A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONIST APPROACH TO SEXUALITY. AND ITS REPRESENTATION IN HUMOR
The social constructionist views gender as a system of meaning that organizes interactions and governs access to power and resources. From this view, gender is not an attribute of individuals but a way of making sense of transactions. Gender exists not in persons but in transactions; it is conceptualized as a verb, not a noun. Feminist sociologists, starting with Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987), speak of “doing gender,” and feminist psychologists have adopted the term to designate how sex is a salient social and cognitive category through which information is filtered, selectively processed, and differentially acted on to produce self-fulfilling prophecies about women and men (Crawford & Unger, 1992, 2000).
The social constructionist approach may be contrasted with an essen- tialist approach. Essentialism views gender as a fundamental, essential part of the individual, a set of properties residing in one’s personality, selfconcept, or traits. Gender is something women and men have or are; it is a noun (Bohan, 1993). Essentialism does not necessarily imply biological determinism, or even necessarily stress the importance of biological underpinnings for gender-specific characteristics (although historically this has been a prevalent form of essentialism with respect to sex, sexuality, and gender). Rather, it is the location of characteristics within the individual and not their origins (socialized or biological) that defines essentialism. Essentialist models “portray gender in terms of fundamental attributes which are conceived as internal, persistent, and generally separate from the ongoing experience of interaction with the daily socio-political contexts of one’s life” (Bohan, 1993, p. 7). These fundamental attributes, (which make up masculinity and femininity), are believed to determine gendered roles and actions.
Janis Bohan (1993, p. 7) illustrates the difference between essentialist and social constructionist modes of thought:
[C]onsider the difference between describing an individual as friendly and describing a conversation as friendly. In the former case, “friendly” is construed as a trait of the person, an “essential” component to her or his personality. In the latter, “friendly” describes the nature of the interaction occurring between or among people. Friendly here has a particular meaning that is agreed upon by the participants, that is compatible with its meaning to their social reference groups, and that is reaffirmed by the process of engaging in this interaction. Although the essentialist view of gender sees it as analogous to the friendly person, the constructionist sees gender as analogous to the friendly conversation.
If friendly were gendered, an essentialist position might argue that women are more friendly than men. Whether this quality came from biological imperatives, from socialization, or from a combination of both, it is now a trait of women. A constructionist position would argue that the gendering of friendly transactions is the product of social agreements about the appropriateness of certain behavior. The differential exposure of men and women to those contexts that elicit friendly behavior results in a linkage between sex and friendliness, and friendliness becomes gendered.
Gender-related processes influence behavior, thoughts, and feelings in individuals; they affect interactions among individuals; and they help determine the structure of social institutions. The processes by which differences are created and power is allocated can be understood by considering how gender is played out at three levels: societal, interpersonal, and individual.
All known societies recognize biological differentiation and use it as the basis for social distinctions. Although there is considerable variability in the genetic, hormonal, and anatomical factors that form the basis for the label male or female, they are treated for social purposes as dichotomous categories (Crawford & Unger, 1992, 2000). Gender is what culture makes out of the raw material of (already socially constructed) biological sex. The process of creating gendered human beings starts at birth. The newborn infant’s vagina or penis represents sex—and, in middle-class Western society, if the genitals should be ambiguous, medical science is recruited to surgically eliminate the troublesome variability. The pink or blue blanket that soon enfolds the baby represents gender. The blanket serves as a cue that this infant is to be treated as boy or girl, not as a generic human, from the start.
Men have more public power in most societies, controlling government, law, public discourse, and academics. Alternative views of gender relations are culturally muted, and ideologies of gender can be represented and reproduced as “objective facts” (Fine, 1985). Conceptualizing women as a culturally muted group (cf. Kramarae, 1981) implies that researchers must make special efforts to uncover and understand their systems of meanings. Understanding gender at the structural level involves this sort of searching for suppressed meanings. It also involves analyzing the representation of women, men, and gender relations in the mass media.
It is easy to show that popular humor about the sexes reflects dominant cultural values of misogyny. Later in this chapter I will describe specific examples. It is less easy to see how academic disciplines maintain those values through the questions they ask, their modes of research, and their interpretations of results. Most psychologists are well trained in the methods of their discipline but not in analyzing its assumptions about nature and culture or how these assumptions lead to particular conceptions of evidence and truth.
Elsewhere, I have analyzed how psychological research on humor has represented the typical woman as a person who lacks the ability to appreciate humor and the wit to create it (Crawford, 1989; Crawford & Gressley, 1991). Much of this research functions to support dominant cultural representations of women as deficient or inferior to a male norm.
There has been little research on the social functions of humor. This area is particularly interesting from a feminist perspective because humor has the potential to infiltrate and disrupt dominant meanings. When messages are delivered in the form of humor, they can have an impact greater than that of more literal or serious talk. Although most humor probably functions to maintain the social order, I will show how its subversive potential has been recognized and used by women, including women who are doubly marginalized because they are lesbians or women of color, or both.