English 201: Approaches to Literature
Some Thoughts on Gender Criticism

All this is coming from Ross Murfin's discussion of gender criticism on pp. 425-434 of your Emma text.  He rightly sees gender criticism as arising from the earlier tradition of feminist criticism, and as having significant overlaps with it.  He dates the onset of gender criticism to 1985, when Eve Sedgwick published Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.  Sedgwick focuses on social (not merely erotic or sexual) relationships between men, and sees women under patriarchy operating in literature (and in the cultures in which they live) as a sort of "social glue" holding male "homosocial" relationships together.  Sedgwick thus looks at female/male relationships as male--female--male relationships.  Here is an example.  The Juliet/Romeo marriage fails because those two cannot form a male--female--male relationship: the play has no two men whom Juliet can draw into a homosocial relationship with one another.  The two fathers--Capulet and Montagu--do not want their two families joined by Juliet, and Capulet does not want to form a father/son (in law) bond with Romeo.  So J & R die.  The Emma/George marriage will work because Emma will be a glue holding her father to his son-in-law, who will now manage his property and live in his house.

In Murfin's focus on the ways in which gender criticism can be seen as different from feminist criticism, he draws attention to two continuums.

The first continuum concerns an interest in gender vs. an interest in sexual orientation.  Gender critics are interested in gay and lesbian studies (some of the practitioners of which call their work "queer studies," so look for that terminology as well) as well as in cultural constructions of "masculine" and "feminine" practices (practices are both behaviors and beliefs).  Gender critics are more interested in "sexual orientation" and feminist critics are more interested in "gender."  In addition, Murfin sees feminist critics as considerably more interested in the "feminine" side of the "feminine -- masculine" continuum as well as more interested in the straight side of the "straight -- bi -- gay" continuum.

gender --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- sexual orientation
                          feminist critics                                                                                             gender critics                           

The second continuum which Murfin uses to draw a distinction between feminist and gender critics is the "essentialist -- constructionist" continuum.  An essentialist believes that existing gender differences have at their root an essential difference between the two sexes (a difference that goes beyond the differences in sexual organs), while a strict constructionist believes that all differences between the sexes (except for those physical differences in sexual organs) are encultured--that is to say socially constructed by the cultures in which people live.  Feminist critics tend to drift towards the "essentialist" side of this continuum, seeing innate differences between the sexes in areas such as "reading styles" or "critical interpretation" and studying these differences.  Gender critics tend to see differences between the sexes as much more socially constructed and a product of environment, not biology.

essentialist ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- constructionist
                           feminist critics                                                                                          gender critics

After drawing all these useful distinctions for us, Murfin goes on to point out that critics choose to label themselves as "feminist" or "gender" critics even when those choices do not fit his paradigm.

A gender critic might ask these sorts of questions about a text:  How does this text encode/construct a cultural standard of femininity/masculinity/motherhood/marriage/etc.?  How do either of the genders or any of the sexual orientations in this text intersect with social status or ethnic identity or national identity?  A gender critic working on Emma might postulate that Emma's interest in Harriet has lesbian overtones because of Emma's appreciation of Harriet's physical beauty and Emma's wish to be the dominant partner in their friendship.  Another gender critic looking not at sexual orientation but at the construction of a gendered identity might argue that one's identity in this society as a "lady" entails certain accomplishments: one must play or appreciate music; one ought to paint, draw, or simply love art; one must visit and be visited; one must have a reputation for sexual chastity; etc.  The critic would contrast a woman who clearly meets the gendered ideal of "lady" -- perhaps Mrs. Weston -- with one trying to insert herself into this ideal -- perhaps Mrs. Elton or Mrs. Cole.