We do not live in ‘modern times’. ‘Modernism’ and ‘modernity’ are actually associated with the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Presumably, this is when we started grouping and naming periods of distinct style and thought that had come before: ‘Baroque’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘Romantic’ and so on. Did the person who coined ‘modernism’ think that time would stop there? Or that the cultural zeitgeist was so brilliant that would never move on, and we would remain forever modern? When the time did come for a new label, it seems we got stuck in a rut. What could possibly follow modernism? Post-modernism, of course! Now people are talking about post-post-modernism.
But getting to the point, I briefly mentioned, in my last blog, ‘post-structuralist’ theories in language and gender. Post-structuralism can be slotted into the jigsaw of ‘postmodern’, which is by no means a unified concept. Neither, in its turn, is post-structuralism. In fact, the more I read about it, the more it seems that many of the ‘big thinkers’ of post-structuralism you may have heard of – Lacan, Foucault, and more recently Zizek (has anyone seen the film? I need to watch it!) want nothing to do with the term, preferring to create their own, elite clubs, such as Foucault’s ‘critical history of modernity’.
Before I go on I have to apologise to any readers who are experts in post-structuralism. Please do correct and enlighten me.
I’m pretty new to philosophy and cultural theories, and I have to admit I’ve been totally blown away by some of the stuff I’ve been reading on post-structuralism, and within this umbrella, social constructionism. It’s really opened up my mind to new and diverse ways of thinking, which, of course, is very useful when you’re trying to approach a topic in an original, thought-provoking way.
So, the influence of post-structuralism on the study of language and gender was largely spurred on by the work of the feminist theorist Judith Butler. Not that no-one was influenced by post-structuralism before that, but 1990, the year Butler published ‘Gender Trouble’, seemed to be a real turning point, amongst Anglo-American academics, at least. Before that, the dominant way of looking at gender and language was what Deborah Cameron (a fantastic writer in the field of language and gender, if you’re interested) calls ‘women do this, men do that’ research, which neatly encapsulates the deficit, dominance and difference (‘three ds’) approaches I mentioned in my first blog.
The influence of post-structuralism on thinking about gender, putting it as simply as I can, was an attempt to pull down the wall of ‘accepted wisdom’ and ‘common sense’ theories about what sex/gender is. As the title suggests, post-structuralism is not too interested in ‘structures’. And our concept of a distinct ‘male’/ ‘female’ binary is one examples of such a structure. We have created a world in which men, from ‘Mars’, are one way, and women, from ‘Venus’, are another. If I had a penny for every time I, or one of my friends, uttered the phrase ‘he’s being such a bloke about it’, ‘he’s a man, what do you expect?’, ‘boys/ girls are like that though, aren’t they?’ and so on… if you haven’t done the same you are truly a saint. Or a devout post-structuralist. And it’s so ingrained in our thinking that we believe men and women are inherently, genetically, profoundly, different. That’s just the way it is, right?
No. Not if you’re a post-structuralist. And probably (though not definitely) not if you’re a feminist. We have created this world. As a parent, I see it constantly. We bring our children up with very specific ideas about what it is to be a girl, or a boy. And just to name a few examples of things we probably do quite consciously, we (generally) don’t put boys in dresses and tights. We don’t put hairbands in their hair. We don’t dress them in pink. We don’t take them to ballet lessons. For boys, in particular, being ‘girly’, from a very young age, is not the done thing, and if you don’t tell them about it, someone else will, and they’ll probably pay the price with taunts and jibes. That is not to mention the many more subtle, distinct behaviours we encourage in girls and boys, as parents, teachers, friends and well-meaning onlookers. Most of us, too, happily enforce the dictum that boys are attracted to girls, and vice versa. Last week my son said, quite suddenly, ‘boys and girls get married, don’t they?’ Actually, I had been expecting this question, or something like it, and had been formulating my response. But to my shame, I skirted around the real question, and the answer I had planned to give, and instead said ‘well, boys and girls don’t get married… grown-ups get married, don’t they?’
What if we lived in a topsy-turvy world, where we encouraged boys to be gentle and nurturing, emotional and attentive, to wear pink and put on frilly dresses at parties? What if we encouraged our girls to be forceful and authoritative, to wear more practical clothing, to be ‘boisterous’ and energetic? I’m not saying no-one does any of these things. But it’s not considered the norm. People often call my daughter a ‘tomboy’. She’s energetic. She likes playing with trains and cars, and we take her to football, not ballet. Even at the tender age of two, she is labelled as not a ‘girly’ girl. Yet I doubt this has much to do with genetics, or some sort of innate character. It’s probably because she’s influenced by an older brother, in whom we did, consciously or not, encourage ‘boyish’ activities, and because we (I hope) are open to her interest in a range of activities and behaviours, regardless of their perceived ‘gender appropriateness’.
So how does this relate to me, sitting in my attic-cum-office, trying to get a PhD, looking at a website where mums ‘chat’ about their problems and experiences?
Well, if I was a believer in gender ‘difference’, in innate ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities, I might look at the ‘talk’ of the (female) users of Mumsnet and ask, as so many in the tradition of the ‘three ds’ did, ‘what are the features of women’s talk here?’ I might compare the Mumsnet data with similar data collected from a site where most of the users were men; I might then compare women’s and men’s ‘talk’, and postulate about the differences, or lack of them.
That’s not what I’m going to do, because I believe (as would many others, and I probably wouldn’t get that PhD) that this would likely lead to gross-oversimplifications about language use on Mumsnet, and the reasons behind particular patterns of language use, and particular choices in interaction.
From a post-structuralist (or social constructionist) point of view, I would be looking instead at how ‘Mumsnetters’ are influenced by the roles, norms and conventions passed down to them through society; do they accept the dominant ‘discourses’ (more on discourses later) of society? The ‘mothers put their children first in all things’ discourse, the ‘a mother’s work is never done’ discourse, the ‘fathers are a bit useless really’ discourse? Do some users go ‘against the tide’ and put forward alternative discourses? What happens to them when they do? Judith Butler, who I mentioned earlier, came up with the notion of gender as ‘performance’. Do mothers on Mumsnet ‘perform’ traditional feminine roles? Maternal roles?
With a nod to the wider political and social significance, which is essential in any post-structuralist analysis, I might then consider how Mumsnet users are influenced by prevailing ‘norms’ or ‘discourses’. I could ask whether ‘Mumsnetters’, in turn, as a large and influential group, influence those common perceptions, and what ideologies of motherhood, fatherhood or family life are being created here.
Maybe I’ll just create my own school of thought. It can’t be that hard, right? I think I’ll call it post- post- postdom. It’s going to be huge.