no longer be referred to in the singular given the co-existence of materialist, eco-, post- and third-wave, decolonial, transnational, and third-world feminisms. Further, masculinity studies, queer and sexuality studies, and intersectionality are now established in their own right, each with its canon of seminal texts and variety of standpoints.” 

The editors of Beyond Gender point out that the foundation of Gender Studies is that “this is a particular kind of West, Anglo-centric history, whose questioning has been part of its unravelling.” Meaning, that placing this kind of Gender Studies at the forefront endangers silencing non-Western feminist voices and histories. The debate is long and on-going, but more particularly what has been most important to me is arming individuals with a vocabulary to explain their current state of affairs in order to combat inequality. After all, even though disciplines change and develop, the critical tools and terms already discovered remain.

❗ If you are interested in exploring gender and its theories, check out YouTube’s CrashCourse on “Theories of Gender” below:

Written by Elena ZolotariovIES PhD Candidate

 

Check out the other A-Z Challenge participants as well!

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