Feminist theory has contributed significantly to the sexual representation of females, the focus of feminist arguments have centred on the analysis of power relations between males and females. Although feminist theory has contributed significantly to the understanding of patriarchal oppression, it has not been until the more recent years that I feel that there has been a more significant change in the sexual representation of males and females in literature. The reason for this is that in the past, feminist theories have done a lot to explain how living in a patriarchal society can affect issues of work, health, domestic violence, family etc. However, literature has failed to take account of the male point of view; literature has failed to explain male behaviour in each of the spheres of life mentioned previously. However, more recently there has been a wealth of knowledge created by academics and researchers in regards to the male standpoint or differing notions of masculinity. This has enabled a more rounded and even representation of males and females in literature.
Therefore, in this piece of work I am arguing that literature since the 1990’s till the present day has made a real advancement of knowledge in understanding the same spheres of life from both a feminised but more so a masculinised perspective. A holistic understanding of males and females did not begin till the 1990’s. Moreover, I feel it is important to look at the sexual representation of males and females up until the present day, as the wealth of knowledge that has been built up in this area has depended upon the foundations laid in the 1990’s. This essay will go on to justify the reasoning behind why the 1990’s till the present day has made the greatest changes in the sexual representation of males and females in literature. Firstly I will begin by discussing the absence of a male standpoint in literature. I will then go on to illustrate this point by addressing the literature which has emerged on sexuality as a direct result of a more comprehensive understanding of the sexual representation of males and females in our society today. Both of these topics will illustrate the point that without an understanding of the notions of masculinities and femininities we would not have been able to build a more comprehensive understanding of males and females in our post modern society.
The sexual representation of men and women in literature has really stemmed from the work advocated by feminist thinking, which became prominent in society with the rise of the feminist movement and as a backlash to the writings of Freud (1933). In his writings he revealed an ambivalence over the question of female inferiority, at times implying that women are actually inferior whilst at other times suggesting that they are simply viewed in that way within a male dominated society. Freud’s debate on female sexual theory set the agenda for discussions of sexual identity for the rest of the country. Debates around gender inequality are central but not exclusive to feminist theory. Feminist theories have sought to highlight the inequalities women face because of the direct consequences of a male dominated society – a patriarchal society. Feminist sociologists have succeeded in demonstrating the power struggle females face in society (Wallaby, 1990). Women are the deviation from the norm, which is consequently men, therefore their behaviour was worthy of an explanation in relation to their gender. Theorists have contributed to knowledge on gender inequality in many different areas, including sexual politics (Millet, 1970), family (Oakley, 1971), education (Wright, 1992), work (Barron and Norris, 1976), and domestic violence. Whilst trying not to discredit the work of feminist writers, some ‘male standpoint’ theorists have argued that male behaviour has been neglected to be explained in relation to their gender (Hearn and Morgan, 1990) just how women’s behaviour is explained in relation to their gender. Since the 1990’s a more conscious effort has been made on the behalf of writers and researchers to examine how masculinity shapes the lives of men and the social world in general. Masculinity can be defined as:
“A set of social practices and cultural representations of being a man…which may vary…between different groupings of men” (Pilcher, 2004: 82)
This definition of masculinity assumes that a person’s behaviour is as a result of the type of person they are and names patterns of gender practices. Moreover, it isembedded in daily interactions that determine people’s behaviour. Connell asserts that masculinity is a social norm for the behaviour of men and its acts as a social practice that constantly refers to “bodies and what bodies do” (Connell, 1995: 71).
There has been a conscious effort to understand the cultural concepts of masculinity (Gilmore, 1990), which attempts to explain the ‘typical features of masculinity’ and also how masculinities are constructed within western societies (Seider, 1994: 36). The most prominent writer within this field is Connell (1995). Connell has argued that masculinities can take various forms in contemporary society and theorised hegemonic masculinity. Connell takes his arguments much further than other theorists such as Ruttherford (1988) by examining the historical changes within masculinity, the relationships between different types of masculinities and by examining the theoretical issues relating to gender and masculinity. Literature on all these issues has lead to a greater understanding of the male race and also male behaviours. For example, the study carried out by Connolly (1998) used the concept of differing male masculinities and racial identities to explain the diverse influences of gender in schools. Other literature has theorised masculinised discourses (Wright et al, 1998) to explain exclusion rates of African Caribbean youth within schools. Other writers have looked at how sexuality is deployed in regulative and tactical forms within Further Education (Skeggs, 1991). It is evident that the notion of masculinity is used as a theoretical framework to understand the sexual representation of males. I will now go on to illustrate this point with reference to the emergence of theoretical literature on masculinities and sexuality.
In the past decade the notion of masculinities has been applied to the study of sexuality. The study of sexuality has developed from earlier research carried out in the 1960’s. Since the 1960’s we have seen a diversification in the nature of literature which has contributed to the knowledge on male and female sexuality. Some writers have focused their theory on the premise that sexuality is understood to be constitutive of gender (Mackinnon, 1982), others have argued that gender underpins sexuality (Jackson, 1999). Other theorists have argued that a new way of thinking needs to be developed which does not discredit the two entities (Butler, 1997). Sexuality and gender are intertwined and are based on cultural and social norms and values. Theories of masculinity have been applied to male sexuality. Sheff (2006) research attempts to theorise men who:
“Engagein romantic, sexual, and/or affective relationships with multiple people simultaneously – poly -hegemonic males” (Sheff, 2006: 621).
Sheff employs Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity to attempt to explain Polyamorous males’ marginalisation and subordination to traditional hegemonic masculinities. There has become a need for the notion of gender and sexuality to be reassessed. Sheff’s concludes that poly men attempt to redefine their masculinitiesand resist the strictures of hegemonic masculinity, therefore the traditional notions of masculinities is being challenged. Richardson (2000, 4) has argued:
“Of particular significance for the development of our understanding of the relationship between queer and feminism is a rethinking of the distinction between sexuality and gender”.
As sexual practices are diverse in a post modern society, this has given rise to a wealth of literature on understanding differing notions of same sex relationships. Yip (1997) looked at sexual exclusivity and religion. Adams (2006) has looked at the notion of monogamy in same sex relationships. Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan (2001) have investigated same sex relationships and their associations with the family and marriage. In doing so, there has been a questioning of the “Straight Culture’ (Bhattacharyya, 2000; 6) or heterosexuality as the norm.
Although I have focused on sexuality and masculinity, the debate of masculinity has dominated literature since the 1990’s. The traditional notions of masculinities are being questioned, theories of masculinity have been applied to explain the differences in academic attainment levels between boys and girls, to explain domestic violence (Anderson, 2001), men’s non traditional career choices (Simpson, 2004), man to man violence (Whitehead, 2005), and health (Courtenay, 2000).
In conclusion, 1990’s to date has seen the greatest changes in the sexual representation of men and women in literature. The main reason for this is the development of a framework to place male behaviours and interactions within a context of socialisation. The focus of the sexual representation of women in literature has been evident in literature since the rise of feminism; however since the 1990’s the emergence of literature has allowed us to understand the sexual representation of man and women in a holistic manner. In doing so we are able to apply theories of masculinity and femininity to attempt to explain new gendered phenomenon.