Deconstructing and Reconstructing Gender

In her chapter on gender identity in MUD and MOO environments in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Sherry Turkle states that "the preoccupation in MUDS with getting a 'fix' on people through 'fixing' their gender reminds us of the extent to which we use gender to shape our relationships." She likewise calls gender-swapping in electronic spaces "an opportunity to explore conflicts raised by one's biological gender" (Turkle 211-213). As such, electronic role-playing environments provide one space in which gender emerges as a construct, or as the adoption of a pose and the playing out of a role that is independent of the biological body.

Manuel Puig, in his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, similarly explores and then exposes the way in which the dominant ideology of a society functions to map meaning onto the biological body through the social construct of gender. The novel presents us with two protagonists - gay window dresser Molina and Marxist revolutionary Valentin - living together in an Argentine prison cell. While subject to the implications of their larger ideological context, Molina and Valentin work strategically to advance their own interests in a complex game of double seduction, just as the text in its entirety, as an artistically and culturally constructed body, works to decenter and de-obscure the very centers of power that function to maintain the web of social relations commanding the conditions of individual existence.

In viewing Puig's novel itself as cultural construct, we must see it as one that attempts, both structurally (through the heterogeneous and jolting method of narration) and thematically (through its subtle emphasis on the political and propagandistic nature of art, as well as through its deconstruction of contemporary conventions regarding gender and sexuality) to de-obscure the breaks and fissures of a seemingly coherent fantasy world.

Considered as a whole, the nine footnotes that appear throughout the text of the novel function both to jolt the reader into recognizing the constructed nature of an artistic text and to provide theoretical "background," most often about homosexuality and gender roles. The integral inter-relationship between the textual body and the "authoritative" footnotes illustrates the way in which the theoretical discourses that exist in the margins - both literally of the text and figuratively of the lives of Molina and Valentin - have in fact influenced, and continue to influence, their actions and the roles they have taken in society. By moving such "marginal," traditionally "obscured" theories to the base of the forefront, Puig works to de-obscure the way in which such discourses interact with our everyday lives and inform the complex network of social relations by which a society functions. Though the footnotes focus most ostensibly on questions of homosexuality, they also speak in terms of power and expose contemporary views on sexuality and gender as being entirely politically based (or the function of expressions of power and the maintenance of an existing patriarchal ideological context). As a result, the novel beckons us to consider the nature of a true sexual (or gender) revolution as being possible only in terms of a political revolution which calls into question the very power relations on which contemporary patriarchal society is firmly based.

A contemporary book by Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex, addresses similar issues within a theoretical rather than a fictional context. The title, Making Sex, in itself implies the book's theory that posits sex, or the body, as artifice, as a construct of the context in which it is interpreted, and thus works in a similar manner as the footnotes in Puig's novel to expose the culturally constructed nature of sexuality and gender. When Valentin asks Molina, "What's masculine in your terms?" (Puig, 61), his use of the phrase "your terms" underscores the constructed, culturally relative nature of gender, and the way in which being "masculine" or "feminine" most often does not extend beyond acting out a certain role.

As an historical base for his own theories on gender and sexuality, Laqueur discusses the post-Enlightenment shift from a cultural to a biological definition of male and female; he asserts that the end of the eighteenth century in the West saw a significant inversion in the intersection between culture and biology. Until this point gender had remained absolutely fixed in its social and political realms; identification with the male or female gender was determined by and manifested through specific roles in the public arena or in the home. Differentiation through sex (the body), on the other hand, remained much more fluid, for it existed in degrees of perfection: the female body was seen merely as an imperfect version (a lesser degree) of the male body, and not as the opposition to the male body, the manner in which it is categorized today. In pre-Enlightenment texts, "sex, or the body, must be understood as the epi-phenomenon, while gender, what we would take to be a cultural category, was primary or 'real.' Gender - man and woman - mattered a great deal and was part of the order of things" (Laqueur, 8).

Laqueur contends that this late eighteenth century shift to a biological definition of male and female pulled factual reality away from society, and its pre-ordained social roles for the two genders, and into anatomy. In citing examples from such noted physicians and philosophers as Galen and Aristotle, he argues that the hierarchical conception of the one-sex model of the body existed as a manner of sustaining hierarchical, patriarchal social order by serving to illustrate the higher cosmic truth of the social roles to which each gender was naturally assigned. For Galen, men and women are linked by common sexual anatomies; he views the female body merely as an inverted, imperfect version of the male body (Laqueur, 25-26), wherein the imperfection of her inverted parts arises from a lack of sufficient heat to complete their development. Within this view, male sexual parts such as the penis, testes, scrotum, and foreskin find their female counterparts in the vagina, ovaries, uterus, and labia. Galen uses his own interpretation of the inverted female sexual anatomy as illustration of the higher cosmic order (the Great Chain of Being extending from God to man then woman and lower beasts) that maintained the patriarchal structure of Western society for over a millennium. In interpreting the male and female bodies in terms of a sort of hierarchical symmetry, Galen's writings also provide an apt illustration of Laqueur's one-sex model, and they provide an illustration for the way in which not only artistic bodies but also physical human bodies are interpreted and in a sense constructed through the dominant ideology of their contemporary society.

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Web page written and constructed by Laralynn Weiss, Georgetown University