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4.3 Gender Criticism and Queer Theory

Gender criticism is an extension of feminist literary criticism, focusing not just on women but on the construction of gender and sexuality, especially LGBTQ issues, which gives rise to queer theory. Gender criticism suggests that power is not just top down or patriarchal—a man dominating a woman; it suggests that power is multifaceted and never just in one direction. For example, in the nineteenth century while many women argued for suffrage (or the right to vote), at the same time those very women who were white could be dominating or holding power over African Americans in the American slave system. In the nineteenth century, many white women were pictured as angelic, ideal, and the angel in the house who protected men from the cruel world of commerce (see Coventry Patmore’s poem The Angel in the HouseCoventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, The Victorian Web, at But that idealized view of women is incomplete given that we know from diaries and other historical evidence that white women could have sexual longing (shocking!), treat others barbarically, or even be sadistic and murderous. Thus identity is complicated and rich, involving much more than gender alone. It is the intersection of a variety of things—including geographical location, age, race, class, nationality, ability, and sexuality as well as gender—that make up our identities.

A key to gender criticism, consequently, is that gender is a socially constructed ideology that is reflected in our culture and political, social, economic, educational, and religious institutions and is coded in the very language we use. For example, the adjective queer, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us, originally meant something “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric,” the earliest use being from 1513.Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “queer.” Not until 1894, partly a result of the sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde, where he was convicted of being a homosexual and sentenced to prison,“Famous World Trials: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1895,” University of Missouri–Kansas City, did the word queer (as an adjective or a noun) come to be associated with homosexuality, and then in a strictly derogatory sense.

Like feminism, gender criticism examines how gender is caught between the notion of essentialismBelief that sex and gender are biologically determined, or natural, thus suggesting an essential difference between men and women.—the belief that women are naturally and fundamentally different than men based on their biological sex, that nonheterosexual identities are deviant from the biological heteronormative distinction between male and female—and constructionismBelief that gender—and some would argue biological sex—are socially constructed and thus arbitrary markers to define one’s identity.—the belief that gender is not essentialist or based on biological nature but is constructed through culture. One of the most famous scenes from literature depicting this essentialism versus constructionism debate comes from Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the end of chapter 10, Jim and Huck determine that the best way to find information so that the two can avoid capture is to have Huck put on a disguise and go into the nearby town:

“Next morning I said it was getting slow and dull, and I wanted to get a stirring up some way. I said I reckoned I would slip over the river and find out what was going on. Jim liked that notion; but he said I must go in the dark and look sharp. Then he studied it over and said, couldn’t I put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl? That was a good notion, too. So we shortened up one of the calico gowns, and I turned up my trouser-legs to my knees and got into it. Jim hitched it behind with the hooks, and it was a fair fit. I put on the sun-bonnet and tied it under my chin, and then for a body to look in and see my face was like looking down a joint of stove-pipe. Jim said nobody would know me, even in the daytime, hardly. I practiced around all day to get the hang of the things, and by and by I could do pretty well in them, only Jim said I didn’t walk like a girl; and he said I must quit pulling up my gown to get at my britches-pocket. I took notice, and done better.”Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1912; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1995), chap. 10,

In the next chapter, Huck, dressed as a girl, meets Mrs. Judith Loftus. Huck tells her his name is Sarah Williams, and Mrs. Loftus asks Huck-Sarah to help her with a few tasks, such as throwing a piece of lead at a rat and helping with threading a needle. When she tosses an extra piece of lead to Huck-Sarah, his true identity as a boy is exposed. After Huck tells Mrs. Loftus that his name is George, she criticizes his attempt to fool her:

“Well, try to remember it, George. Don’t forget and tell me it’s Elexander before you go, and then get out by saying it’s George Elexander when I catch you. And don’t go about women in that old calico. You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you, child, when you set out to thread a needle don’t hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it; hold the needle still and poke the thread at it; that’s the way a woman most always does, but a man always does t’other way. And when you throw at a rat or anything, hitch yourself up a tiptoe and fetch your hand up over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot. Throw stiff-armed from the shoulder, like there was a pivot there for it to turn on, like a girl; not from the wrist and elbow, with your arm out to one side, like a boy. And, mind you, when a girl tries to catch anything in her lap she throws her knees apart; she don’t clap them together, the way you did when you catched the lump of lead. Why, I spotted you for a boy when you was threading the needle; and I contrived the other things just to make certain. Now trot along to your uncle, Sarah Mary Williams George Elexander Peters, and if you get into trouble you send word to Mrs. Judith Loftus, which is me, and I’ll do what I can to get you out of it. Keep the river road all the way, and next time you tramp take shoes and socks with you. The river road’s a rocky one, and your feet’ll be in a condition when you get to Goshen, I reckon.”Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1912; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1995), chap. 11,

Mrs. Judith Loftus views sexuality as essentialist—there are real, innate differences between a girl and boy, which perpetuate the stereotypes about gender. Another way to view her comments, however, is to acknowledge that gender is a performance, a role that we play or construct. If we read Judith’s comments in this light, then Huckleberry Finn becomes a more enlightened text on gender than one might initially think.

Just as we think gender is constructed, queer theorists argue that sexuality is constructed and not just “natural” as well. Lady Gaga sings, “Baby I was born this way,” but others, like Adrienne Rich, argue that sexuality exists on a continuum and is more fluid than a binary equation of straight or gay.Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 227–54. Rich suggests that “compulsory heterosexualityTerm coined by Adrienne Rich that suggests that people are forced into traditional heterosexual roles.,” the drive to make everything heterosexual, shapes our sexual socialization to such an extent that the only choice is to be straight.Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993). Building from Sigmund Freud’s ideas on sexuality, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey created the Kinsey scale, which suggests that human sexuality exists on a 0–6 scale, with 0 being exclusively homosexual and 6 being exclusively heterosexual. In all his research, he discovered that most people were somewhere around a 3 (bisexual) and that few people were at either ends of the straight/gay spectrum.“Kinsey’s Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale,” Kinsey Institute,

In addition, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a prominent queer theorist, suggests culture is so heteronormativeAct of making heterosexuality the cultural norm. (making heterosexuality the norm) that gay characters—and, particularly, the affection between men in literature—is rendered invisible and must be routed through a character of the opposite gender to be acceptable. A classic example comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850); Hester becomes the target as Dimmesdale and Chillingworth work about their male desire by competing for Hester.Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850; Project Gutenberg, 2005), In her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Sedgwick coins the term “homosocial desireTerm used by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to define the relationships between men that are not explicitly sexual because society prevents that desire by privileging heterosexual desire.” to refer to relationships between men that are not explicitly sexual, but could actually have erotic components if allowed to exist.Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). Homosocial worlds include all-male contexts like boarding schools, the military, and sports.Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). The recent idea of the “bromance” from films such as I Love You, Man (2009) is an example of homosocial expression. It is no accident that we often laugh when using the term “bromance” because it seems ludicrous, given the norms of masculinity in our culture, that men might love one another and express that love as women in female friendships often do. It would require heterosexual men to potentially break out of certain norms of how they are supposed to act. We’ll discuss this more in a minute when we talk about masculinity.

This idea that some expressions or identities are invisible and then visible once you have a particular lens to see them (theorists call this ideology) is as important to feminist literary criticism as it is to gender and sexuality criticism. What if we look at Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick anew in a way that focuses on how men might care for and love one another as they are sequestered on this famous, frightening ship, the Pequod. Chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand,” finds the whalemen breaking up the spermaceti from a just-harvested sperm whale. Spermaceti is the wax or oil in the skull of the sperm whale, and this oil was valuable and used to make candles and various ointments. Suddenly, Melville’s description of the squeezing of the whale sperm takes on an erotic meaning perhaps previously unnoticed. This interpretation changes the way we may traditionally read the book:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Harper, 1851; Power Moby-Dick, 1998),

After this paragraph, Ishmael states,

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Harper, 1851; Power Moby-Dick, 1998),

Melville’s text flirts with homoerotic desire, but that desire is short-lived as the narrator suggests that men must “lower” their desire to other outlets—“but in the wife.”

Ultimately, gender and sexuality theorists go back in history and look at who might have been left out. Where are there absences in the canon such that gay and lesbian authors and characters might be included? And when gay and lesbian characters are present, how are they perceived?

What about a supposedly “straight” text that appears to have a queer subtext previously unseen? For example, Julia Ward Howe was a nineteenth-century author who wrote the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and founded Mother’s Day. However, she also wrote a secret novel, The Hermaphrodite, which featured a male gender-bending protagonist who loves both sexes but particularly another man.Julia Ward Howe, The Hermaphrodite, ed. Gary Williams (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004). Once discovered, this book was a shocking addition to the profile people had created of Howe. Howe’s text is considered a “recovered” text and has been brought back into circulation, a common phenomenon in the literature of marginalized groups where texts have disappeared only to be rediscovered and read.

Your Process

  1. Can you think of texts where a character is forced into certain roles, behaviors, and actions because of compulsory heterosexuality?
  2. Is that character’s sexuality more complex than you realized?
  3. When you consider sexuality on a continuum, does it change how characters interact?
  4. Could your observations lead to a focus for a literary analysis?