‘Gender’ is now one of the busiest, most restless terms in the English language, a word that crops up everywhere, yet whose uses seem to be forever changing, always on the move, producing new and often surprising inflections of meaning. We talk about gender roles, worry about the gender gap, question whether our ideas are not gender-biased or gender-specific, and we might look for additional information on these and related topics in the rapidly expanding gender studies section of our local bookstore. This rich linguistic profusion is confusing enough, but all too frequently it is made worse by the discovery that many of these neologisms appear to be pointing in sharply opposed directions. Gender role, for instance, suggests something that constrains or confines, a part we have to play, whereas gender-bending, by contrast, implies a way out, the subversion of a role through parody or the deliberate cultivation of ambiguity: what was once dutifully thought to be fixed becomes chameleon-like, a part to be played with style, a chance to mock and shock.

As these brief examples show, gender is a much contested concept, as slippery as it is indispensable, but a site of unease rather than of agreement. If gender is used to mark the differences between men and women, portmanteau words like gender-bending or gender-blending call those differences into question, drawing attention to the artificiality of what we think of as ‘natural’ behaviour. This sense of discord ought to warn us against seizing too quickly upon a summary definition of the term, seeking order and clarity where none is to be had. Instead, this intro­ductory chapter will try to explore some of the reasons why gender has become such a vital, but nonetheless intensely problematic word in the contemporary critical lexicon.