When I was a university student, whatever literature we were studying, we always knew that on every exam there would be a question related to “gender” or “the role of women,” in whatever texts we were meant to be analysing. Of course the tutors weren’t really asking about “women” – because, however real Elizabeth Bennett may seem she is a character and not a person- but instead they were asking about literary representations of women.
In particular, they wanted to know if we noticed the relative power assigned to different types of people, activities, knowledge in these texts, and if that relative power was “gendered”in some way.
Unsurprisingly much canonical literature not only divides powers along gendered oppositional lines, with, say men on the left and women on the right, but presents a fairly clear hierarchy of power. And this hierarchy itself reflects the relative amounts of prestige that typically masculine and typically feminine forms of power accrue cuturally, politically and economically.
action films/ chick flicks
In other words, in our culture, we tend to give more weight and value to knowledge (and the texts that convey such knowledge) that is perceived to be: scientific, authoritative, practical and less importance to that which is emotional, artistic, metaphoric, personal.
My father was an engineer who designed nuclear submarines and was an early member of the American Rocket Society. It broke his heart when I decided to leave behind my earlier ambitions to be a medical doctor, and instead become a Doctor of English. He liked literature, but did not believe that its value was as great as that of scientific knowledge. Culturally, he was entirely in sync – certainly I would have earned more money as a medical doctor, probably more prestige, and I imagine a damned sight less condescension at dinner parties (where I have been called “idealistic” because of my literary/academic profession – and not in a good way).
And surely, most of us, enlightened as we are, would tend to be more in awe of a person who has received a Phd in rocket science than with someone who has decided to be an actor or poethowever hard they may have studied to earn their knowledge. Equally, a so-called “hard news” program devoted to the events unfolding in Syria might be taken more seriously by us than an Oprah special interviewing victims of the same events.
Culturally, western society tends to privilege the kinds of knowledge that are associated with masculinity: public discourse that is (seemingly) objective, authoritative, fact-based; and devalues the kinds of knowledge associated with femininity: those that are intimate, personal, related to feelings, perceptions and metaphors.
So, the question for me is: can we learn to value male and female voices equally? Should we begin by valuing what matters to the opposite sex? Stop automatically devaluing chick-flicks and/or boy’s toys and instead just take note of the power and prestige or condescension and derision we are ascribing to certain objects, desires, images, stories, forms of knowledge and indeed kinds of people? If we did, what we might notice about ourselves and our thoughts would probably surprise us – and not necessarily in a good way.