The Sights and Shadows of Gender

My understandings of Butler and Swift lead me to believe that Swift also considered gender a social construct, or a shadow of reality. Butler begins her essay stating how she has frequently suffered from “being told, explicitly or implicitly, that what I ‘am’ is a copy, an imitation, a derivative example, a shadow of the real,” (Butler 722). Not only do we see the suffering of characters (both male and female) in Swift’s poems, but we also get a slightly more recognizable hint that Swift sees gender as a construct.

In his poem, “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” Swift offers a direct reference to slavery: “if she chance to close her Eyes…to Jamaica [she] seems transported” (lines 40-5). If we are to follow the footnote, this line suggests that in her mind, this “nymph” undergoes the constant threat of being punished. She associates herself with the criminal body and invokes the idea of slavery. What I find interesting is that slavery, in turn, invokes the idea of race which, as we’ve previously discussed, is also recognized as a social construct. This structural connection between the ideas of race and gender hints at Swift’s inclination to view gender as a kind of construct.

But why does this nymph, who turns out to be anything but, fear being punished for a crime? What is her crime and why should punishment be so extreme? We see her internalize the ideas of “Bridewell and the Compter…and feel the lash, and faintly scream” (Swift, lines 41-2). What’s interesting is how she’s internalized the very institutions that make us institutionalize ourselves (i.e. prisons, schools, factories, etc). She feels forced to mimic these certain norms because straying away from this specific, homogenous social space (which in this case, is informed by gender) would mean punishment. It’s as if she feels under constant surveillance when really, besides for the surveillance of the reader, she’s merely policing herself. No one is physically there to punish her, but she goes on to mentally punish herself.

Nothing could more clearly challenge the idea of gender as essence. It becomes clear that Swift does not feel our biology determines our true gender. Instead, his work supports the notion that we internalize this idea of gender and we are consequently forced to repeatedly perform it—often policed by our own selves.

These social constructs come together to manage populations. In this management, any derivation from the norm is considered criminal. Similar to Butler, Swift’s works portray an idea of gender that suggests homosexuality and heterosexuality to be mutually supportive categories of identity. Without the existence of one category, you fail to have the existence of the other. Butler explicitly suggests this in her essay when she writes “the origin requires its derivations in order to affirm itself as an origin, for origins only make sense to the extent that they are differentiated from that which they produce as derivatives” (Butler 723).

What’s also interesting is the idea of sight and gaze when it comes to our perceptions of gender. Obviously, since this theory views gender not as an essence, but as a performance, it also suggests that as a society, we’ve become accustomed to adopting a certain type of gaze over this performance: that of the heterosexual. In other words, we use the normative gaze to interpret and draw conclusions about the abnormal.

In response to John-Mark’s use of images to convey the undeniable cuteness of his daughter– which really is undeniable 🙂 — I thought it was most interesting that he brought in the idea of the photographic image to convey his response to Butler’s idea of repressive gender classification.

The photograph often serves as a surveillance tool that facilitates the recognition of a representation. Through photographs, not only can I subject an object to my interpretive gaze (which is biased by my surrounding societal structures), but photographs also allow for the abstraction of a person into an ideal. I can now recognize John-Mark’s daughter without having met her or knowing who she “is” as a person. I have an idea of her: she’s super cute and can really rock a tutu. In the moment I have an idea of her, I’ve classified her into a specific category: that of a cute little girl. However, I do believe it’s unfair for me to objectify John-Mark’s daughter into an idea of someone. What happens if one day she decides she doesn’t want to wear a tutu, but rather a t-shirt and jeans? My abstraction of her simply undermines her humanity and sets me up for disappointment. Swift’s poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” is a prime example of the “dangers” surrounding the abstraction of reality.

The specific consequences of this interpretation reveal that the repressive nature of this gender construct isn’t solely focused on one sex over the other: both males and females suffer from it. This poem conveys a male who’s disappointed with the results of playing into a heterosexual male stereotype. The gaze for which he strives is that of the heterosexual voyeur. Strephon looks into Celia’s room, hoping to objectify her and her belongings in order to satisfy an idea that he has already internalized. This idea of women comes from the cultural structures that surround him, just as they still do today. For instance, we can still see the influence of objectifying gazes in mediums like magazines, television, movies, etc.

Unfortunately for Strephon, he’s disappointed with reality—which he’d grown accustomed to assume is inaccurate due to society’s false portrayal in artistic mediums like novels, paintings, drawings, songs, etc. This portrayal is not just unfair to Celia as a human, but it’s unfair to Strephon since he’s been forced to desire a certain ideal woman and is consequently destined for disappointment.

His recognition doesn’t have to be so morbid, however! Once he’s seen behind the scenes, he’s more easily able to recognize his own assumptions and perhaps challenge his repetitive pattern—which, unfortunately, he ultimately fails to do. Yet I do believe a reflexive shift is possible. One of the things that make us human is our unfailing desire to impose classifications and order. Perhaps this is something we should start working on through appreciation rather than derision. The speaker of Swift’s poem catches onto this when he states, if only Strephon “would learn to think like me, and bless his ravished Sight to see, such Order from Confusion sprung, such gaudy Tulips rais’d from dung” (Swift, lines 141-4).

Through this type of montage, we create meaning. It may not be the ultimate meaning, but it counts for something both personally and collectively. The beauty of this is that it can be changed around or edited to create new meaning, similar to the fragments of a film. Thus, there’s always room for improvement. Just like any shadow, all you need is some reflexive light to throw it off and you’ll be in a better position to see something new.

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One thought on “The Sights and Shadows of Gender

  1. Hannah,
    I enjoyed your entry it is very well thought out. The only places were I had to stop to critique is if you ever explicitly stated if you agree or disagree with Butler? Overall you did a good job!

    Grade: (S)
    -Ja’Nae

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