Gender relations involve the structuring of social practice around sex and sexuality. The commonest process in sexual ideology involves collapsing that structure, merging the elements into one by ‘naturalizing’ social practice.
The interpretation of gender relations as natural facts is extraordinarily widespread. Sexual divisions of labour are constantly interpreted this way. Cockburn, for instance, notes how women were firmly believed to be naturally incapable of handling the machinery of printing, in the teeth of the fact that women actually had done so. In discussions of the division of labour in childcare women’s natural desire to mother children is almost always taken for granted. The mechanism operates equally powerfully on the structure of cathexis. Heterosexual attraction is
constantly interpreted as natural – the ‘attraction of opposites’ – and socially forbidden relationships, especially homosexual, are interpreted as ‘unnatural’. Even the structure of power is naturalized, for instance in sociobiology, though this seems less insistent than with the other two structures.
The profoundly political character of this process becomes apparent when quite opposite social relations are ‘naturalized’ in different times and places. For instance women were treated as naturally frail in European polite culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, naturally tough in most peasant cultures. At times the mechanism of naturalization is used in an argument for social change, for instance the suffrage movement’s argument that the realm of politics needed an injection of women’s natural qualities of compassion and purity. Some contemporary eco – feminism is very close to this. Nevertheless the main effect of naturalization is conservative; progressive uses of it risk being incorporated. To interpret social relations as natural is, fundamentally, to suppress their historicity. To do that is to close off the possibility of human practice recreating humanity. Verena Stolcke’s and Marie de Lepervanche’s studies of the ‘naturalization’ of inequality show close connections between this process in relation to gender and in relation to other forms of social inequality such as racism. Indeed one becomes a condition of the other. As Stolcke notes, biologism leads to a drive to control women’s sexuality in the name of racial purity.
Naturalization, then, is not a naive mistake about what biological science can and cannot explain. At a collective level it is a highly motivated ideological practice which constantly overrides the biological facts. Nature is appealed to for justification more than for explanation. To be able to justify, nature itself must be got in order – simplified, schematized and moralized.
Naturalization thus implies a second basic process in sexual ideology, the cognitive purification of the world of gender. Its most familiar form is the stereotyping documented in media studies such as Patricia Edgar’s Media She. Real practices are messy and complicated, ideological representations of them squeaky-clean. The families in television advertisements are all happy, their fathers are all employed, their mothers just love housework. The ‘girls’ dancing on the screen all have long legs, white teeth, ladder – resistant stockings and are certainly free this evening. Children’s books, as Bob Dixon shows at length in Catching them Young, are
as packed with stereotyped images of gender as they are with messages about race and class.
Jo Spence’s study of photographic images of women shows how the process of stereotyping goes beyond the individual item. Taken as a set, a body of advertising or photo-reportage constructs an ‘implicit narrative’ of a woman’s life, in which individual items are embedded and to whose logic they appeal. In the British popular media studied by Spence in the 1970s this narrative was a highly traditional life cycle (though excluding death), presenting women as providers of services to men and children. Spence noted, however, an altered narrative emerging in the late 1970s with rather more acknowledgement of problems and of paid work and rather more self-gratification for women.
The purification of the ideological world by excluding items that do not fit the implicit narrative reaches a high point where the narrative concerns the public world. It is a familiar finding in media research that only a small percentage of news coverage is devoted to women. Women are also liable to be dropped from view in other forms of communication. – The first human to step onto the moon announced to the waiting world: ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ A highly praised book that appeared in the same year (1969) called A History of the Scottish People was almost entirely about men, often read as if men were the only inhabitants of Scotland, and discussed every industry except the one which had the greatest number of Scottish people working in it (‘houses’ appear in its index, but not ‘housework’). A high-powered international conference about the ‘Dialectics of Liberation’ met in London; all of its speakers were men, who discussed war, madness, the environment, imperialism, race, literature, capitalism and socialism, but made no reference to the position of women or the oppression of homosexuals.
These three examples were events of the late 1960s and at least some areas of cultural practice have changed since. Formal language is less likely to be openly sexist. Even so establishment a body as the American Psychological Association introduced a policy of non-sexist language in its journals in 1977. Most big publishers now have a feminist, women’s studies, or women writers’ ‘list’; indeed this is one of the more buoyant areas in contemporary book publishing. But the problem Sheila Rowbotham noted in Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, the difficulty even left-wing men have in acknowledging gender issues as serious politics,
remains – and not just on the Left. To some extent the exclusion of women is replaced by marginalization, through such devices as a separate publishing list, or media trivialization. The main narrative of the public world – wars, rockets, governments falling, profits rising – carries on as before.
The familiar public/private distinction is part of a process of dichotomizing the world that is the most systematic form of ‘purification’ attempted by sexual ideology. In this simplification, however, is a source of complexity. For if pushed to an extreme, the qualitative distinction between men’s world and women’s world requires different cultural mechanisms to operate in each. A curious illustration of this is an obscure 1951 science-fiction novel by Philip Wylie called The Disappearance. Its premiss is that women and men disappear from each other’s physical world for four years; the results are different kinds of social breakdown, nuclear war in one world and fire and pestilence in the other.
The drive for purification reaches its greatest emotional intensity in the treatment of men’s homosexuality as a symbol of disorder, dirtiness and danger. There is a paradox about a patriarchal social order being so hostile to erotic relations between members of the dominant sex. A sense of this paradox is part of the ambivalent feelings between women’s liberation and gay liberation. The explanation of Western culture’s homophobia is complex, but part of it must be the degree to which the fact of homosexuality threatens the credibility of a naturalized ideology of gender and a dichotomized sexual world.
Within the dichotomized world of sexual ideology two devices for the representation of social life become dominant. One is romanticism. Since this term is often associated with fantasy in the style of Georgette Heyer or J. R. R. Tolkien, I would stress its relevance to everyday life. The Broadway musical is a notable illustration. Its classic subject-matter is the lives of little people: farmworkers (Oklahoma!)] soldiers (South Pacific)] fairground workers (■Carousel), small-time crooks (Guys and Dolls), factory workers (The Pyjama Game), teenage street ‘gangs’ (West Side Story). Everyday life is appealed to, its difficulties even emphasized. But it is transformed by the glow of the love affair on which every plot turns, beside which the other issues pale. True love – in the Broadway musical, in Mills and Boon novels, in women’s magazines – is a symbolic reconnection of the dichotomized worlds. It both asserts the rightness of the dichotomy, and claims a way for each woman as
a loved individual to escape the narrow and impoverished world the dichotomy constructs for women as a group.
On the other side, hegemonic masculinity is naturalized in the form of the hero and presented through forms that revolve around heroes: sagas, ballads, westerns, thrillers. The cultural focus on exemplary individuals is not only a way of justifying privileges which happen to be shared by the unheroic majority of men. Like romanticism it is also a way of dealing symbolically with real problems.
One of the problems about gender relations for men has long been the level of violence between men. It is no accident that the classic hero is usually a specialist in violence. T sing of arms and the man’, announced Virgil at the start of the Aeneid, and one notes that the ‘arms’ come first. Aeneas, Achilles, Siegfried, Tristan and Lancelot hack their respective ways through quite a tonnage of flesh and bones. Tarzan, Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, Rambo and the Bruce Lee characters have different techniques but much the same regard for human life.
The figures in the first list, however, are considerably more than specialists in violence. The plot of the Iliad, for instance, revolves not around Achilles’ superiority in war but around his refusal to use it. When he returns to the fight it is because of his grief for his dead friend Patroclus. Tristan is not only a champion duellist and dragon-slayer but also a tormented lover, an ambivalent friend, a lukewarm husband and something of a songwriter and practical joker to boot. Violence is part of the framework of these epics, but it is also posed as a moral and human issue.
By comparison, the twentieth-century killer-heroes are cardboard cut-outs, and in modern pulp fiction the questioning is gone. There is a disconnection of action from emotion – at least from emotional complexity – which relates to the historical trajectory of alienation and hegemonic masculinity sketched in chapter 7. A wonderful document of this is a 1955 thriller by Clark Smith called The Speaking Eye. The tough-guy hero is, of all things, an accountant, who is precipitated into a Chandler-style narrative of murders and tight-lipped beatings when sent to do an audit for a company take-over.